Using mobile tools of today to build a healthier tomorrow


I quickly learned that texting is not just for teens anymore after doing a quick internet search on Google.  My eyes have been opened to a whole new world in which mobile technology is being used in the nonprofit, public health world – what an innovative way to use the tools of today to make a healthier tomorrow.

My Pinterest board just provides you with a glimpse of all the mobile technology applications that are being employed by nonprofits and public health organizations.

The Many Uses of Mobile Technology to Improve Health

I came across TOHealth a sexual health text messaging program for Toronto youth between the ages of 12 and 24.  The Toronto Public Health unit has established this text messaging campaign to provide medically sound and private advice which can be requested anytime by simply texting 365247 with sexual health-related inquiries.  A non-profit organization, ZERO TO THREE, has set up a text messaging campaign called Text4baby  which allows expecting mothers to receive free text messages per week from their due date until their baby’s first birthday.  It’s simple.  All mothers have to do is text 511411 to set up appointment reminders and services are available in English and Spanish.  I also came across a number of text-to-give campaigns and useful and interactive smart phone apps that can really help people to take more control over their health. One such example is the Public Health Agency of Canada’s smart phone app called ImmunizeCA which allows people to record and store vaccine information and also receive alerts about outbreaks in their area.  Here’s some screenshots from my own mobile device:

IMG_20150807_080337  IMG_20150807_080526  IMG_20150807_080646  IMG_20150807_080704

In the words of Heather Mansfield, in her book Social Media for Social Good:

The Mobile Web is full of promise and potential for social good.  It will connect communities worldwide in ways that the nonprofit sector has ever experienced or imagined.

What inspires me is that the nonprofit world as well as the research industry has made a smart decision to engage in the mobile web revolution to find ways to target people in need.  One area in which mobile technology has been particularly promising is highlighted in a recent article Innovative Use for Technology for HIV Prevention and Care: Evidence, Challenges and the Way Forward.  The authors, Young and Chiu, outline the topics that emerged from a conference hosted at the University of California, Los Angeles, in which interdisciplinary researchers, community practitioners, clinicians, policy makers, technologists, and representatives from governmental and funding agencies had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience in technology-based HIV prevention and care.  From their own experiences, they commented that there has been a great upward trend in the use of technology in HIV prevention and care research.   For example, social media and mobile technologies are being used by HIV researchers increasingly for the purposes of recruitment, interventions and data collection, especially due to the high usage of social media amongst at-risk populations.  This seems like a great opportunity to tap into an already organized social media community.

There are so many examples of the widespread use of mobile technologies for the prevention of HIV.  Two such mobile technology platforms “Young Africa Live” and “Cellphones for HIV” were launched by nonprofits (Praekelt Foundation and Cell Life, respectively) in Cape Town South Africa where HIV morbidity and mortality are amongst the highest in the world.  People living with HIV are able to receive and send text messages to receive information and develop a sense of community and furthermore, these nonprofits are able to send positive messages to people receiving HIV treatments (i.e. ART) to increase adherence and reduce loss-to-follow-up.  With over 500 million cell phones in use in Africa, mobile platforms have been recognized as a “gold mine” for HIV programming.  In the words of Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director:

We need nothing less than an HIV prevention revolution, with social media and mobile technology at its core.

You can read more about this in the feature story “Preventing HIV with social media and mobile phones” on the UNAIDS website.

HIV programming through mobile technology is also prevalent in the US.  One such example is the KNOWIT text messaging campaign, developed through a partnership between the US Human Health Services and the Kaiser Family Foundation.  Mobile phone users  are linked to the CDC’s HIV testing database when they text their zip code to “KNOWIT” (566948) to find the closest HIV testing clinic.

A growing niche for mobile technology use

So are you ready to make an investment in “Web 3.0” and take my nonprofit to the next level?  Well first of all, the good news is that the financial investment to launch a mobile-friendly website can be as low as $100 per web.  Heather Mansfield mentions 2 really cost-effective mobile content management systems (CMS) in her book Social Media for Social Good: MoFuse and Mobify.  (She also mentioned a third “ur mobile” but I was not able to find an active link to their website).  The niche market is growing as we speak.  And what I mean is this…


Yes that’s right…there was an estimated 270 million mobile phone users in North America in 2013 and this is only expected to grow!  And you’re not limited if your nonprofit is based in other parts of the world. In fact, you have an even larger niche market in Asia.  If these stats don’t do it for you, check these out:



I also found a great resource on the World Bank website to give you a glimpse of the increasing trends in subscriptions to mobile telephone services in various countries (particular some of the countries that my classmates live in).   Using the World Bank data tool, I was able to create a custom, interactive and dynanic graph such as this one:

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 2.10.03 PM

Click on this graph and it will take you directly to Wordbank’s website where you can click on certain datapoints and find out the number of mobile subscribers per 100 for any given year and for any country.  Interestingly, there was an estimated 96.3 mobile subscriptions per 100 people in the world in 2014.  And the averages are even higher in the US, Norway, UK and UAE.  Not surprising is it?

In closing…

Since there is such a large proportion of people using mobile phones across the globe, it seems natural to use this platform as the means to disseminate public health messages.  In fact, people’s expectations to be able to access information on the go is growing.  In addition, text messaging campaigns, as discussed in this blog and other great mobile technology applications such as text-to-give technology and smart phone apps can really improve the salience of your nonprofit organization and most importantly, provide the means to communicate with your target population using a more personal and customized approach.  I am convinced that we need to use the mobile tools of today to build a healthier tomorrow!


6 thoughts on “Using mobile tools of today to build a healthier tomorrow

  1. Shannon,
    I liked the graphics you used, particularly the Pinterest board, and I think you gave a very comprehensive summary of what is out there. I still find the whole process rather intimidating. You mentioned that it only costs $100 for a mobile-enabled website, but I noticed that the group text messaging sites charged per text. I wonder whether the campaigns have been cost effective.

    • Thanks for your comments Julie. I agree with you, the process does seem intimidating. However, I was just trying to take the stance of “take the leap of faith, you have nothing to lose, only gain” which is the kind of impression I got from the way Heather Mansfield discusses the adoption of Web 3.0 in her book. She makes it sound like it’s completely possible (and necessary given the widespread use of mobile phones), and that the financial investment is worth it. I guess the transition between the focus I had on text message campaigns to mobile-enabled websites might not have been entirely clear. So you’re right that I was quoting the ballpark figure of $100/year cost for creating a mobile-enabled website but I did not comment on the cost per texts that are sent from group text messaging sites. So I should have added that the cost for group text messaging services can be as low as $25-$50 per month (as Mansfield says in her book is the cost for simple platforms such as EZ texting, Group Texting and TextMarks). Still quite reasonable for nonprofits! Your question about whether text messaging campaigns have been cost-effective is a good one…I’m not sure if any formal cost-benefit analyses have been performed as yet, since this technology is still relatively “new” to some public health programs. It would definitely be worthwhile to find out if there’s an ROI for using group text messaging as part of a public health program (in terms of better health outcomes). I was alerted to an interesting blog post through my LinkedIn account which speaks to the “life-saving” properties of mobile technology in Ghana: This stuff is pretty exciting!

    • Shannon — LOVE the BIG DATA tables showing who’s doing what in the realm of mobile. They provide an excellent snapshot and grabbed me right away. The information you provided regarding Text Baby, TOHealth and Immunize CA was pivotal as I felt it truly drew your post gather with several concrete examples that have been tried and true. Nice post !

      • Thanks for your feedback Mark! I too loved the big data tables…I was quite fascinated with this tool that creates customizable graphs and datasets and was excited to see that you could look at historical data as well as quite recent figures about mobile usage per country. In general, I was blown away by all the interesting mobile technology applications that I uncovered while putting this post together so I guess I was just trying to find a way to incorporate as much information as possible here. I’m glad that you found the content engaging!

  2. Hey Shannon. Thanks for a great post! I really appreciated how you tied in statistics, graphs and this week’s readings – nice work! After reading Mansfield’s chapter, I did some more research on other books that would be helpful. I came across a book by Kanter and Fine “The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change” ( From my review, it seems that this book is focusing on exactly what you highlighted in your post “taking a leap of faith”. I like that it is focused specifically on non profits and provides valuable advice to organizations who are trying to engage the social media world. As you mentioned, hopefully more organizations will take advantage of the growing number of people using their phones and other social media devices to spread their messages.

    • Thanks for your feedback Luda! It’s a natural tendency for me to try to tie in statistics into my posts, I think it gives the content more depth and credibility. I think the infographics that I found are really great visual representations of the statistics. Thanks for sharing another great resource about using social media for nonprofits. I looked up some reviews on this book as well and overall, it seems very positive! It seems like these authors used a similar approach to Heather Mansfield in terms of providing a how-to guide with step-by-step instructions about various social media tools. I also think it’s important to consult more than one source so I’m glad that you’ve shed light on another great resource.

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