Feature Phones Workshop

In response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the GDPC modified the First Aid app for release in 13 African countries to include Ebola-related content. In addition to providing information on Ebola transmission, identification and treatment, the app serves as a platform to disseminate messages and alerts through push notifications.

GDPC collaborated with Social Impact Lab (SIMLab) to explore extending the project to reach portions of the population who have not yet gained access to smartphone technology, and considering ways to get the First Aid app or its content onto feature phones.

SIMLab’s approach

Social Impact Lab (SIMLab for short) help people and organizations to use all kinds of inclusive technologies, including radio, SMS, and other low-end communications and information management, through a mix of hands-on support, documentation and learning, and advocacy work. Originally the home of FrontlineSMS, which we spun off at the end of 2014, we are not strictly a technology shop: rather, our focus is helping organizations solve the human complications around technology use, from information architecture and context assessment to training, monitoring, and documentation.

SIMLab takes a user-focused, agile development approach to clarifying project aims and assumptions, capturing key requirements, and designing responsive systems using inclusive technologies. Our capabilities include:

  • Investigating interoperability and cost-benefit of existing and planned technology platforms and tools;
  • Managing software development to build, tailor or connect platforms or tools*;
  • Developing and managing relationships with technical and mobile infrastructure partners;
  • Managing a technology rollout, from installation to remote (or local) troubleshooting support;
  • Training users and trainers, and developing resources to continue learning after the training has ended;
  • Forecasting how a project impacts organizational change needs, including human resources, budgetary adjustments, data integrity and quality control;
  • Documentation, monitoring and evaluating pilots with a mind toward sustainable adoption and use over time

Proposed Scope of Work

Although global growth in smartphone use is growing, and gathering pace as handset prices drop and low-cost, unbranded phones flood out of east Asia, there are and perhaps will always be important groups who don’t have access to them. Even in the US, only 60% of subscribers use smartphones, and 10% aren’t online at all, either at home or using a mobile phone. In the rest of the world, of the 3.5bn mobile subscribers, only 1bn have smartphones. Those without them are excluded by inaccessible handset prices, data and airtime costs, and availability and affordability of electricity for these power-hungry devices.

Nonetheless, the ‘feature phone’ remains dominant in many of these markets, providing low-cost messaging capability through SMS and low-bandwidth apps like Whatsapp and MXIT, voice calls, low-quality images and in many markets, mobile money and other operator-supported services. Making information accessible through these devices makes a lot of sense.

But the feature phone market is complex. Even ten years ago, at the height of its power, individual handset manufacturers would maintain tens of handset models, upgrading each of them multiple times each year with minor hardware and software changes. Nominally identical phones varied per mobile operator, and per market. Operating systems for feature phones were far more diverse and unpredictable than for smartphones – in contrast to the iOS/Android/Windows trifecta, many manufacturers had their own OS, which were tailored to the handset and managed the phone’s interaction with its hardware in a deep way. Ten years on, the picture is similar – but massively complicated by the vast second-hand phone market and glut of phones from China and elsewhere in Asia, about which little can be predicted.

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