How can think tanks take advantage of mobile data?

15 May 2012

This month’s Alaska Airlines Magazine features an article on mobile technologies applied to research, showing the advances made on data collection on real time, highlighting the ever-shrinking costs of using new technologies, added to widely extended mobile networks around the world, even in developing countries. The author, Dayton Fandray, follows the development of hardware adapted for mobile technology and their use on research. Matthew McKown, a researcher at the Coastal Conservation Action Lab at UCSC who works with Nexleaf Analytics, a non-profit organization that develops mobile sensing technology, in a seabird conservation project:

We went with the mobile phones for a number of reasons. One, they are a mass-produced consumer report (…); they are power-efficient, user friendly and pretty rugged. Capabilities of mobile phones will continue to increase and prices will continue to go down. So we’re getting better answers and reducing costs

These tools have been gradually embraced by scientific and medical academia, the marketing industry as well as development projects, but also are being increasingly used by think tanks for collecting data. Mobile data collecting software is flourishing, with many platforms developed for tasks like surveys, documentation and real-time information.

Clear advantages on using mobile data collection for think tanks include extending the geographic reach of studies to areas that are difficult to cover with traditional methods and safer data transportation, but the most important aspect is real-time work. Global Pulse is an UN-affiliated initiative founded in 2009 by the Secretary-General that intends to impulse mobile technology as a mean of collecting information leading to a better public policy building and more effective and immediate responses to challenges. Global Pulse, which incorporates private actors, partnered in 2010 with, a network promoting social development through mobile technologies, to develop an inventory on mobile data collection projects; mostly on agriculture, health and electoral processes. Global Pulse frequently works through partnerships with specialized teams and organisations, a model that could be followed by think tank for specific subjects.

Undoubtedly, the most important use think tanks could give to mobile technology nowadays is to communicate and interact with users through apps. Mobile apps are increasingly specialised, and the most important think tanks are already launching them, replacing somehow conventional websites. Although think tanks and public policy planning don’t need as many gadgets as natural sciences or medicine research, they could use more cloud computing tools, to which mobile phones and accessories can connect. According to Nick Scott on innovations in internal communications:

Internal communications are becoming harder to sustain, as remote working becomes more common. It is a paradox that increased opportunities for long-distance external communication brought about by the internet are feeding increased internal disconnection.

Another challenge for mobile data as a work tool is its acceptance by the institutions, which may rather prefer other means that work well for them. According to Enrique Mendizabal:

many think tanks are already very successful at communicating with their main audiences. (…) Not ‘doing digital’ (as a proxy of not trying new approaches) often has more to do with a decision to keep doing what works rather than ignorance.

There’s still a long road toward ‘going digital’, and it is starting by its internal and external communications.