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November 1, 2010

Why smartphones will change social activism for the better

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You don’t have to search very hard to find people arguing that the digital world promotes clicking, liking and following, but very little action. Check out the Urban Dictionary and you’ll even find a name for this: slacktivism. You know what we mean… joining all those well-meaning Facebook groups and following charities’ twitter feeds without “actually expending effort to fix a problem”.

Even if you buy into this argument (and there are plenty of reasons not to), then there is one type of digital technology that has already proven its worth in promoting positive social change. Yep, you guessed it. The ubiquitous mobile phone. This is especially the case in the developing world, where mobile phone penetration vastly exceeds Internet usage. Take India. Currently only 81 million Indians or 7% of the population regularly use the Internet. But a whopping 507 million own mobile phones.

While the mobile phone has already shown its potential in filming voting irregularities and organizing smart mobs, the arrival of smartphones means activists have an even more powerful tool, no matter where they are in the world.

Make anyone a campaigner

A report by MobileActive, an organization dedicated to using mobile technology for social change, discovered that mobile phones seem to spur people to action more effectively than other media, including email. In 2007, Greenpeace Argentina showed the power of mobile phone networking when they collected 3,000 signatures for a petition against logging via text messaging. They also asked the 350,000 people in their mobile phone network list to call specific legislators. The effort worked and there was a one-year moratorium on cutting down native forests. Imagine what you’d achieve now you can send video messages?

Make anyone a scientist

Smartphones are fantastic for collecting data, no matter where you are. Not only are they highly portable but they can also easily transfer crucial information via the network. Add to that GPS devices and cameras, and you have an invaluable tool for fieldwork. Nokia Data Gathering enables data collection on mobile devices and the delivery of results for analysis in near real time. This has already helped to prevent diseases like malaria spreading. With smartphones computing capabilities more powerful than ever, think of how many lives can be saved.

Make anyone a journalist

With a powerful camera and instant online access, the Groups like Americans for Informed Democracy have promoted the idea of using your smartphone for bird-dogging. This makes use of your smartphone’s video capabilities to ask political or business leaders tough questions on camera, committing them to a certain action on a certain issue. With constant online access, you have instantly uploadable videos of political leaders making a promise. While this sort of citizen journalism might not be for everyone, live-blogging at events is a great way of getting your message out to massive numbers of people. Now anyone with a smartphone can break a story.

Think of any other ways your smartphone can give power to the people? Please do let us know.