Since Africa's first mobile phone network went live in 1994, mobile phone penetration has shot up to 65 percent; access to the internet is also increasing rapidly. Today, information and communications technology (ICT) plays a central role in promoting development and humanitarian assistance.
“Communication technology is reshaping the world we live in”, said Gabriella Waiijman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Eastern Africa, at a recent event on technology, media and humanitarian aid held jointly by OCHA and the NGO Adeso, in Nairobi.
“We need to engage with increasing availability of information communications technology to ensure people have access to the information they need in order to make the right decisions for themselves, and make sure the right communications channels are in place so they can communicate with us,” she said.
ICT in the humanitarian and development sector is said to be entering a new era of maturity, with people and agencies sharing resources, embracing transparency, and improving effectiveness.
Below, IRIN explores novel uses of ICT to promote development and deliver aid.
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SMS: Stephen Wang'ombe, a potato farmer near Nyeri, Kenya, has seen brokers intimidate growers into accepting pitifully low prices for their produce. But Wang'ombe uses M-Farm, a real-time price information service on his mobile phone, to determine how to price his goods. When brokers demanded he take 1,500 shillings (US$17.50) for a 120kg bag of produce, he refused; he had used M-Farm to learn that sellers in Nairobi were getting 2,000 to 2,300 shillings ($23 to $27) for the same amount. M-Farm also helps growers cut out the middlemen by connecting them directly to retailers, and it promotes cost-saving by encouraging them to pool their needs and purchase in bulk. "Eighty percent of the food in Africa is produced by small-scale farmers", said Jimmy Wambua, a food security expert at M-Farm. "They're selling produce at higher prices and closing the deals."
Crowd-sourcing: Ushahidi is an online crisis-mapping tool that collects data from the internet and mobile phones during crises. The Danish Refugee Council is using it to receive feedback about their humanitarian interventions. In January, a beneficiary of the organization’s cash transfer programme in Mogadishu, Somalia, used the feedback site to lodge a complaint via SMS: "My cash collection ID card was taken by force by one of your staff in the Mogadishu office when I went to collect monthly cash payments. I want to know why he took my card and would like your help in getting it back. The staff who took my card accused me of having a duplicate card, which is untrue." The programme gave the beneficiary the confidence to voice his complaint, said Ivanoe Fugali, a programme coordinator. An investigation identified a problem in the system, which the organization then publicized on Twitter and Facebook. "We're getting the information while we're still working so we can make adjustments during the process,” said Fugali.
Twitter: Philip Ogola, an ICT officer at the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), has increased his organization's Twitter following 26-fold in the last year. His real-time updates now reach an audience of between 50 and 80 million every month. "It's an emergency management tool," he said. He informs his audience about anything that could put civilians at risk, from traffic problems to fires, demonstrations and explosions. "We can issue alerts, so it’s easy [for people] to know the needs on the ground." When public transport drivers went on strike in Nairobi at the end of November, KRCS supported a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #CarPoolKE to facilitate ride sharing, and worked with Ushahidi to create a crowd-map of people in Nairobi willing to give rides, and those in need of them.
Satellite imagery: Mapping technology allowed the ICRC to rehabilitate and extend a water system in Walikale, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from thousands of miles away. ICRC bought a satellite image and had a Humanitarian OpenStreetMap volunteer team create an urban map from it. Staff from the local water board then used the map to identify water systems - saving significant time and money. "GIS [geographic information systems] can provide good support, even for small projects like that," said Jean Vergain of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kenya, which also uses Google Earth's satellite images and maps.
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Monitoring the internet: In September, iHub - a hub for the ICT community in Nairobi - began to monitor the internet for hate speech ahead of Kenya’s March 2013 general election; hate speech is believed to have contributed to the violence that erupted after the country’s 2007 polls. iHub members are looking not just at inflammatory comments from within Kenya, but at the internet speech of the diaspora as well. "You don't even have to be there for negative communication to be going on," said Kagonya Awori of iHub Research. She cited an 82.7 percent increase in internet users in Kenya between 2011 and 2012, and said half of all users are on Facebook. While greater internet connectivity has clear benefits, it also poses potential dangers, and iHub is one of few organizations keeping a watchful eye over the trend. Incidents of hate speech are reported to Uchaguzi, a crisis map powered by Ushahidi, which, in turn, reports them to the electoral authorities or relevant security personnel.
Radio: Radio is still the most ubiquitous form of ICT and a favourite method of communication in a crisis. "It can promote hope, connections and control of a situation," said Jacqueline Dalton, a senior producer at BBC Media Action, the BBC's international development charity. In Somalia, BBC Media Action partnered with the BBC Somali Service to develop radio literacy programmes and hold discussions about development and governance issues such as the country’s new constitution. "In a country with a rich oral culture, where the Latin alphabet for Somali was adopted only as recently as 1973, radio has, for generations, been the most important medium in the country," a 2011 BBC Media Action report found. The same remains true in many rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa.