Around the world, some 3.5 billion people now carry a mobile phone. Members of societies both rich and poor now think it's normal to be in constant communication. It's the kind of trend that prompts the question "What good could we be doing with all those mobile minutes?"
I gained some new insights into that question this week, thanks to Katrin Verclas, cofounder of MobileActive. She and her colleagues believe we can use these handy devices to improve the world. They also think that if we work together, we might make innovations happen even faster.
I had the chance to hear Verclas speak at the recent Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, in Oxford, England. Against the backdrop of one of the world's oldest universities, Verclas kept the conversation focused squarely on the future.
Already, she told us, projects are under way that use mobile devices to remind tuberculosis patients to take their medication. In cultures where even talking about HIV remains taboo, there are text-messaging support groups connecting previously isolated people who have HIV/AIDS. In California, taxi drivers gather data about air pollution and report it via mobile devices -- just one example of what Verclas calls "participatory science." In political hot spots, citizens are using mobile phones to monitor elections.
The MobileActive blog is full of more examples and case studies, including a few from the world of education. In India, as this post describes, they are combining mobile devices with games to improve the literacy skills of students who were previously struggling to even recognize letters. Now, their illiterate parents are asking to play along, too.
MobileActive is an all-volunteer network of people interested in expanding the use of mobile technologies to benefit society. Verclas says it's all about sharing ideas and resources so that, as she puts it, innovative ideas can "bust silos" and spread across domains. As the conversation grows, she predicts what she calls a shift "from society to community," with everyone having a voice.
At the least, MobileActive seems like a resource for educators interested in technology. Educators who want to build their students' global awareness and critical thinking can also make use of this site. For instance, you might have your students analyze political campaigns that use mobile technologies to engage voters. Or how about mining mobile data from across the globe? Maybe you'll even decide to share information about a mobile project you and your students conduct in your own community. The sky's the limit. With cell phone in hand, students are equipped to contribute to everything from environmental research to health awareness to voter-registration campaigns.
How do you think people will use mobile technologies to improve the world in the near future? What wild but wonderful ideas do your students have for turning their mobile devices into powerful tools for good? Share your ideas and keep the conversation going.