Interested in learning about Mobile Phones for Public Health? Class starts on June 3! Apply Now.

Mobile devices are quickly becoming much more than just a means to make a voice call. Top of the line devices are now being tested for their ability to be the brains for satellites. But perhaps more important than their capabilities is that they are the most rapidly disseminating technology in human history. Soon only a tiny minority will lack an always on link to the network. What’s more astounding is that this graphic is five years old and currently there are 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions, though duplicates reduce the number of users.

This ubiquity is going to have an unparalleled impact on how just about every facet of social organization operates. The next generation is growing up with an intuitive grasp of making the most of their new technical assistants, and they will incorporate them into new workflows for organizations that are unthinkable at the moment.

The complement to price decreases that are resulting in such tremendous uptake is the exponential increase in capabilities in even the simplest devices. More and more devices are benefiting from applications that enable them to collect data, profit from information services designed to be accessed via SMS or WAP, and increasingly connect directly to the internet over wireless broadband networks. The addition of GPS radios and cameras drastically improves the ability to verify information collected with these devices.

Soon regardless of where in the world you are, you’ll only be a few miles–at the most!–from the nearest node of our globally connected culture.

This guest post is by Sara Buzadzhi a past participant in TC309 Mobile Phones for Public Health. Can’t wait for June 3? Sign up for TC105 Mobiles for International Development launching on March 4th, which will feature a week on public health.

While the use of various mHealth applications and text-messaging services are
surging in both high and low-income countries, Russia has been somewhat behind
the curve in adopting these solutions to address health issues. The Russian NGO I
work for, the Health and Development Foundation, has been striving to change that,
introducing the country’s first national mHealth programs.

This January, HDF launched a new nationwide program for clients considering and
undergoing infertility treatment. This initiative, IVF/ART School uses an innovative
-combination of traditional and mHealth approaches. The target audience, women
and their families, will be reached through a multi-tiered approach including offline
seminars with reproductive health specialists at clinics; social networks, a program
site, and regular, interactive webinars online; and text messages to participants’
mobile phones. This comprehensive approach will enable us to maintain a strong
connection with our target audience, each component informing and reinforcing
program messages, and provide them with multiple chances for interaction with
peers and experts.

Why IVF?

The demographic situation in Russia has been a point of concern for the government
and the general population since birth rates began to decline in the last decade of
the 20th century. Population increases in the last several years have injected some
optimism into the discussion, but state and public organizations are still eager to
do what they can to promote population growth (including monetary incentives for
pregnant women and mothers).

Against this background, the need for easy access to assisted reproductive
technology treatment for couples dealing with infertility issues is clear. In fact, the
Russian government recently announced that infertility treatment would be covered
under the free state insurance starting in 2013.

But while financial support is important, it is also vital that women and couples
seeking treatment, or considering seeking treatment, are well informed as to their
options, and are receiving the emotional support that can greatly influence the
success of infertility treatment. That is where the IVF/ART School can play a key
role; program participants will receive expert, unbiased information and support
from several sources, including their peer group, increasing the likelihood that they
will maintain treatment until reaching a successful outcome.

Text4baby Russia

t4babyHDF’s first national mHealth program was Text4baby Russia, a nationwide maternal
and child health text messaging program that will celebrate its one-year anniversary
this February. Through this program, new and expectant mothers receive
information on caring for their health and the health of their children through free
text messages to their mobile phones. Subscribers receive 1-2 texts per week on topics like nutrition, safety, substance abuse prevention, legal rights, breastfeeding, and more.

Text4baby Russia (SMSmame in Russian) is based on the successful U.S. program
text4baby, but was significantly adapted by HDF and its government and medical
community partners to ensure that the messages meet the specific cultural and
socio-economic needs of its Russian target audience. HDF is currently piloting a
webinar series to address text message topics in greater depth, and plans to launch
the series in early 2013.

We would be happy to hear from any organizations/individuals working in similar
areas, as we have found international collaboration and knowledge sharing (in
forums like the TechChange course we attended, Mobile Phones for Public Health)
to be very helpful in developing and disseminating our work. Follow HDF and their projects on Twitter: @HealthDevtFound @Text4babyRussia @IVFSchoolRussia

Interested in learning about Mobile Phones for International Development? Early bird registration for our next class ends on February 25, 2013! Apply Now.

Last week, the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) published an article by Linda Raftree and TechChange Founder Nick Martin about challenges we saw upcoming in this field around mobile education (What’s Holding Back Mobile Phones for Education? (2/11/2013)).  But last week also marked the announcement of the winners for The Tech Challenge for Atrocity on “Capture.” What both of these events have in common is that they are entirely about the possibility of mobile phones to address global challenges.

According to the website, the Tech Challenge “sought new and innovative ways to enable the documentation of relevant evidence that may be used to deter or hold perpetrators accountable, while minimizing the risk posed to those collecting this information. These winning submissions were chosen on the basis of impact, innovation, scalability and feasibility.” Not surprisingly, the top three awards all went to mobile applications: MediCapt, Silent Lens, and International Evidence Locker.

If you haven’t learned about these innovative projects, we recommend that you head over to the USAID Blog or Humanity United and check them out. In particular, we’d like to congratulate our partners and friends on the Magpi team for their role in InformaCam, which claimed first prize in partnership with Physicians for Human Rights and InformaCam for developing MediCapt. According to Humanity United blog, “[t]his mobile app will equip doctors and nurses with critical tools for collecting, documenting and preserving court-admissible forensic evidence of mass atrocities including sexual violence and torture.”

But while these exciting tools promise new capabilities in atrocity prevention, the SSIR article we wrote also cautions not to take a tech-centric approach to problem solving. The success these tools will have once they are out of development don’t just depend on the latest features, but being in the hands of those who can skillfully apply their potential to the problems at hand. Sooner or later, all technology problems become education problems.

Shameless plug: For those who are unfamiliar with Magpi, please check out our blog post on Goodbye Episurveyor: Hello Magpi!, which lays out more detail on this tool. Or you can check out our video below:

Interested in our upcoming course: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding? Our next class starts Monday, February 18th. Apply today!

This week, Ushahidi announced the launch of the Uchaguzi partnership in preparation for the upcoming March 4th Kenya elections with the aim “to help Kenya have a free, fair, peaceful, and credible general election.” This announcement came after the Standby Task Force (SBTF) sent an email on February 8th informing their community of voluntary crowdmappers that the SBTF has withdrawn from Ushahidi’s map for not meeting their criteria for activation, but still encouraged their community to participate as individuals. The announcement surprised some in the Standby Task Force community, which had been preparing for deployment, but was not entirely unexpected after the SBTF’s decision to focus on deploying to “natural” disasters after their experience in Syria. The official email explained that:

“The things that we use to ensure that the security, ethics and neutrality that the SBTF stands for is protected, that there is a feedback loop (a physical, on-the-ground response to the data processed by Mapsters) and that we do no harm, e.g. we don’t damage existing in-country responses.”

The notion that external support could be counter-productive is an issue worth considering for the voluntary technical community of peacebuilders. The rise of both local crowdmapping and the global volunteer and technical communities have grown together over the past five years after the violence stemming from the last Kenyan elections gave rise to the Ushahidi platform and the Haiti earthquake saw the development of a global volunteer networks to apply them. Since that time, it’s become clear that the ethical questions surrounding application of technology to peacebuilding are as complex as ensuring technical capability, if not more so.

The challenge of protecting the privacy and security of citizen users is constantly grappled with by the organizations responsible for these tools. The upcoming Kenyan election offers a unique case to take stock of where we stand and where we are moving. Which is why it will form the basis for an activation simulation in TC109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. As part of the activity, we’ll be talking with Justine MacKinnon of the Standby Task Force and Rob Baker of Ushahidi. To understand more thoroughly the opportunities for new technologies to empower peacebuilders.

Of course the ethical impact of new technology is not limited to crowdsourcing, which is why we’re also going to discuss the full spectrum of issues in TC109, from using drones to protect human rights with Mark Hanis to using MapBox to display drone strikes on Pakistan in real-time. New technology often presents as many problems as it solves, and application of even the most potentially beneficial new tools without sufficient forethought can always cause more harm than good.

Class starts on Monday. We hope to see you there! Please feel free to tweet @techchange if you have any questions or send us an email: info [at]

We make no secret of it at TechChange: Our staff are huge fans of Coursera. This innovative organization absolutely deserved to win TechCrunch’s Best New Startup of 2012 and are the gold standard in the growing field of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). And so I was really looking forward to taking the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application course. Which is why I was a bit taken aback to receive this email on February 2nd.

I won’t go into this one course’s many problems here, but if you’re interested, Scott Jaschik wrote a superb article for Inside Higher Ed: MOOC Mess. There’s also a detailed breakdown of what went wrong from the student perspective on the Chewing Thistles blog: 24 hours – A long time in online learning. As providers of online learning, we wanted to capture some thoughts about this kerfuffle to see what we can learn about the field as a whole:

1) Collaborating ain’t easy. Much of the course’s criticism centered around using groups and collaboration tools like Google Spreadsheets (which has a limit of 50 simultaneous editors) for a class of 41,000 students. That’s not just a Google problem, as even the more flexible hackpad (our current favorite) has a concurrent editor limit of 250 students. But even if you could solve this problem with a technical solution, the organizational difficulty of structuring and facilitating exercises won’t go away. And that’s fine, because….

2) There are inevitable trade-offs between scale and interactivity. The great part about MOOCs is that they can easily disseminate content to tens of thousands of students — which is important since they can cost upwards of $50,000 to make due to the level of time and video production needed. But once you start to increase the group collaboration, interaction with facilitators, and more, you run up against staff constraints as well as technical constraints. And that’s tough because…

3) Quality control is hard for both content and facilitation. We like to say at TechChange that an online learning experience is really three services in one: A user-friendly online platform, interactive content, and relevant facilitation. Take away any of those pegs and the whole thing falls apart. When your platform consists of pre-recorded videos and automated tests, it’s much easier to manage at scale than when you’re facilitating group activities, which is a problem because….

4) If you’re asking for somebody’s time, it’s not free. There’s excitement about what “free” means to expanding access to education, but time isn’t free — there’s always an opportunity cost. And frankly, if you’re going to have a subject matter expert engage directly with students you’re going to eventually need to compensate that person for their time and expertise. And that’s fine, because many students will be willing to pay for that more interactive experience, which is why you need to…

5) Listen to your students, especially when they’re upset. Unlike Coursera, we do charge our students for access to courses. If you think people are upset when a free product fails, try experiencing the result when they’ve entrusted you with their hard-earned money. That feedback loop can change when universities and educators are the ones buying your classes, but students are the ones taking them. If you’re at Coursera and want to try experiencing this class from the point of view of one of your students, one article well worth reading is: How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it.

Ultimately, Coursera still has a wonderful catalogue of free upcoming courses and will hopefully find a balance between quality control and student interactivity. But perhaps the most beneficial takeaway is the recognition that students and teachers are partners in the process of advancing the field of online education.

Students can always teach “experts” how to better run a course — even when everything goes as planned.