Investing in the Transformative Power of a Mobile Generation

Photo Credit: UNFPA Uganda

In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or even electricity.

This powerful, provocative statement is a reflection of the transformative potential of mobile technology. 10 years ago, Africa was on the verge of technological revolution, and as the decade passed, mobile phones became the fastest growing technology on the continent. Today, Africa is the world's second most connected region by mobile subscriptions, and it is currently on track to hit one billion mobile subscriptions within the year.

According to information and communications technology (ICT) provider Ericsson, by 2020, advanced mobile technology will be commonplace around the world. Seventy percent of the world's population will have a smartphone, and there will be an estimated 26 billion connected devices around the globe. Furthermore, 80 percent of new smartphone subscriptions will come from the developing world.

It is clear that the mobile landscape of ICT in Africa has ushered in a fundamental shift in how people communicate and connect with each other -- Africa's youth are the first generation to have direct access to mobile technology. Consequently, mobile technology is blurring geographical, economic, and societal divides across the continent, creating new conditions for Africa's youth to navigate and master.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently organized its first hackathon in Kampala, Uganda. #HackForYouth gathered innovators, developers, partners, and most importantly, youth together for a three-day event to develop mobile health (mHealth) solutions that promote young people's access to sexual and reproductive health services (SRHR).

According to Bruce B. Campbell, UNFPA's Global Coordinator of the Data for Development Platform, the hackathon is meant to be a catalyst for future mHealth initiatives within UNFPA.

"Our goal is to emerge from the hackathon with several viable prototypes that we can see through refinement and beta-testing stages," says Campbell. "This process would be driven by country teams that have participated in the hackathon, who would support refinement, adaptation, and pilot testing upon return home to their countries.

"Through the hackathon we aim to kick start the development of sustainable and open source adolescent sexual and reproductive health mHealth innovations that have the potential for very rapid uptake within diverse national contexts."

In other words, the hackathon encouraged participants to think differently and creatively in order to design unconventional health solutions. Furthermore, it followed the principles of "user-centered design," allowing young people the opportunity to lead the development of solutions based on their own needs and experiences. Thus, through these principles and methods, UNFPA hopes to take these newly designed mHealth prototypes and refine them, so that they can be readily available and accessible to those who need them most.

Since its inception, UNFPA has advocated for the rights of young people, particularly the right to accurate information and appropriate services related to sexual and reproductive health. Due to the world's rapidly changing social and economic landscape, as well as the critical need to base development policy, planning, and service delivery on accurate information, data for development has been an essential ingredient of UNFPA's core mandate.

As a result, this #HackForYouth is not the first time the UNFPA has leveraged data and technology to improve SRHR. Through its Innovation Fund, UNFPA has hosted a "Big Data Bootcamp" and conducted studies with Facebook and Twitter data on young people's attitudes and behavior surrounding contraception, among many other projects.

And in every case, youth have played an integral role in ensuring each project's success.

"There are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the world today," says Campbell. "Investing in the capabilities of young people and preparing them to enter a knowledge-driven economy is crucial to ensuring they can realize their full potential and are empowered to design creative and sustainable solutions for our future."

Seven different teams participated in #HackForYouth, resulting in the creation of a number of mHealth solutions and apps which ranged from games to prevent child marriage, to a website on SRHR and legal literacy, to an app that addresses young people's privacy concerns that hinder their access to SRHR services. The winning team, "Put It On," designed the TriGivia app, an interactive quiz that aims to dispel myths about SRHR for young people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and provides concrete incentives for users to participate.

"You never know what to expect from a team that you haven't met before, with little time to get to know each other, to define what problem you want to solve, and to think of an app that will make impact," says Jordan Atanasovski of Macedonia, a youth member of "Put It On."

"At the end we did it! But this is just the beginning, I'm so excited that the 'Put It On' team will have the chance to implement the TriGivia app and in that way, significantly improve young people's sexual and reproductive health."

Alexandru Lebedev of Moldova, another youth member of the winning team, echoed these sentiments.

"I always thought that our thinking inside the box depends on the places we visited, so Uganda was never a part of that box. Now, after working alongside people from that part of the world and hearing their problems and struggles, I am honored that I joined a team that could somehow solve some of their problems as well as ours, so that together they could be seen as a whole," says Lebedev.

As we continue to find new ways to think outside, rather than inside the box, we must recognize that young people face significant barriers. Using SRHR as an example, young people face a lack of privacy and confidentiality, prohibitive costs, inaccessible locations and hours of operation, poor treatment by providers and fear of stigmatization.

So, if achieving access to comprehensive SRHR (and other fundamental human rights) has been stagnated due to these obstacles, why not utilize a more innovative, mobile approach? Ultimately, it is crucial that we communicate, engage, and empower youth through a medium they not only understand, but also have almost universal access to, so that they can truly transform their own lives and the lives of those around them.