ICT Works for South African Activists

Computing

More than half of the 800 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in South Africa say information technology has had a major effect on their ability to advance human rights and they are starting to realise the potential of mobile technology and social networking , a study has found.

The results highlighted the increasing value of the cellphone. A quarter of NGOs used custom applications on cellphones, such as medication maintenance systems for patients with HIV/AIDS or TB, which remind patients to take their medicine.

Cellphones were also being used as fundraising tools by a quarter of NGOs, and 48% of decision makers were using internet browsers on their phones to access information for organisations. But the research also found that only 39% of NGOs had a technology plan in place .

The report, entitled State of ICT (information communication technology), was carried out by market research organisation World Wide Worx and NGO technology facilitator SangoNeT. It was sponsored by Microsoft and the National Development Agency (NDA) and involved NGOs across the country, and organisations of all sizes from all sectors.

It found that compared to research in 2007, NGO decision makers were becoming adept with cutting-edge tools such as mobile applications and social networking services.

These were seen as having a major effect on the ability to advance human rights by 56% of those interviewed. While this figure was only 2% higher than the 2007 survey's, this year's study found that NGOs demonstrated a greater interest in using new media to further their cause and some respondents were using it in their personal capacity. Half of all respondents were using local social networking services, but only 6% of them were using them in pursuit of the goals of their organisations.

"It means NGOs are leveraging technology, but not nearly achieving its potential," said David Barnard, executive director of SangoNeT. Steven Ambrose, managing director of WWW Strategy and lead consultant on the project, was more positive, saying that because respondents were adept at using social networks they faced far less of a learning curve in using them to pursu e organisational causes.

"In the past, people have tended to learn how to use the internet from exposure at work, and then taken that into their personal lives. We are seeing the reverse process at work here," he said.

The survey also revealed that NGOs were rapidly embracing the advanced functions of cellphones, with exactly half of them using the calendar and organiser functions of phones for organisational use, and only 24% for personal use.

Instant messaging on the phone had been embraced by 51% for personal use, while only 16% use it for their organisations. A slightly larger proportion, 20%, use instant messaging on computers, with a further 43% indicating that they intended to embrace this option.

"The data shows that NGOs still see the new forms of communication offered by social networks and instant messaging as personal tools rather than organisational, but are aware of their capabilities," said Ambrose. "This highlights the potential of these tools once their role can be more clearly defined and promoted."

Barnard said devising a technology plan was essential. "This is the first step in making technology work for an organisation, and it's a step that most NGOs must urgently take. The findings of the study will hopefully encourage more action in this regard," he said.

Business Day