Tomorrow has arrived, but not for everyone. A digital divide persists, even in seemingly connected countries like the United States, where some twenty percent of the population, or sixty million people, don’t have Internet access at home. Those on the wrong side of the divide—the poor, the elderly, the geographically dispersed— are already marginalized, and tend to have a more critical need for specialized legal services, whether to resolve a conflict, acquire a land title, seek asylum, or escape an abusive situation.
This weekend has been spent at CityCampLondon, in a fog of coffee and beer, on Brick Lane and at the Kings Cross Hub, thinking and talking about using tech to make London better. I wanted to post a slightly more coherent version of my thoughts here.
At the Mobile in the City panel, I reflected on the UK's digital divide, which I've posted about here before, but took it further to suggest that the same factors preventing people from getting online might militate against them having a smart phone. As of January 2010, there were 11.1 million smart phones in the UK, 22.6% of active mobile contracts. Over three quarters of us still use 'dumb' phones. And while 31% of us browse the internet on our phones, 18% access social media and 13.7% access the news, 90.3% use SMS, or text messaging. Ok, so smartphone adoption is growing by an amazing 70% year on year, but I would argue that it's likely that the most marginalised and most vulnerable in society will be the last to see the benefits. Put simply, there's still an excellent case for using SMS to interact and communicate with people we struggle to reach using other technologies.
An example of this would be people who are rough sleeping, or homeless. A friend told me that when she volunteered in a soup kitchen, the most common request was for her to charge the batteries of people's pay-as-you-go phones behind the counter. Three soup kitchens, and one soup VAN, have downloaded FrontlineSMS to keep in touch with their regulars by text. Others are running helplines for teens, and domestic violence sufferers, or using SMS as an adjunct to treatment and support programmes for people with depression. People are collecting survey information, even reports of bird sightings. I'm searching right now for someone in the UK to house and maintain a simple FrontlineSMS hub to support activists monitoring evictions of Gypsies and Travellers in Essex (if you can help, let me know - no experience or tech knowhow required! Read more about this here.)
What these ideas have in common is that they aren't dependent on introducing new tech of any kind - just using technologies and communications media that people already have in their pockets, to enable them to do what they were doing before, but reaching further and doing better. The questions I've been asking people as we've gone through the third day here at the Hub Kings Cross are - who are you trying to reach? And what are they already using? Do you understand the social context? How boring I must sound.
Events like CityCamp and OpenTech are great but can be all about the tool. My plea this weekend has been to put the end user first. I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited and make things, but there is a gap between innovation (coming up with a tool) and implementation at scale (widespread use and social impact), and the bit in the middle is the human element. Make things easy, both for end users and for the organisations trying to reach them - keep technology simple and recognisable, keep the need for training to a minimum, keep barriers to access AND to implementation low. This remains a challenge for FrontlineSMS as we head towards our sixth year, but one we're determined to crack.
The corollary to this is that too often these events result in new organisations trying to cover similar ground in a new way. How frustrating that established players are so seldom flexible enough to pick up new ideas and adapt their existing models to take advantage of them. The pitches we're hearing right now (I'm writing this from the shadows as braver and more brilliant people than I pitch NESTA and Unltd for funding to bring their newborn ideas into the world) are strikingly diverse in style and approach, and in the problems they seek to attack. If there's something I'm disappointed about this weekend, it's that more people from the public sector haven't stuck around to understand how simple technologies can transform how they interact with their clients.
Thanks to Dominic Campbell and the FutureGov team for a great event and for bringing together a diverse bunch for three days - and thanks for inviting FrontlineSMS!