"The mobile tools to solve social problems are already out there." Or so said Aaron Pava, a strategist at CivicActions in his 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference session, Open Source Mobile Apps for Social Change.

In his session, he shared these tips, strategies, and tools for nonprofits looking to use mobile for social good.

What the Mobile Revolution Means

Pava started off outlining the familiar statistics about mobile's explosive growth, and what those trends mean for nonprofit organizations who are thinking about mobile solutions:

  • Start thinking "mobile first." This means no longer building for desktop users first, then later tweaking for mobile users. Instead, you should start thinking about mobile users first.
  • Understand how mobile extends your capabilities. Mobile devices allow multi-touch and gesture navigation, precise GPS-based location tracking; have audio, video, and camera capabilities; let you send real-time notifications and SMS messaging; and more. What could your supporters and staff do if they took advantage of those features?
  • Know what your priorities are. When you only have three inches of screen, you need to eliminate all the unnecessary elements. You need to prioritize and focus on the key tasks you want people to  accomplish on-screen.
  • It's a myth that mobile users are always distracted. In fact, often they are relaxed and highly engaged.

Why Open Source?

Open source is not just about software distribution. Open source as a philosophy also promotes accessibility, transparency, inclusivity, open data, and integration with other tools. This can make open source solutions philosophically attractive to nonprofits and other social benefit organizations.

Mobile Strategies and Tips for Web and Email

A few of Pava's suggestions for web and email:

  • Mobile-ize your existing web platform. This is the "lowest-hanging fruit." Check your current website using a variety of devices, and remove any components that don't work on mobile devices.
  • A separate mobile website should use the 80/20 rule. According to the 80/20 rule, the most important 20% of your content will cover about 80% of your users. Therefore, if you have a separate mobile version of your site, it should focus on the most important content and functionality.
  • Use responsive design. Responsive design makes your website display differently depending on what kind of device is used to access it. If you use an open-source CMS, such as Drupal or WordPress, there are themes or widgets that allow you to do this without making major changes.
  • Format email to be read by mobile devices. Your emails need to be oriented correctly to be read on mobile devices with a long, narrow screen, and all links need to go to mobile-friendly URLs. One audience member had this great addition: "Look at leading online retailers and the emails they send you and then copy their strategies. They're spending a lot of money to convert you into a customer."
  • Mobile apps (probably) aren't the right answer. According to Pava, most organizations don't need to create a dedicated iPhone or Android app, because most of the time you can use the mobile browser to create an "app-like experience."

Other Open-Source Mobile Tools

  • Broadcast SMS. Pava described text messaging as "one of the most powerful mobile tools that are out there." According to statistics he cited, 97% of SMS subscribers will read a text message within four minutes of receiving it. Think about that in comparison to your email open rates. Example: FrontlineSMS.
  • Crowdsourcing and mapping. Crowdmap is a hosted version of Ushahidi, which allows you to gather data and visualize it on a map. It is very easy and user-friendly to set up.
  • Data collection. Open Data Kit provides free and open-source data collection tools that are particularly popular with health and environmental organizations.
  • Legislative Lookup from Mobile Commons. Tools to help you target advocacy campaigns based on a geographic database of state and congressional legislators.

A Reminder About Security

The session closed with a sobering discussion about the importance of security when using mobile technologies.

This was especially relevant at NTC, given that this year's Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest (awarded at NTC) went to Nathan Freitas, for his work with the Guardian Project. The Guardian Project creates apps and other tools that help protect security, anonymity, and privacy for mobile users.

In the discussion, one of Pava's peers from CivicActions noted that security and privacy cannot be taken lightly, and it's important to understand what mobile technology does and the kind of information it's gathering.

That will help you understand what kind of technologies are appropriate for your particular organization. For example, using a supporter's GPS location to help them find a nearby park probably won't endanger anyone. But uploading GPS-tagged photos from a war zone may very well endanger the person who took the photos.

Photo: Timothy Appnel

by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup