It's well-known that mobile phones are revolutionizing communications across the globe, particularly in developing countries where landline infrastructure is lacking in many rural and urban areas. They are the only means of communication for hundreds of millions of people, and have opened up economic opportunities for their owners, who can use them to find out about job openings, advertise services, or operate complementary businesses such as charging phone batteries.
But mobile phones aren't everyone's friend. To dictators and leaders of oppressive regimes, mobiles are often seen as more of a nuisance, as disruptive and something to be wary of, to fear and control. These ubiquitous little devices have already been responsible for the downfall of a number of leaders, most noticeably Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who was forced from office in early 2001 following text-message-fueled mass demonstrations in Manila.
Where democracy is under pressure around the world, the mobile phone is increasingly seen as a tool that may help stop the rot. My interest in the subject centers on the use of a text-messaging hub I developed back in 2005, which has since been used by a number of human rights organizations, particularly Nigeria last year to monitor the presidential elections, in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency and now in Zimbabwe during the election crisis.
Media interest in the subject is also on the rise, with a recent article in The Economist examining the use of mobile technology in political activism. Its description of the battle between activists and governments as a game of "cat and mouse" could not be more accurate, and continues to draw parallels today with events in Zimbabwe and Tibet.
When oppressive regimes put a stranglehold on the local media, and actively engage in campaigns of misinformation, activists turn to whatever tools they can to redress the balance. Increasingly, these tools are mobile technologies: Camera phones that capture images of beatings and civil-rights abuses, and text messages coordinating and informing citizens, are just two examples of an increasing use of the technology as activists try to keep up with, and stay one step ahead of, their opponents.
Mobile technology is today playing a growing role in Zimbabwe, a country with a largely state-owned media and a president unwilling to relinquish power. The future of the country continues to rest on a knife edge, as it seems to have done for the past two weeks (or the past few years, depending on your perspective). Like many people with an interest in the country, and like many others with friends or relatives living and working there, I've been closely following events on TV and online. International news sites such as the BBC have been as good as ever, but I've also been spending increasing amounts of time on local sites, which, I feel, often give a 'truer', more personal sense of what's going on. One of the best sites for this has been Kubatana.net.
Back in the summer of 2006 I was fortunate to spend three weeks in Zimbabwe working with Kubatana. A local NGO (nongovernmental organization) seeking to promote human rights and good governance, it was the very first user of my FrontlineSMS software when it launched back in 2005, starting a trend that has seen the software used for similar activities in a number of other countries around the world. Kubatana has said that FrontlineSMS finally opened up the possibilities for text messaging in its workplace.
In addition to an election line that gives the latest news to citizens via SMS (short message service), Kubatana has been running a "What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?" initiative. Zimbabweans have been incredibly responsive, with many people saying that the question gave them hope in uncertain times. According to Kubatana:
"It's also been a real learning experience for us, reminding us that ordinary Zimbabweans have a wealth of good ideas to contribute, and our political and civic leadership must work on building a more participatory environment."
A combination of SMS and e-mail was used in the initiative, with text messages such as "Kubatana! No senate results as at 5.20 pm. What changes do YOU want in a free Zim? Lets inspire each other. Want to know what others say? SMS us your email addr" sent out to mobile subscriber lists. FrontlineSMS was used to blast the messages out, and then used to collect responses that were then distributed via an electronic newsletter and on the Kubatana Community Blog.
According to Kubatana, "Without FrontlineSMS we would not have been able to process the volume of responses we have received, and we would not have been able to establish a two-way SMS communications service in the way that we have."
In the event of a presidential run-off, Kubatana plans to produce a broadsheet with feedback received from Zimbabweans in order to remind them what each other wanted, and to inspire them to go out and vote (again). After the election, it hopes to produce a booklet with a page on some of these ideas and include an editor's comment, a cartoon or even a set of postcards carrying the most unique, original and practical ideas.
Unlike the Nigerian elections, where FrontlineSMS was used as a monitoring tool, in Zimbabwe it has been effectively used to mobilize and inform civil society during and after the election process. In both cases, the real success story has been the NGOs themselves -- NMEM in Nigeria and Kubatana in Zimbabwe -- that have demonstrated the power of mobile technology in civil society initiatives and what can be done when the right tools make it into the hands that need them the most.