How not to trip up on the digital highway: Lessons from social innovators developing e-platforms.
Almost every household in South Africa has access to a mobile phone. This has transformed the face of social development, with many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) embracing mobile technology to connect with their target audiences. In this learning brief, we explore the diverse opportunities – but also challenges – that come with using mobile platforms to drive social change.
Mapping out the mobile space in SA: Mobi sites, mobile apps and bypassing the high cost of data.
While both mobile sites and apps are accessed via mobile handsets, there are key differences between them. Mobi sites are websites that have been specially designed for use and viewing on a mobile phone, and like websites, they can display text, data, images, and video. Apps are applications that are downloaded and installed onto a mobile device, rather than being rendered in a browser like a mobi site; they can pull content and data from the Internet, like a website, but they can also download content so that it can be accessed without an Internet connection. (See appendix for a detailed breakdown of the apps and mobi sites discussed in this brief.)
Mobi sites are not necessarily better than apps, and vice versa – it depends on various factors, such as the purpose of the platform, the nature of content, and the depth and frequency of use i.e. how much and how often the platform is to be used.
Andrew Rudge, CEO of The Reach Trust, a developer of innovative and cost-effective mobile solutions, shares: “Our data has shown that in South Africa, offering an app that runs offline gets much more sustained use than a mobi site. It’s not just about the cost; half the time you don’t have good signal, so it can be a very frustrating experience to try and access a service that needs to be online the whole time. If you go into rural areas, connectivity is even more problematic.”
In South Africa, where data remains expensive, NGOs have long strived to make their platforms cheaply accessible by finding ways to circumvent the high cost of data. For instance, Andy du Plessis, managing director of FoodForward SA, an NGO that secures quality surplus food for those in need, says: “We were acutely aware of high data costs when we developed our [FoodShare] solution that uses virtual technology to connect retail stores and food outlets with public benefit organisations that redistribute surplus food. Firstly, we ensured that the platform costs the user nothing; secondly, that the costs were reverse billed to us; and thirdly, that we got preferential rates from the USSD provider.”
Andrew Tlou, director of business development at Jobstarter, a digital work-readiness learning and information platform for entry-level jobseekers and opportunity providers, points out that a significant number of their users employ the Opera Mini Browser to help them access the site at a low cost (Opera Mini compresses the amount of data used). A number of learning mobile interventions, such as dig-it and MathsUp, often use airtime and data rewards to incentivise users to complete challenges, quizzes, etc. on their platforms.
The reality is that most people already consume data – they are just selective about what they use their data for. If a product doesn’t resonate with them, they are not going to ‘spend’ data on it. So, how can users be encouraged to spend their precious data on a social development platform? Here we share 10 lessons from South African NGOs that are harnessing the power of mobile technology, with a few bumps along way…