Google has launched a number of SMS based search and trade services for the African market this week with Uganda being the first to have it available.

In developing countries such as Uganda many people have cellphones and no computers (mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration) meaning that the phone is their only source for information. In Africa, one-third of the population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one.

The reason for using SMS is simple, the majority of phones are low-end and only have the capability of voice and SMS which means the usual methods of searching for information need to be rethought.

The services available are (these links have working demos online, try them out!!):

Google SMS Search – Text your search query to Google and get back information

Google SMS Trader – An SMS marketplace where buyers and sellers can interact

Google SMS Tips is a query and answer service which includes the following

Google SMS Health TipsGoogle SMS Health Tips

Find tips on sexual & reproductive health (family planning, maternal & child health, HIV/AIDS, STI/STDs, sexuality)

Google SMS: ClinicFinderGoogle SMS: ClinicFinder

Use ClinicFinder to find a clinic near you, the clinic’s telephone number and services offered.

Google SMS: Farmer’s FriendGoogle SMS: Farmer’s Friend

Get access to weather forecasts and critical agriculture information, such as tips on planting, pest management and disease control.(Targeted at farmers to help improve their livelihood)

Understanding the day to day needs of the people using these phones is just as important as developing the technology. Check out this great video by Application Laboratory (AppLab) who are working with Google to make this project happen. It shows AppLab ‘Rapid Prototyping’ which is explained as:

In rapid prototyping, researchers travel to the field and offer a “live” service. Researchers select random users and observe and record end-users’ experiences from their introduction to the service to their reaction upon receiving information. The insights gained during rapid prototyping inform the design of the most useful and appropriate mobile services for Uganda and the queries captured during rapid prototyping serve as an input in product engineering.

This is basically consumer research and testing in overdrive. I imagine in Uganda it would be difficult to conduct closed consumer testing groups like the ones you see in UK so going out in the field with demos is the only option. Assessing the needs of the rural communities and testing in this way means you can get to the pain points quickly and feedback is instant.

It’s so interesting seeing how mobile phones are being used to improve peoples lives. Queries such as ‘When is it going rain?’ or ‘Where is the nearest clinic?’ can all be answered via SMS without the user needing a Internet connection.

You could even use SMS to feed information to a in-built application on the phone, there are so many possibilities if you think creatively and understand the needs of the target market.

The service doesn’t just give you back a list of links which would be useless for many, it actually tries to work out the answer and return a relevant answer. Think of AQA but completely automated.

Using technology to help those in poverty is only a good thing, last year The Guardian reported on a SMS campaign in South Africa called Project Masiluleke which aimed to increase awareness of HIV and Aids. In trials millions of free text messages were sent out everyday urging people to call a confidential phone line if they had any concerns about HIV or Aids.

The results were immediate with the number of calls to the country’s National AIDS Helpline increasing four-fold. In a country where infection rates are 11% across the country and 90% of people carry a mobile phone it seems obvious to utilise the power of mobile to drive awareness on large scale.

Hats off to Google!