The Technology Salon on SMS4D covered a lot of ground in a few hours, but the reverberating sentiment was the power of mobile technology at the local/regional level. Part of this is a bit of sour-grapes with the hard challenges of scaling mobile solutions globally, which is as much a problem of cross-provider functionality as it is capacity. The value however is in reminding us that development solutions - while they may be globally replicable - are rooted locally.
The Technology Salon went through an inspiring round of implementations and use cases of on-the-ground efforts using texts in cross-sector development situations. Microfinance solutions, tying the payments to the notifications via mpayment were the purview of CreditSMS, lowering the costs of each loan by dramatically reducing transactional costs, allowing MFI account managers to deal with the exceptions (late/missedpayments) instead of burning time tracking payments to records and managing each interaction. mHealth, a favorite topic of Tech Salons had use cases in using SMS to replace timely and costly travel to report medicine stock levels and local disease trends, but also mobile-centric medical records management and remote, low-cost diagnostics tools, all using SMS:Medic.
OpenGov is another example of a sector with clear needs for interactivity and data-gathering, enabling 311 style systems via SMS to go through a tree of interactive SMSes to report problems or get information (Anything from reporting a pothole to figuring out what pest is destroying your crops). Local government could also datamine this to track local trends and spot emerging problems. Even mobile-enhanced education was discussed, a popular topic at EduTechDebate, but presented in a very realistic framing at the Salon as an assistance technology to existing educational programs.
The data coming out of tools like these also can bubble up into knowledge products – a dashboard of geo-tagged symptoms linked to key infectious diseases would be invaluable at spotting outbreaks and managing stock levels, targetted outreach/intervention, or other responses. Local governments could see dashboards on complaints about various services and expose systemic problems - handily also increasing their likelihood at getting re-elected.
As with politics, all change is local. The reverberating message from the salon was to have your technology where the decision-makers are. If you want local, on-the-ground reaction to a text message, then the actor and the technology need to be on the ground.
Cloud-based, Internet-only apps have their place, but the beauty of text messaging is that it operates off-grid, and the only real solutions are those which can follow mobile devices to places without electricity and Internet connectivity.