Mobile App Fever: How to Spot the Symptoms

How many times have you been talking about a problem with friends and possible solutions when somebody said "There must be an app for that"? You search the App Store and sure enough. Track your CO2 emissions, follow bills in Congress, or measure your fertility - you name it, there's an app for it.

App fever started in more industrialized countries. But with rising smartphone penetration, it's contagious and spreading quickly to places like Manila and Mumbai. By the end of the decade, two-thirds of the projected 9 billion mobile connections globally will be on smartphones. Emerging markets will account for four-fifths of smartphone connections, according to GSMA.

The idea of building an app is attractive for many reasons. First, it's tangible. You can build it and put your name on it. Second, it's completely customizable. The canvas is only limited to your imagination and your coding skill. Third, you can track it, monitoring downloads and usage. And of course, you stand to gain money and fame if your app is successful with the masses.

What about developing apps to promote social or economic development (M4D)? Here, the attraction seems even stronger. Deepen your impact! Impress your donors! Scale instantly! I met with an NGO in Bangladesh who was interested in building a smartphone app to deliver health information to factory workers. Good idea, but then I started asking questions. What if workers don't yet have smartphones? (In our experience in Bangladesh, many factory workers are still on feature phones.) They responded that supervisors and managers will download the app, and then workers will ask them for health information. Would you ask your boss for information about your reproductive health? They seemed undeterred.

The frenzy reminds me of earlier days of the internet when nonprofits thought that putting a "Donate" button on their website would unleash a flood of new contributions. In time, they learned that platforms like Network for Good and AmazonSmile are much more powerful engines for aggregating donations than trying to drive traffic to your own site.

There are already 100,000 m-Health apps on iTunes and Google Play. How successful are these apps designed to address a social need? And is a dedicated app the best channel to address the need? What other digital channels are popular with your target audience?

In my own work with factory workers in Asia, we've experimented with multiple approaches to "worker tech," that is, technology-driven solutions to improve worker well-being. The question of whether to build an app for workers always comes up. But so far we've rejected it for a number of reasons, including literacy and technical literacy of our population, and resources to get workers to download it.

cisco wechat

Instead, we decided to meet workers where they are. And where they are is WeChat. A popular messaging app in China, WeChat has 549 million monthly active users. A WeChat channel cost us almost nothing to set up, and today we have tens of thousands of workers in China using it. We offer workers the choice between our automated IVR line (Interactive Voice Response) and WeChat. In just 9 months, WeChat uptake has shot up from 30% to 70%.

Next week at the BSR Conference in San Francisco, I'm speaking on a panel titled "Connecting Virtually: Community Relations in the Digital Age." I'll be joined by Anita Mago, whose Foundation for Sustainable Development is using mobile phones to connect local communities in Uganda with health diagnostics and financial services (to pay school and medical fees).

There are many ways to leverage technology, and mobile-based tools are just one avenue. Also on the panel is Meg Garlinghouse who leads LinkedIn for Good. A former Peace Corps volunteer (like myself), Meg is attuned to local needs and appropriate technology. She'll be demonstrating the power of the network to match skilled volunteers with community-based organizations in need of a specific skill-set.

So if you're thinking about building an M4D app to report gender-based violence, teach literacy, or track health clinic visits, make sure you do your homework. Check for the symptoms of "app fever" - are you trying to impress donors or shortcut your way to scale? See if building on top of existing platforms could meet your needs. But if all you need is a ride to the grocery store or a restaurant review, don't worry, there's an app for that.

Follow us on Twitter @GoodWorldTech for updates on the changing landscape of "worker tech" and community relations in the digital age.

Good World Solutions is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.