Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mobile Phones and Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day (see my previous post about this), with the focus this year on poverty. As I write this, we're getting ready to conduct a focus group in Los Angeles with 18 Community Voice Mail clients who own mobile phones. Because we offer voice mail to low-income and homeless people in 46 places in the U.S., it's important that our clients have access to phones. Payphones are increasingly not a solution (200k, or 17% of the total in the U.S., were taken out of commission in 2007), and through surveys we've learned that our clients mostly rely on free phones at social service agencies to check their voice mail. Because 21% of our clients own mobile phones, we want to talk to them and find out more about how they're using them, what they pay, where they buy them, and a host of other questions. Our goal is to figure out an economically feasible way to give mobile phones to tens of thousands of our clients around the country, and tap into the power of mobile access to telecommunications (and email, the Web, etc.) to help our clients climb out of poverty.

A lot of effort is being made to use mobile phones in developing countries to bring people out of poverty (read MobileActive to get a good overview of some of what's being done). But there doesn't appear to be a lot being done for poor people in the U.S.. I guess it's assumed that even the lowest-income Americans can afford a phone now, or maybe there just isn't the business opportunity with low-income people in the U.S. that there is with the billions of people in developing countries. To us, there remains a huge gap in the U.S. between those who have access to basic telecommunications and those that don't, and this is most powerfully represented as an information gap. Without a phone, or reliable access to one, it's very hard to stay in touch with the people you depend on for support (friends, family), help (social workers, doctors), or your livelihood (employers and potential employers). Moreover, for our clients, lack of access to a phone makes it harder to take advantage of the information we're sending over broadcast voice messages every day; messages about jobs, housing, food, health care, emergency weather alerts and other information most people take for granted. There is tremendous opportunity in the U.S. to bring affordable mobile phones tied to the right information services to low-income people in the U.S.. And we're going to do this.

We sent a broadcast voice message to 800 active CVM clients in Los Angeles, seeking 18 people who own mobile phones to come to a meeting and talk to us about their experiences. Within 48 hours, we received more than 80 responses from people willing to spend the time to help us figure this out. I'm looking forward to tomorrow as the start of a big change, and can't wait to meet our clients.

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