Mobile technology has created the potential for drastic change within the non-profit sector. It offers instant communication, enables access to information, and phones, as well as data plans, are increasingly becoming affordable. Incorporation of mobile technologies has allowed some NGOs to significantly improve their impact and visibility. Despite the innumerable examples of successful incorporation of mobile technology for social good based solutions by NGOs, it is worth pondering whether they can replace other types of interventions.
Deconstructing mobile devices
To assess the opportunities for NGOs to incorporate mobile technologies, it is necessary to understand the mobile ecosystem. Hardware and services are the two fundamental components of mobile devices. They work in tandem. A device’s hardware includes sensors such as the accelerometer and gyroscope while examples of the services component include the voice and data channels.
Given the wide range of mobile devices available, it is possible to select a configuration of hardware and services suited to the requirements of an NGO. For instance, OneWorld Foundation India used the phone’s GPS and camera to record usage of sanitation facilities in rural areas while Pratham Books relied on the most basic feature of phones to implement a missed call based solution for their “Missed call do, Kahaani Suno” project which distributed audio stories in response to missed calls from children. While OneWorld’s solution required human intervention to take pictures of sanitation facilities, Pratham’s intervention was accessible to end users solely through automated means.
When assessed from an operations management perspective, the means of execution of an organization’s processes range along the continuum from manual to automated. An NGO’s usage context will influence the choice of degree of process automation. Factors such as end user’s access to mobile devices and availability of network or data connectivity on site must be considered. Notwithstanding the automation possibilities, deliberate thought must be given to the extent of human facilitation to be maintained. While reconfiguring their processes, NGOs should aim to retain flexibility in case the degree of automation needs recalibration based on feedback from end users. To minimize resource wastage, NGOs could pilot the proposed automation without actually developing the solution. For instance, it is possible to visualize Pratham Books running a pilot by manually disconnecting incoming calls to simulate the missed call functionality and returning the call with an audio book.
Given the resource constraints faced by NGOs / NPOs, it is important to deliberately assess the possibilities for process automation. Where feasible, self-service solutions akin to Pratham Books’ “Missed call do, Kahaani Suno” project should be implemented. However, the advantages of human facilitation should not be ruled out unless warranted by the usage context.