During my last visit to India, I participated in a few meetings on questions such as strengthening the right information act, the role of the PDS, and other social issues. In all these meetings there was a vigorous debate on how mobile phones could be used on each of these issues given the rapid spread of mobiles in rural India. Despite periodic discussion about the use of technology, I did not hear viable ideas among my activist friends. I believe that this is in part because most of them are not advanced users of technology, and they have definitely not indulged in creating any application based on mobile phones. Consequently, they do not have the technical imagination on what could be done and what the limitations of technology are, even when there is a feeling that technology could be put to good use for the causes that they pursue.
While that remains the case with seasoned activists, many new initiatives have come from those who are savvier with technology. These interesting initiatives including an online bulletin board that could be accessed via mobile phones, mobile phone interface between underserved groups and medical professionals, monitoring of elections, platforms for civic complaints, et cetera.
While the applications per se are simple, the process of creating and deploying these applications is made a lot more complex by the fact that they have to deal with telephone operators to get short codes and other infrastructure, negotiate better deals with these operators for getting good rates, get servers (the location of the servers is sensitive since calls/SMS I typically initiated from these locations, and thus they have implications for cost), and deal with a lot of other technical issues that are in some sense peripheral to the project.
In addition to these technical issues, there will now be legal issues including a recent law that permits a maximum of 100 SMSes per SIM card per day. Dealing with all these issues, along with the cost of commercial providers makes mobile based social projects a costly one to undertake, that can be demotivating for most people who wish to take it up.
Given the context where a number of activists are thinking about the use of mobile phones for social causes, and the context in which a number of young people are taking imaginative initiatives, it would be useful to have a foundation that could offer basic mobile-based services on the cloud for public services applications. Such a foundation could accelerate innovations in mobile based applications by reducing the costs of creating such systems.
I imagine that such a service will offer servers that could be used to send and receive SMS messages and voice messages, a set of phone numbers that could be used around India, built in modules for surveys, mass messaging and other common uses. Finally, it should also offer an API for those who wish to build applications based on their need. The foundation can also negotiate good rates with telephone companies and train users on the legal issues.
Services such as Twillio in the US offer many of these capacities on ready-made basis, and services such as SMS-Gupshup have started providing some of these in the Indian context. These are mainly commercial providers, and so they costs are substantial. Public service websites like Kiirti.org provide some services for free, but they do not offer a facility for others to create applications using the website. Google’s SMS channel is a good resource, but it does not allow for customized messages. Thanks to these limitations, there remains the need for a platform with broad based capabilities; I believe that it will go a long way in fostering innovation in using mobile phones for social causes.