At Sex::Tech last week, I attended two different panels that included discussions about research and work on SMS (short message service, or text messaging) and sexual health services. Texting isn’t something I know a whole lot about from the programmatic and research standpoint. I’m an avid user of text messaging on the personal level but I don’t use it to interact with organizations or services (ok, that’s not totally true, I do subscribe to texts from Umbrella Today). Though this could be partly due to my ignorance of awesome text services, it also probably has to do with the fact that SMS just isn’t being utilized in a widespread way in the United States like it is in other places.
In Africa in particular, the rate of mobile phone usage has grown much more quickly than it has in other places (via Jonathan Hutson’s twitter, @jhutsontweet). Dutch non-profit Text To Change had a presence at Sex::Tech, and their developer Hajo van Beijma, had a lot to say about a sexual health campaign they’re working on in Uganda.
When users opt in to the service, Text To Change sends out a series of questions quizzing the recipient on his or her knowledge of HIV transmission and prevention. The service offers incentives like free mobile minutes to users who answer questions correctly. The service also provides the addresses of nearby health clinics where HIV testing is available.
This is not to say that health service organizations in the United States haven’t come up with similar ideas. Real Talk DC, which also had staff presenting at Sex::Tech, is a good example of a very similar service that is based in the Washington DC metro area.
If you click through to the Text To Change and Real Talk DC websites, you’ll see that the Text For Change site is a lot simpler and less polished. This is due to the fact that high speed internet which can utilize even the little bit of Flash on the Real Talk DC website is not as accessible in Africa as it is in the United States. Mobile phones, however, are everywhere. I would hazard a guess that most visitors to the Text To Change site are not from the population that the service is geared toward, but rather potential funders and other interested parties from Europe and the United States.
One of the questions that this brings up is: what should the efforts toward greater access to technology and health services look like? The digital divide is powerful: as more and more people have access to broadband in the global north, the global south lags behind in access. But if people in the global south are enthusiastically embracing mobile technologies and in some respects skipping over the unwieldy personal computer phase of things, maybe we need to rethink the notion of this divide. The fact remains that some people have access to new technologies and others do not (this difference shouldn’t be glossed over), but access to technology is not the great equalizer. I’m a total tech geek and fangirl of shiny new gadgets and applications, but I don’t think that access to the internet is the solution to all of the world’s ills. Giving people the opportunity to use technologies in the ways they prefer while listening to what they want and need, in online technology as well as reproductive and sexual health technologies, is a much better solution than installing broadband connections everywhere.
Download Hajo’s Sex::Tech powerpoint presentation on Text To Change here. You have to scroll down a bit to find it – he was on a panel called “Can You Hear Me Now? International Mobile Innovations.”