In Santiago, Chile, more than 60 percent of the poorest citizens don't have access to the Internet. In the rest of the country, that number increases to 80 percent, and in rural areas, an Internet connection is almost nonexistent. But there are more than 20 million mobile phones in the nation, according to the latest survey by the Undersecretary of Telecommunications. (That's actually around 1.15 cell phones per capita in a nation of 17,094,270 people.) And in rural areas, cell phones are king.
As Knight News Challenge winners FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and NextDrop have shown, mobile communications are crucial for citizens living in rural areas, where being able to reach other people and access relevant news and public services information make a huge improvement in people's lives. Plus, cell phones are tools that most already have.
What if, apart from efforts to widen connectivity in isolated areas and government programs to provide computers for schools in rural areas (which has been a very good, but slow, undertaking, and not an attractive business for telecom companies), governments of underdeveloped countries create and provide easy ways to access public information and services on mobile phones with an application or open-source web app that could be downloaded from government websites (in Chile it's Gob.cl)? Or cellular service providers could pre-install an app or direct access to a web app on every smartphone or other devices?
This could mean a great deal for people, particularly in rural and impoverished areas where the biggest news is not what's happening in Congress or the presidential palace, but what is happening to you and your community (something Facebook understood very well in its latest change that challenges the notion of what is newsworthy -- but that's a topic for a separate post).
People could do things like schedule a doctor's appointment or receive notice that a doctor won't be available; find out about grants to improve water conditions in their sector; receive direct information about training programs for growing organic food and the market prices for products they might sell; find out how their kids are doing in a school they attend in the city or if the rural bus system will go this week to the nearest town or not. These are just a few very straightforward examples of useful public services information that could be available on people's phones. Such availability of information could save time and money for those who lack both things.
I know it because I saw it as a boy growing up in a small town -- and as the son of a farmer who still hasn't gotten around to the idea of using a computer, despite having the chance to use one. But because my father owns a mobile phone, he's become an expert user of SMS and applications that allow him to check weather conditions.
WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE TELECOM COMPANIES
At the same time, telecom companies could support this initiative by providing mobile Internet connection packages and a free SMS service for rural areas by which citizens could specify their information searches or requests (a kind of help desk). Why would they do it for free? Because with each free transaction, there might be another one that has nothing to do with the government or public services information, which may produce additional income. It might also improve the companies' public image.
Another way of getting support from these companies consists of giving them a
tax reduction for providing the service and automatic updates of information. Thus, rural citizens living in small towns and cities would be able to access the data they need (pension reforms, hospital appointments, housing benefits, food grants, etc).
IN SIMPLE WORDS
To do what we're talking about, we need clean and intuitive interfaces with super-simple steps and strong government websites or apps that learn from the end users' needs, systematizing:
- Databases containing questions and answers made by ministries and government staff.
- Services citizens can access in order to ask for all kinds of information: subsidies, hours of service, etc.
- Simple and complex procedures, so that answers can be delivered accurately and in the shortest amount of time.
This reduces the margin of error, maximizes human resources -- decreasing the man-hours needed for searching for requested information -- allows specific departments to detect questions which are more usual, and meets the needs of users and citizens.
However, in order to make citizens understand the information, it has to be written in a simple way, with no illegible technical or legal terms. For such a purpose, there are citizen language manuals that standardize response criteria issued by the state. (A good example of this in Spanish is the Mexican Lenguaje Ciudadano government guide.)
This is a small civic proposal to start a wider conversation and brainstorming and discover projects and ideas that may already be addressing this issue. Please feel free to post your tips and thoughts in the comments section.
Image of Santiago, Chile by Flickr user Cleanie.