In early November, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a statistic that was a bit of downer for those of us fascinated with our cell phones and all the ways we can use them to engage with our friends, family and community: only 4 percent of Americans use location-based services like Foursquare or Gowalla.
It’s a jolt of a number that would make anyone working on social good campaigns recognize the need to re-evaluate whether mobile technology and its related apps had really become the “it” technology so many public relations and marketing professionals had touted it to be.
At a Johns Hopkins event last week, a panel of mobile communications professionals helped put that statistic into perspective. The panelists agreed that mobile technology is an under-tapped tool that can be a remarkable means to organize, empower and inform.
That is of course if the information being shared is actually useful.
“Making these things fun is great, but making things fun and useful is even better,” said Adele Waugaman, senior director of the UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.
She pointed out that much of the innovation for turning complex data sets into useful and manageable information on mobile phones was happening in developing countries, where a basic mobile phone — and not a smart phone or even the Internet — is the dominant platform to connect.
This innovation has come in the form of election monitoring, accounting for teacher attendance, and in the case of the Haiti earthquake, providing a 911 mapping service credited with numerous rescues.
Josh Nesbitt, founder and executive director of a mobile health service called Frontline SMS: Medic, said that people needed to think about turning mobile data collection into knowledge collection. Once people have the knowledge they need, they have the knowledge to act collectively.
So perhaps Foursquare and its peers have a future afterall. The Pew report did note that 10 percent of Hispanics use location based services. And that 4% of the general public comprises an audience that possesses a high disposable income and an influential early adapter mind-set.
Perhaps as Alan Rosenblatt, associate director for Online Advocacy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund pointed out, it’s just not the right time for these services beyond a niche audience. Once people figure out how to make mobile information useful, these applications will manifest themselves in ways we haven’t yet imagined.
After all, that is more or less what happened with the cell phone itself.