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    Empowering Poor Communities through Mobile

    by Paul Lamb
    June 22, 2008

    Here is one vision of the mobile future aimed at one of the most (technologically) overlooked segments of the U.S. population…low income and ethnic communities. Imagine a Latino youth living in East Oakland, California – one of the toughest urban neighborhoods in America:

    “My name is Jose Gutierrez. I am 18 years old and live in East Oakland, off of International and 24th Streets. We don’t have a computer in my house, and other than Spanish language TV and radio we get all of our information on our mobile phones on LOCOBEAT (fictional).

    -On my cell phone I have my neighborhood mapped out. I know which blocks to avoid because of gangbangers & drug dealers (and I get color coded updates from people in my neighborhood when violence happens to help me decide which places to avoid and which safe routes for my little brother Ernesto to take walking to school)

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    -Neighborhood job openings appear on my mobile map as they are announced, and I get a text message alert when I walk by a store or and business on the street that has an opening.

    -I belong to locobeat’s social network that lets me know if I know anybody that knows the person who is looking to hire, and keeps me and my friends connected. We get alerts when friends or friends of friends are nearby and have a color coded system for people we don’t like or the cops come around.

    -My friends and I share and rate the music of local rappers and Hip-Hop artists that we like, and we have created our own marketing business that lets everyone know when and where our favorites are playing. We also earn money from ringtone and song downloads, and can mix our own beats on the fly.

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    -My uncle Jaime is a day laborer, and he gets a text message in Spanish when a day job is available, that tells him where to go…so he doesn’t need to stand out on the street all day.

    -My mom uses locobeat to get alerts about fresh vegetables or other things she likes to buy arrive at our local supermarket.

    -When I walk by the community center or library my cell phone tells me what events and classes are happening there this week and I can register to attend. Announcements are in Spanish & English.

    -My cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting last month, and when you walk by the corner where he was shot, you can hear and see a tribute to him on your phone, along with stories about him from friends and anonymous tips from people who saw it happen and know who did it. Or you can add your own tribute or message that is added to the LocoBeat community news made up mostly of video and voice reports filed by people who live in the community along with news from were we come from in Mexico.”

    There are lots of great mobile projects and tools (i.e., mobile banking) aimed at the poor in the developing world, so why not in the US too? What are your ideas for a mobile future in low income and underserved communities, and anyone interested in working on a real LOCOBEAT?

    Tagged: community technology LBS location-based services mapping mobile
    • Hi Paul,

      Firstly, what a great post, I was reading RWW and got the link there.

      These are the technologies that should be getting talked about more, not Twitters down-time, but applications that inform, educate and in this case could save someones life.

      Im from Scotland in the UK and havent heard or seen anything like this before, but I think that this kind of technology will become more popular, mainly because it solves a real problem.

    • I work with a national U.S. nonprofit that works with the technology needs of community organizing groups.

      While receiving “shots fired” reports would be useful in a lot of neighborhoods, it’s not really much of a game changer. Learning about job openings is a good idea. What people need are better schools, stable rental prices and healthy families.

      Wouldn’t we be better off if someone developed mobile applications that helped keep elected officials accountable? Or how about a application for texting an address to find out if its owned by a landlord with a bad track record or the average rent in the area or the number of police calls?

      Someone has to pay for this. I’m afraid that we often see outsiders pitch the foundations to pay them to come in to experiment on low income neighborhoods. Is there a way for this type of application to be specified and developed by the people from the communities themselves?

    • I work with a national U.S. nonprofit that works with the technology needs of community organizing groups.

      While receiving “shots fired” reports would be useful in a lot of neighborhoods, it’s not really much of a game changer. Learning about job openings is a good idea. What people need are better schools, stable rental prices and healthy families.

      Wouldn’t we be better off if someone developed mobile applications that helped keep elected officials accountable? Or how about a application for texting an address to find out if its owned by a landlord with a bad track record or the average rent in the area or the number of police calls?

      Someone has to pay for this. I’m afraid that we often see outsiders pitch the foundations to pay them to come in to experiment on low income neighborhoods. Is there a way for this type of application to be specified and developed by the people from the communities themselves?

    • Paul Lamb

      Mark: I agree that what folks really need are better schools, housing, and healthy environments. There is much that mobile might do in these areas to, although we need to understand that such tools can only assist in the development of, and will change the fundamentals of, a particular neighborhood or community. People themselves, and not technology tools, are the “game changers” and always will be. That said, I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion that communities develop their own tools and not be forced to rely on top down handouts or experiments. Here’s a piece I wrote on that issue:
      http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9062481

      Would appreciate any thoughts you or other have

    • Paul,
      Inspiring post and its so cool to read about someone keeping it real with all of our technology hype here in the Bay Area. I sometimes get sick of reading blogs/online articles that talk about technology only in terms of consumers and products – instead of people and solutions. Technology can only really be a mediator for change – though I don’t think we can really rely on it for much else outside of its use.

      Have you heard of BOM411? It has GOT to be one of the COOLEST uses of SMS for youth that I have seen. BOM411 is a free SMS service that sends helpful tips to teens for ‘keeping the drama of relationships under control’ I signed up for it for fun and get cool tips like:

      “r u trippin bout ur boo? take sum time 4urself”

      “volume 2high on ur relationship? take control, b the 1st 2 lower ur voice”

      The language of the medium is totally geared towards teens in the kind of shorthand common to how younger users text each other (though even as an adult, these are nice reminders to have myself sometimes;)

      There are of course ringtones that you can download that are hyphy-style (Bay Area hip hop) mixes of these tips that you can assign to contacts on your phone:

      “Sometimes you just need some space. These ringtones tell you when someone special is psycho-calling…we even have ringtones for when your guy/girl gets it back together. If the drama is out of control, talk it out at [gives phone number] with someone who can help.”

      Like I said, one of the coolest services I’ve seen.

      I wonder how they might track success rates with it?

    • Paul Lamb

      Morgan: Thanks for the heads up on Boss of Me. Very cool…and a great idea!

    • I feel like I’ve seen is a lot of ideas about how technology can spare us from talking to our neighbors and less about how technology can facilitate civic engagement.

      Everything you’ve described young Jose navigating with Locobeat is immediate (and I don’t see a lot of “solutions”, I see the status quo pretty well maintained. Jamie can get more day jobs but not help finding a job that comes with workers comp.) I think civic engagement should go deeper than that.

      Grocery stores operate on a schedule. If you live in Bed Stuy and rely on the local Key Foods, you know when the produce comes in. It is on a schedule. If you eat fresh vegetables regularly, you probably get them from the truck that parks on Lafayette and Classon every morning. Rather than a little alert advising me that the grocery store is grinding up aging steaks in the hope that they’ll be more palatable as hamburger meat, I’d like an alert that tells me my council person is not planning to vote for green cart legislation that could bring more fresh food into my neighborhood or that a school lunch funding issue that would provide my child with wholesome meals is coming up for debate. I’d like to be able to find some insights on the argument that the green cart bill will make it harder to get fresh produce. That is stuff I need more than word of mouth for.

      I don’t need a cell phone to read the letters remembering a young woman who died in a fire — they’re taped to a wall above the balloons and melted candles. Teenagers who’ve been shot by police in the general vicinity over the last few years haven’t been eulogized quite the same way but I suspect that Locobeat wouldn’t solve that one.

      It is so rare for my local library to be open when I’m walking by that I’m afraid my Locobeat alerts wouldn’t do much more than tell me there’s nothing to see. Now, if I could, upon discovering that the library is now closed on Wednesdays, too — if I could, right then and there, Locobeat the phone number of the chair of the right city council committee and give them an earful, that I could get behind. I’d like a Locobeat advisory that the proposed budget is going to force closures, even before it is a done deal.

      NYC’s 311 service won’t let you leave a message for your elected representative, sadly enough.

      How could we could be using this same technology to ask Jose Gutierrez to go find out why the sidewalk on his corner is half dirt and rusty nails and has been for three years, while ten blocks away the sidewalks are spotless, and then give him the tools to check the answers he gets. Is there really nothing Sanitation can do to stop the illegal dumping that leaves these nails behind to begin with? Did his council rep make a campaign issue of this? Has he done anything? What? Who defeated his proposal and can he get a copy of the hearing transcript to pass out to my neighbors? Is there an association in the next neighborhood over that successfully stopped illegal dumping or forced a recalcitrant landlord to pour a proper sidewalk?

      How can we use Locobeat to make room for Jose Gutierrez, not his real name, in decision making? In civic engagement? Isn’t that the point of all this?

    • Amanda

      I should add that the other thing I don’t see here is “empowerment.” Where is the transfer of power in this equation?

    • Here is a good roundup of the kind of memorials that go up all over Brooklyn:

      http://bedstuybanana.blogspot.com/search/label/Memorial%20Murals

    • Deb

      Paul, Love this blog! I was out searching for BOM411 info and heard all about new uses of mobile tech in the Bay Area.

      FYI: to get the BOM tips, text Bom to 61827.
      Best, Deb

    • Mariko Mizutani

      I really enjoyed reading your post. I thought that mobile phone technology is only a tool for making life easier and fun, never imagined it would solve problems in society. In the near future, these mobile applications will give more affect to our way of life. The key of success of LOCOBEAT is depending whether the cost is affordable for low income and ethnic communities. As someone mentioned, someone have to pay first to start these services. If people of those communities in the U.S acquire skills and knowledge of using this kind of mobile application, it would improve their living standard. The success of mobile phone technology in U.S shows that it could be useful for developing countries to solve their problems too.

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