We at engageSPARK are passionate about mobile (“m”), big data, and the opportunities that technology brings to community programs and the developing world. But there are possibilities for unintended – sometimes grave – consequences of this integration.

Jenny Adlem discusses one in her article about an mHealth campaign in Uganda that seems to have accidentally increased risky sexual behavior among its participants. And in addition to pitfalls related to privacy, big data can open the doors to mass “false positives.” Both collection and distribution of big data is bound to be littered with intentional and/or unintentional bias.

So where is the balance?

In his article, Success In mHealth: Shifting Focus From The ‘m’ To The ‘Health’, Dr. Alain Labrique suggests to readers that a key to innovative mobile health campaigns might lie in not trying to be so innovative.

Labrique references impressive reductions in rates of stillbirth and neonatal and perinatal mortality as a result of mHealth campaigns in the Middle East. He says, “These are achieved not by new vertical programs, but through strategies that focus on the quality and coverage of what we know works.” A campaign for mHealth might utilize a cutting edge algorithm, but in the end, the impact that matters is the impact on health.

Labrique suggests three ways that “m” can be used as a tool without unnecessarily becoming the center of attention:

  • Improving frontline health worker efficiency through simple work planning and scheduling tools,
  • Improving system accountability and service equity by identifying and acting on identified lapses in antenatal or postnatal care, and
  • Allowing families in crisis to notify and receive timely care where and when it is most needed.

Fortunately, this approach can actually make the lives of tech entrepreneurs easier. NGOs and local government groups that have been on the ground working with health care workers have already been intimately engaged with “end users:” both the workers themselves and the community members receiving aid. Instead of being the primary inventers, designers, trainers, and monitors, tech entrepreneurs in the social development sphere can – and in most cases should – rely on the existing wealth of experience and opportunity to help them be most effective.

Obviously, this is much easier said than done. As Sunny Yang pointed out, it’s critical to diligently and continuously learn about (and from) your users when designing for an NGO, a principle we’ve tried hard to follow in building engageSPARK. Sunny further mentioned the dangers of “self design,” “genius design,” and “activity focused design” – techniques that are often used because they are easy and fast.

The all-too-common tendency of human beings to assume that “what works for me should work for you” is another problem. It takes a lot more time and patience to work with an NGO or local government group as a partner than it would to just crunch a lot of statistics and design a project that “should” work.

But Labrique thinks that approach – learning from knowledgeable, experienced partners and creating technology to work alongside and with such partners – is absolutely key. That way, the most can be made of technologies and “m.” Instead of creating a flood of risks and failures – resulting in deserved skepticism and slow acceptance – this approach could let “m” reach out a hand in partnership to “health,” and ultimately turn it into a helping hand for all of global health.