From: Life Apps

Can Life Apps deliver social change?

Life Apps filmmaker Nick Rance asks whether the global communications revolution can serve the poor and marginalised.

By Nick Rance

It was one of those grey November days where dawn and dusk seem to meet at midday. Precious little light from either the high windows or the overhead bulbs seemed to penetrate the gloom of the imposing mock gothic hall in Regents College, central London.

But what was sparking off was an animated debate. TVE, the production company I work for, had organised a brain storm bringing together broadcasters, development practitioners, and a number of developing world filmmakers that we work with on a regular basis.

Collectively we were trying to capture a global zeitgeist, to identify stories that could encapsulate all the diversity human society has to offer, yet which were clustered around a defining trend of where the world was heading. Ideas were popping out all over the place, the good ones getting as far the flip chart, when the dimly lit room was illuminated with a flash of inspiration.

Kenyan filmmaker, Toni Kamau, was telling us how her city, Nairobi, had in recent years become a hotbed for technology start-ups, earning the moniker ‘Silicon Savannah‘.

She painted a vivid picture – small groups of techies and entrepreneurs hunched over laptops, cappuccinos in hand, intent on creating that ‘killer app’ – and satisfying the needs of East Africa’s surging wave of urban smart phone users.

It turned out that Toni’s image could be mapped onto many of the world’s bustling cities – for wherever people are moving over to smart phones, they demand apps that cater to their local needs. That was all very well, we replied, but how do the marginalised, the poor, the un-served, fit into this global communications revolution? No one in the room quite knew the answer, but the idea for the Life Apps series was born.

With an estimated six billion mobile subscriptions globally, it is now well and truly a mobile (cell-phone, if you prefer) world. As of this year the majority of mobile phones sold worldwide are smart phones – around a billion handsets, globally in 2013. Much of the market growth is in the emerging and developing economies – the urban middle class in Asia, Africa and Latin America who can now afford to trade up to a smart phone, and enjoy the convenience of mobile internet and apps.

But we wanted to try and tap into how mobile technology is benefiting the other half of the world – the rural and urban poor, isolated communities and indigenous people.

There are plenty of examples: in India, farmers in remote villages use mobiles to check farm prices. There are money transfer apps like MPESA and health apps to diagnose disease where medical services are difficult to access.

The number of apps for social good is growing all the time. However we did not want to document what was already out there but to follow the process – to find out what it was that communities needed and to see if mobile technology could be developed to address those needs.

So we commissioned Toni Kamau (Kenya), Arjun Pandy (India), Rodrigo Mac Niven (Brazil), Abius Akwaake (Namibia), Paul Zisiwe (South Africa) and Gautam Lewis (London) to find a developer, take them out of their city comfort zone and into the rural hinterlands, the urban slums or the wilderness among the tribal nomads – and when they had completed their field work, to see if they could design an app that could help.

We meet William Ojwang, an indefatigable Kenyan subsistence farmer. He is an expert on niche traditional vegetables (produce with a growing following in Kenya), but cannot muster the tiny capital investments that could unlock the full potential of his farm. He does, however, have a mobile. Could it provide an answer?

We meet the remarkable Himba nomads roaming with their cattle across remote northern Namibia who need to stay in touch through SMS but cannot read or write.

There are the Indian farmers faced with every manner of calamity and yet brimming with ideas and solutions, but no easy way to share them. We visited one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas where community projects could do far more if there was a better way to connect to the community and Soweto in South Africa where there is an urgent need to communicate sexual health information.

Everywhere the Life Apps filmmakers went, however remote, they found people using mobile phones. For people everywhere now, staying connected is a high priority. But our app developers, accustomed to urban comforts and the latest technology, were sometimes wrong-footed by the rough and ready conditions they encountered in the field. How did they get on? You will have to watch the series to find out.