Future trends of mobile activism

12/15/2008 | Christian Kreutz

The simplest and most powerful form of mobile activism in the future will probably still be ordinary communication. However, in all fields of activism such as advocacy, awareness, research and protest, the mobile phone can be a strategic tool for communication, collaboration, coordination and collective action. In this regard we have only started to tap upon the potential of this all-purpose tool, being it in ownership by a majority of Africans across the continent. However if one wants to look at some likely future scenarios and potentials for advanced mobile usage, then 4 trends could be particularly promising for mobile activism.

The first trend is disruptive innovation around mobile phones especially in Africa. If it is hardware or software, the creativity and ingenuity is happening – through adapting or hacking, new means and uses are developed right where they are needed. Open operation systems allow to create various needed features for the local context in the respective language. Mobile software examples from Kenya show the potential that exists even in low-cost and older models.

The second trend is around the local context, where increasing mobile features such as videos, photos, sooner or later GPS or sensors allow to analyse and document the environment. The mobile becomes a research tool to give its user the capacity to collect and share information. Open information repositories can be created for advocacy work. One outcome is increasing transparency. Mobile phones can be key for collectivity contributing to new information systems and receiving all sorts of information. The example of Ushahidi shows strength in linking the collected information to geodata.

The third trend is the mobile as a publishing and broadcasting tool. Text, audio and video is already possible – its contributions can support own communication channels and coincide with existing forms of citizen journalism. Here we already witness overlapping with other information and communication technologies such as radio. Surely, some form of data exchange has to work for that, which still inhibits several challenges. But that form of information exchange will happen, whatever technology is behind it. Tools for information exchange solely relying on SMS prove this is possible for all phones.

The fourth trend is about the potential for peer-to-peer networking. Mxit in South Africa, a mobile social network application with more than 5 million members lets one engage in an own community independently from location and time. Engaging in a ubiquitous network is promising for activism: coordination, mobilization and collective action. "It is not about mobile any more. It is the convergence from the social web with the mobile. The mobile let you interact within a network in a highly contextual way." (Teemu Arina) Or as anthropologist Jan Chipchase asks: "So what does it mean when people's identity is mobile?"

Nevertheless, a lot of challenges still remain, such as high costs or illiteracy. The control of mobile phone networks can become a security risk, also there is the potential that activists have to compete with private sector and the government in these new channels, and it might become an echo chamber residing with the essential challenges of activism: the lack of participation.

What do you think? Do you agree with the four trends or do you think there are additional ones? I will investigate this topic further in the next weeks for an article in a book about mobile activism in Africa. Thanks in advance for any remarks, links and critic! :-)