Mobile Tech Isn't Always The Answer

A woman talks to African girls, one is holding an iPhone Here’s what we know: mobile tools are here to stay and we need to get comfortable with them. There is value to becoming familiar with these tools and increasing your technological literacy, because sooner or later most organizations will be using them. But when your budget is limited, you need to make smart choices about where to put your resources. Sometimes the money and time you would need to spend on adopting a new mobile tool can have a greater impact spent on lower tech methods. If you have the money, the time, and the know-how, go for it! But if spending valuable resources on mobile tools won’t ultimately help you to deliver better services to your target population, put those resources to better use on a low-tech project instead.

Imagine you are an organization trying to improve maternal health outcomes for new mothers in remote villages in India. You have a small budget and you’d like to use mobile technology to send health care tips to these new mothers via text messages. In each of these villages there is at least one female village health worker who meets with new mothers on a regular basis. You discover that only 30% of new mothers own a cellphone and of these women, only half are literate. So, in order to go mobile on this project you would need to buy and distribute hundreds of basic cell phones to new mothers and train them on how to use the phones. Then, you would need to invest in a program that lets you send IVR (Interactive Voice Response) messages to the illiterate mothers. Suddenly your budget isn’t big enough to reach all of the mothers you would be able to serve by providing information to the village health workers and setting up one-on-one appointments with mothers at a local clinic. You can go mobile, expanding your services to fewer mothers, or you can stick with low-tech methods for now and reach more mothers.

Do you go mobile, or do you stick with low-tech methods? First review your mission. Then consider these points before jumping on the mobile technology bandwagon in your next development project:

  1. Design your project to meet a need and achieve outcomes through a clearly articulated approach. Then decide if mobile tools can help you reach these goals.
  1. Who wants mobiles? Donors, project staff, or community members? Be critical about motives for adding mobile technology. If tech solutions aren’t based on the needs of the end-users, and increasing impact, be ready to recommend that they not be used.
  1. Technology is imperfect and can be unreliable in the best of times. The same basic IT issues that we face in the U.S. still exist in developing countries PLUS issues with electricity and connectivity.  You MUST have support available to help troubleshoot when something inevitably goes wrong. If you don’t have IT staff ready to take on this task, you will be relying on local staff to troubleshoot or you will need to contract this service out, which can be expensive. If the support is not available, the technology will be abandoned.
  1. Are you excluding anyone by using mobile technology?  Are you making sure that the technology is accessible, affordable, usable, and useful to everyone? If not, adopting mobile technology may actually contribute to the further marginalization of an already vulnerable group. Keep an eye on whether you are contributing to the digital divide or helping to close it.
  1. Can you keep your data secure? In today's evolving digital world, hacking and data loss are huge concerns, especially if the data you are collecting is sensitive and could in any way compromise the privacy or safety of your partners. If you can't provide the necessary level of security to protect your data, clients, and stakeholders, don’t go mobile.

At the end of the day, there are really two questions to ask yourself: Is this technology truly the best and most appropriate tool to help you reach your goals and achieve the greatest impacts? And do you have the financial and human resources required to responsibly integrate this technology into your programming? If you answer yes to both of these questions, then by all means, proceed (with caution).

Read our Mobile Tech series:

Supporting Our Partners in Mobile Tech How Firelight Partners Use Mobile Tech