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Mobile’s Growing Role in Corporate Social Responsibility

Mobile’s unparalleled reach is great for keeping in touch with loved ones. It’s even better when disaster strikes, as it has the ability to connect people who need help no matter where they are.

Mobile devices and technologies are banking the unbanked. They are bringing the Internet to people who have never seen it before. Recently, I posted about how they have the potential to be the great leveller.

And, there are mobile tech companies that are reaching out to their communities with corporate social responsibility, or CSR, initiatives.

A colleague of mine who used to work at Tata told me of that company’s participation in an initiative to help Bay of Bengal fishermen. A group provided the men with mobile phones and created the Fisher Friend Mobile Application that helps them locate schools of fish, check in on the market price of their catch, and keep abreast of changing tides and weather while they’re out at sea. Read the story on Tata’s website and from a local paper.

Nokia Life Tools service has long provided similar kinds of information about agriculture and healthcare, for education and entertainment, in an SMS (and USSD)-based format.

Mobile has also been playing an increasing role in disaster relief. When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, people in many countries across the world donated to the relief effort by texting donations via premium rate shortcodes—one of the first big mobile giving campaigns. The global aid community built and used mobile financial systems to get money to people in need — with the knowledge that creating a financial infrastructure in the country would help it for many years to come. Now, Digicel’s Tcho Tcho mobile wallet is gaining steam with over a million customers, offering a full suite of banking services.

As it turns out, mobile, and particularly SMS, is very well suited for this kind of work. Mobile networks rebound quickly, and SMS uses so little bandwidth that it works when all else fails. My colleague Bill Dudley explains it well here, and again here.

Mobile has played a big role in the Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) recovery efforts. Vodafone dispatched two of its “mobile networks in a suitcase” to the area, and set up emergency networks to aid relief efforts. AT&T has created something similar.

In fact, here’s a great overview of many tech companies that pitched in. I’m proud to say that my employer contributed  by working with the local mobile operators Globe, Smart, and Sun Cellular to provide free international SMS in the aftermath of the typhoon. Viber deserves a special mention as it worked with a coalition of operators to provide subscribers with free international calls to and from the Philippines for a period of time. T-Mobile US, Metro PCS, and others also offered free calls and texts to the Philippines.

SMS donation has continued to play a major role in international relief efforts, making it fast and easy to donate. Here in the UK, £6 million was donated via phones and tablets, and an amazing £250,000 was raised via text messaging in the first hour. As with Haiti, relief organizations are finding that mobile payments are a great way to quickly and safely distribute aid to those in need.

In all these cases, mobile shows that its unparalleled reach enables people, NGOs and governments to connect in the worst of circumstances. And how they connect is completely flexible. In some cases voice is best, others apps, and for when a message absolutely has to get through - SMS.

Sadly, more help is still needed. You can help by donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee or the Philippine Red Cross.