As technology evolves, it can often seem like the digital divide is growing larger. As estimated 51% of American households have a PC while in some poorer or developing nations that statistic drops to sometimes lower than 2%. With such a chasm between us, one might be tempted to think that the developing world has been all but left out of the digital age, but a visit to most of those places would reveal something that has leveled the playing field and, some would argue, even saved lives: everyone has a mobile phone.
In our tech savvy world, it's easy to think that most people use the Internet. In reality, and according to a recent survey by the United Nations, only about a quarter of the worlds 6.1 billion people are wired to the net. But the same UN report estimates that over 4 billion people have mobile phones. That puts nearly the entire planet, from the poorest of farmers in Ethiopia to the wealthiest Shah in Iran, on a level playing field with the information they want and need right at their fingertips.
Text messaging is playing a major role in enabling the non-net-connected among us to get the information they need and allowing businesses and social organizations of all kinds to better reach and service populations that might otherwise be invisible. Health initiatives in Malawi allow anyone with a mobile phone to easily connect with a medical professional and ask a question or get help, banking programs in Kenya are enabling person to person lending, and personal banking and payment to be done with nothing more than a mobile phone. Social organizations are quicky realizing that, to better serve, they have to adopt text messaging.
While it's tempting to believe that certain services can only be delivered by the Internet, the truth is that with a little creativity and work, nearly any useful service can be delivered by text messaging. Using nothing more than an inexpensive netbook, a mobile phone or GSM modem, and software like FrontLineSMS, anyone wanting to deploy a community initiative can do so easily and inexpensively. There's no need to expensive shortcodes, large grants, or even highly skilled (and costly) IT staff; even the most technically challenged person who's willing to take time to learn can deploy a text based system to serve their community.
Can text messaging change the world? Absolutely. Those with a passion and dedication to making the world a better place now have all the tools they need to effect social change. And that tool for change is right in the pockets of over 4 billion people.