- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

First of two parts

“Text your dreams for a new Zimbabwe to +2639124522201.” The rate of inflation is more than 160,000 percent, food and fuel are hard to come by, torture victims flood private clinics and the government for five weeks wouldn’t disclose results of the presidential election. Maintaining a sense of hope in Zimbabwe is difficult, if not impossible.

But Kubatana, an alliance of human rights groups in the small southern African nation, is trying. And one of the most effective ways of reaching people, they have found, is through text messaging.

“The mobile phone is used much more widely in Zimbabwe than any other communication tool,” says Bev Clark, an activist who manages Kubatana.net. “Thus we see SMS [short message service] as a way of bridging the digital divide.”

The organization uses texts to interact with more than 2,000 citizens signed up to receive their messages, which aim to lift morale as well as update those who might have no other access to media. During the country’s recent elections, Ms. Clark said, residents of Beitbridge, a southern border town, said the group’s texts were the only source of news during power outages.

More than 60 years after the first mobile telephone call, cell phones have evolved into perhaps the world’s most revolutionary device. And with 3.3 billion of them worldwide, they’re touching everyone, regardless of class, gender or nationality.

“It’s the printing press. It’s the telegraph. And it’s happening right in front of our eyes,” said Dr. Joel Selanikio, a physician who co-founded DataDyne, a D.C. maker of mobile software for public health officials in developing countries.

Unlike the Internet, access to cell phones is affordable enough that the number of mobile subscribers in developing countries has tripled in the past five years. The majority of the world’s cell-phone subscribers - 58 percent - are now found in the developing world, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

“People may well not have shoes, but they have a cell phone,” said Brian Richardson, chief executive officer of Wizzit, a South African mobile banking firm that targets the low-income population. “It just shows how important communication is.”

In the West, mobile technology means keeping in touch, checking e-mail, listening to music, watching videos. In the developing world, it’s a source of news and inspiration, a tool for reporting violence or distributing food, a lifeline.

‘Politics loves a vacuum’

Robert Mugabe seized power in Zimbabwe 28 years ago. Formally, he holds the title of president, but citizens often describe him as a dictator. During his rule, political opponents have been exiled or found dead, white-owned farms have been seized and more than one-third of the country’s population has fled. The average life expectancy for women is 38. For men, it’s 40.

On March 29, there was a glimmer of hope for Zimbabwe’s opposition: Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was said to have won the presidential election. The Mugabe regime refused to release the election results, however. Amid accusations of vote-rigging, the government announced May 2 that Mr. Tsvangirai’s margin of victory was narrow enough to merit a run-off election on June 27. He returned to Zimbabwe on May 26 after spending six weeks away for fear of being assassinated.

“After the elections, as time progressed and the delay in announcing the results grew longer, rumors started to fly around and some of the rumors were very fear-based,” Ms. Clark said. “A lack of information causes fear and despondency - something that the Mugabe regime banks on to keep people unmotivated and obedient.”

To curb brewing hostility, Kubatana sent a text to followers encouraging them not to “fuel fear” by sharing only positive information with each other, she said.

“There’s that famous quote which says something like politics loves a vacuum - if you don’t fill it with hope, someone will fill it with fear,” she said.

Kubatana isn’t alone in its use of wireless technology to further humanitarian goals. Eighty-six percent of employees at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) use mobile technology in their work, according to a recent report by the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation. Calls and SMS are the most popular functions, followed by sharing photos and videos.

In one of Kubatana’s inspirational exercises, Zimbabweans were asked to share their hopes for a new regime via SMS, which drew many responses.

“No political beatings, many newspapers, TV stations, cheap goods, electricity, clean water, hospitals and jobs.”

“We want a new constitution for the people by the people.”

“We should never again leave power in the hands of one man.”

Kubatana posted the reactions on its Web site and plans to publish them for all Zimbabweans to see in a newspaper, booklet or comic book, Ms. Clark said.

“One of our main aims in doing so will be our attempt to make sure our demands for positive change are made known to the new government and that we get stronger as a nation in articulating and sharing our views and suggestions,” she said.

Elsewhere in the embattled country, a new group called the Truth and Justice Coalition is running an SMS campaign calling on citizens to report instances of violence and torture via text messages.

“Tell us the victim’s name, the names of the criminals, time and place of the crime (indicate if politicians, police, army or militia are involved),” reads one of the coalition’s posters, which warns perpetrators: “Justice is coming!”

Gabriel Shumba , himself a torture survivor and an exiled human rights lawyer, leads the coalition, which aims to identify those responsible for crimes against humanity and seek legal redress in South Africa. So far, the group has more than 200 names of those in Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party - members of the military, militia, parliament and war veterans - who have “unleashed terror and tyranny against civilians.”

The group intends to release the names of those who commit acts of violence, as well as their business, financial and political associations.

Stemming violence in Kenya

Kenya, until recently, was widely regarded as one of Africa‘s most stable nations. The country was a popular tourist destination and played host to many NGOs’ headquarters. It had largely avoided the sectarian violence that plagued bordering Somalia and nearby Rwanda.

But a disputed presidential election in late December saw the East African nation erupt in violence between backers of incumbent Mwai Kibaki, who hails from the country’s majority Kikuyu tribe, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is from the Luo tribe. Mr. Kibaki proclaimed victory amid rumors of vote-tampering. Gangs of men armed with machetes roamed the streets, claiming hundreds of lives and forcing thousands from their homes, according to government officials and media reports.

Human rights groups, seeking to stop the violence, united under the moniker PeaceNet Kenya to create an SMS “nerve center” where citizens could text reports of impending violence or attacks already in progress.

British relief agency Oxfam International financed the program and helped negotiate a deal with Kenyan wireless carrier Celtel to cut SMS rates in half when sent to or from the group’s SMS hub.

The program helped to alleviate violence immediately. Morten Heise, an organizational adviser at the Nairobi-based group, recalled an instance in which a PeaceNet contact sent an SMS warning the organization of escalating tensions in Kibera - Africa’s largest slum, located outside Nairobi - as the Red Cross was distributing food aid there.

“A rumor started circulating in the slums that the food was poisoned by the ‘rival community,’ and groups of the receiving community were planning to attack the relief workers,” Mr. Heise said.

The text message, sent Jan. 3, read: “RED CROSS must be warned, their presence in Kibera is not welcomed, word is going round that the foodstaff that are being donated are lased with poison because as they say that the donations and distributions are done by Kikuyus and they insist that those who gave their names to RED CROSS shud remove their names there from that list.”

PeaceNet responded by quickly notifying the Red Cross, which dispatched a prominent member of the Luo community to participate in the relief effort, “thus assuring the community that the food was safe,” Mr. Heise said.

Other text messages received by PeaceNet’s SMS center in January underscored the volatile post-election atmosphere.

“The situation in Narok south is bad. People have camped at the catholic church in Mulot and there are fears that they may be attacked tonight.”

“Over 400 people with no food or water holed in Huruma PCEA church in Eldoret for three days. Help needed immediately.”

PeaceNet also helped mobilize “peace committees” consisting of elders, religious leaders and others who were alerted in the event of a planned attack. Organizers said their presence often was enough to prevent acts of violence.

Feeding Iraqi refugees

Two million Iraqis have left their native country since 2003, 1.4 million of whom have sought refuge in neighboring Syria. The United Nations’ World Food Program last summer estimated that 50,000 Iraqi refugees there are deserving of food aid.

Distributing monthly allotments of rice, lentils, oil, sugar and other staples to such a large population is no small task. To inform beneficiaries of available aid and to direct them to the appropriate distribution center, WFP Syria traditionally relied on local relief groups that have contact with refugees.

But to ensure that all recipients had access to distribution alerts, the organization started taking advantage of an atypical characteristic of Iraqi refugees: They needed food, but many had cell phones.

“The word ‘refugees’ evokes certain, pre-defined pictures all of us have in mind, which is not the case concerning Iraqi refugees,” said Haitham El Noush, a program officer with the WFP Syria in Damascus. “They used to live in a wealthy society and they live now in urban areas in Syria. The majority have access to mobile phones, which they use to keep in touch with family members either in Iraq or resettled in a third country.”

In a pilot project that began in August, the agency sought to alert 6,000 families in Damascus when food was ready to be picked up. The WFP partnered with a wireless carrier and a mobile marketing vendor to set up the program, which sent refugees an SMS with a Web link that requires them to verify that they are eligible to receive aid.

The organization sent an initial 800 messages, one for each registered family. In the following months, WFP sent 35,000 texts to 140,000 beneficiaries.

Mr. El Noush noted that the program allows the agency to avoid overcrowding on the first day of food availability by staggering pick-up times. Those who don’t have access to cell phones are notified through word-of-mouth created by the texts, he said.

“Vulnerable and desperate refugees feel often they are neglected and forgotten; the SMS service contributes to change this feeling,” he said, noting the words of an Iraqi woman he met during the first distribution that used text alerts.

“We became happy when we received the SMS. We felt that somebody is caring about us,” Mr. El Noush recalled the woman saying.

The list of Iraqi refugees being notified by text messaging has eclipsed 142,000. WFP’s goal for 2008 is to reach 362,000 refugees.

Measuring public health

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Joel Selanikio was working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tracking disease outbreaks across the world. His job required him to collect and analyze data, talk with patients and assess health programs in Africa and other regions throughout the globe.

Just about any public health initiative requires some kind of survey. He cited as an example HIV, which involves controversies about treatment and prevention.

“The question of whether promoting abstinence or education to schoolchildren or distributing condoms - the question of whether all this stuff prevents HIV/AIDs is a factual question that can only be answered with data,” Dr. Selanikio said.

But through his travels he soon noticed a recurring problem: There was a lack of reliable, up-to-date information.

“I was amazed to find that we were using paper to do this, that they weren’t even trying” to use advanced technology, he recalled. “Even with a motivated public health department, even with the best of circumstances, it’s slower in the field, it’s less accurate in the field and of course the data-entry phase means you’ve got a period of months, even up to a year, before you can even have information to act upon.”

Typically, governments in developing countries update their public health data every five years or so, he said. Governments that don’t conduct health surveys on their own pay foreign consultants anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 per survey, draining scarce funds. Even worse, he said, some governments avoid the headaches altogether by collecting no data at all.

He suggested the CDC look into using personal data assistants to record information.

“It was the kind of thing where everybody thinks it’s a great idea but nobody wants to fund it,” Dr. Selanikio said.

So, he left the CDC and, in 2002, co-founded DataDyne with computer scientist Rose Donna. The two developed EpiSurveyor, a free software platform that can be downloaded onto any PDA. The software is easy to use, so public health officials in developing countries can reprogram it to create their own surveys.

In 2006, DataDyne partnered with the UN Foundation, the Vodafone Foundation, the World Health Organization and the Ministries of Health in Kenya and Zambia to begin yearlong pilot programs in both countries. Under the pilot, 30 health officials in Kenya and Zambia were given Palm devices loaded with EpiSurveyor, which they were trained to use for recording measles vaccinations.

“They used to just count the vaccines they had left over and subtract that from how many they started with,” Dr. Selanikio said. Now, armed with their mobile devices, health officials could accurately measure the number of doses that had been administered.

Dr. Selanikio said he knew the pilot was a success when officials in Kenya reconfigured EpiSurveyor, on their own initiative, to track a cholera outbreak in the north.

So far, DataDyne’s software is being used in 10 countries. The African regional office of the WHO wants to adopt the program in all 40 sub-Saharan countries in the region, which Dr. Selanikio said DataDyne will accomplish within three years.

One of the real strengths of the company, Dr. Selanikio pointed out, is that its product can leverage the explosion of mobile devices that’s already going on in developing countries.

“Through no effort of our own, people are going out and buying the hardware and it’s actually exactly what we need them to get,” he said. “You would be really hard put to find a public health official in Africa who doesn’t have two cell phones. We’re not talking really low-end either; these are people I see routinely walking around with Palm Treos and iPhones.”

Over the course of this year, DataDyne is designing EpiSurveyor to operate on traditional cell phones in addition to PDAs, something Dr. Selanikio cites as proof that relief agencies don’t need to wait until laptop computers are widespread to start using technology to solve problems in the developing world.

“I think folks like us who live in developed countries tend to think of those as being just phones; it’s great they can make calls now. But the fact is that even the most basic cell phone is a computer. So if you’re telling me that suddenly everybody in Africa is walking around with a little computer in their pocket and can send a text message to everybody in the world for two cents but it’s not good enough, we better wait a few years till everybody has a laptop - to me that’s just really a mistake.”

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