It’s hard for ICT4D evangelists to avoid the perception that they have an irrational belief that technology will immediately fix all the world’s problems. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent critique of technology for social change provides us with a great opportunity to consider what we are realistic to expect. I think most would agree with him that social media, when it works, functions by weak associations of public support—getting the Gap logo back—rather than high cost actions like facing off the Basij.​

My disagreement is that he’s missing the point. Communications technologies are revolutionary not because we can follow friends on Facebook or Twitter but because they are platforms for delivering millions of bits over the air. Those bits can improve the delivery of any number of services; whenever information needs to get somewhere, mobiles make it happen faster. From health to education, agricultural prices to job boards…to shamelessly rip off Apple, there’s an app for that. And now from the Frontline family we can add accessing judicial services with SMS:Legal to that list.

The mission of SMS:Legal is to simplify the process of accessing legal aid for the more than 4 billion people currently deprived. For example, the service could connect citizens with questions to available representation or create digital records to improve case management. More importantly, SMS:Legal is looking at what’s currently being done to see where new efficiencies can be generated. India, for example, is working to bring mobile courtrooms to more isolated areas. While it’s too early for these to be mobile phone courts, SMS could be used to make citizens aware of when the peripatetic court would be close or register for a hearing.

SMS:Legal provides a valuable bridge between the informal legal arbiters and regular judicial system. When a traditional dispute resolution process is unable to reach a conclusion, the mobile could be the easiest way to connect with the formal court system. The benefit is not in trying to eliminate the need for face-to-face judicial interactions. It’s in improving the efficacy of overburdened government and non-governmental legal aid providers. Digital communication simplifies the paper work generated by legal proceedings improving coordination between lawyers, court officials, social workers and anyone else who needs to be kept informed. It could even be used directly by lawyers to inform clients of filling deadlines or hearing dates. SMS:Legal represents a growing awareness that governments can drastically improve service delivery by taking advantage of new technologies.

Gladwell ends his piece dismissing social media for “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” Well, right now you can take the very “weak” step of supporting SMS:Legal in the NetSquared Competition and in the process help their strong case of using mobiles to bridge the last mile in legal representation.


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