Creating online communities to deliver development at scale

A young man uses a mobile phone in Cameroon. With the right skills and technology, the mobile web can build interactive and vibrant online communities, conduct meaningful dialogue, amplify voices, and mobilize movements for social good — all led by audiences in the “global south.” Photo by: Carsten ten Brink / CC BY-NC-ND

With a $2.5 trillion annual aid gap to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, innovation of all shapes and sizes is desperately needed. The story of Africa’s “leapfrogging” traditional fixed-line telecommunications in favor of cellular devices is well known. This year, the number of mobile phones in Africa is expected to reach 1 billion, a figure close to the continent’s entire population. That mass mobile penetration is also facilitating access to the World Wide Web for previously unconnected communities, with connectivity growing at 50 percent to 100 percent per year in most African countries through 3G and 4G networks. Connectivity is expected to rise twentyfold by the end of the decade.

The development sector is still grappling with how to best harness this hand-held technology to deliver impact at scale, measure the results and inform future decisions. Leaders and donors are converging around core principles for the best use of digital technologies to help shepherd the way.

And while the use of offline technologies such as SMS and Interactive Voice Recognition is well-documented, technologies that use the internet have the potential to take on the challenges of scale, cost and impact in exciting ways. But they are perceived to be out of reach for both program implementers and their beneficiaries.

Online communities succeed because they are designed to meet the needs of the end users who have:

A hunger to learn and to access clear, accurate and reliable information — in a language and tone they can relate to.

A need for a platform to share stories, have their opinions and experiences heard, and understand more about the opinions and experiences of others.

A desire for support and understanding — somewhere they can go to feel listened to, accepted, less isolated, and where they can also support and encourage others.

An accessible, affordable technical solution, wherever they are, whatever device they own.

Mobile-optimized websites offer reach and measurement opportunities with a depth of engagement and data capture that SMS and IVR simply can’t provide. They may not be as dazzling a prospect as an app, but they’re cheaper to build and maintain, and with a streamlined design that takes into account the existing barriers to access (small screen resolutions, basic devices, user data costs and low bandwidth environments) it’s possible to create a website that is genuinely accessible to millions.

With the right skills and technology, the mobile web can be used to build interactive and vibrant online communities to facilitate learning, conduct meaningful dialogue with beneficiaries, amplify voices, facilitate behavior change and mobilize movements for social good — all led by audiences in the “global south.”

We are in an unprecedented situation in the history of global development: by engaging with millions of people in a two-way conversation, we are taking steps towards making development more and more horizontal in its design and delivery.

There are no fixed guidelines for achieving this level of engagement through an online community, but there are processes, skills and tools to help to navigate the way. Here are four tips for creating online communities to deliver development at scale.

1. Building online communities needs to start with the end-users through human-centred design. This is simply a way of saying, do whatever it takes to get in front of beneficiaries and listen to them. Consulting with users from the outset and building iteratively with the user at the center of the process is crucial to getting it right — or at least failing fast and learning.

2. The application and design of the chosen technology needs to be fully sympathetic to the environment and target users. Underpinning E1M’s approach to building online communities is our platform, which compounds our experience in ICT4Dev in Africa. It’s optimized for low data usage, low-end devices and slow connections and includes a suite of modular tools to build vibrant, interactive communities at scale quickly.

3. The building never stops. Ongoing design and community management can’t be done in half-measures. Community managers are the heart of an online community, keeping it refreshed, engaging and user-centric, while focusing on specific program outputs. The voice and tone of the community should reflect that of the target audience.

4. Make sure the community is being discovered. A strategy to reach the audience is also central to success. Crucially, these online communities exist for the users, so make sure you integrate with popular instant messaging platforms or social media they’re already using, to create a digital thread throughout their day to day lives.

Online communities have the potential to serve as a platform to catalyze knowledge, as well as attitude and behavior change. By nurturing long-term engagement with users, mobile can also be used to build the resilience and skills that lead to real world actions and changes at scale. These communities can provide a direct, up-to-the-minute channel to the hearts of people’s daily lives and ensures that “nothing about us, without us” becomes a methodology, not an empty mantra.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Algy Williams

    Algy Williams is CEO of Every1Mobile which he established in 2010 having specialized in startups in emerging markets combining creative communications with technology. E1M is a mobile services and technology company specializing in ICT for development in emerging markets. The company works with international development agencies, business, NGOs and donors to achieve social change by building and running highly engaged online communities of interest and practice.