If you paid even a little attention to this year’s presidential campaigns, you probably noticed talk of President-elect Obama’s unprecedented use of text-message updates to communicate with voters.  Thousands of miles away in South Africa, health workers aren’t far behind as they find new ways to maximize cell phone technology in getting the word out about HIV/AIDS.

A collabwoman_cellphone_07orative effort between iTeach, the Praekelt Foundation, frog design, Nokia Siemens Networks, and the National Geographic Society, Project Masiluleke will reach one million South Africans daily with information about HIV/AIDS testing and counseling services around the country.  With nearly 6 million people infected with HIV, South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world.  Yet, talking about AIDS is still so uncommon that only 5% of the population has been tested, despite the widely available testing and even free treatment.  On the flipside, close to 90% of South Africa has a cell phone.  During a three-week usability experiment in October, Project Masiluleke increased average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johannesburg by almost 200%!

But South Africa isn’t the only one to catch onto this social innovation.  BBC World Service Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation are backing a three-year massive ringtone campaign (be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page and listen!) in India in an attempt to make condom use more socially acceptable.  The acapella ringtone currently gets around 5,000 downloads a day and, —in conjunction with tv, radio, and print adds— is anticipated to reach roughly 52 million Indian men.

With 4 billion users worldwide, cell phones holders are five times more prevalent than owners of a personal computer.  As such, they are becoming and increasingly popular topic of discussion as a tool for development.  Last month, USAID launched a new open source challenge to explore the potential of mobile phone applications connecting people in developing countries to key resources in health, banking, education, agricultural trade, or other pressing development issues.  Winners will be awarded between $5,ooo and $1o,ooo and the opportunity to share their idea with potential investors.

So while many of us may have resigned ourselves to the irrelevance of unsolicited and automatically generated messages, could text messages and ringtones really be the key to ending the aids pandemic?  Probably not in isolation, but they are proving to be a clever tool in reaching otherwise inaccessible or overlooked portions of the population.

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