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UNICEF?s mobile abstinence app boosts clean-water project by meeting a need

NEW YORK ? An executive from UNICEF at Mobile Commerce Daily?s fifth annual Nonprofit Mobile Day said a new application encouraging users to break the mobile habit as a way to donate clean water was used 2 million times in its first 10 days, pointing to the power of addressing a need on mobile.

During the "UNICEF: Leveraging New Mobile-First Business Models Today, Designing for a Post-Mobile World Tomorrow," the executive talked about Tap Project, which focuses on clean water, and a beta version of a mobile Web app launched in late February that asked users to not use their mobile phone for 10 minutes as a way to donate a glass of clean water to a child in need. The app quickly gained traction, with users spending an average of 38 minutes with UNICEF via the brand-sponsored app.

?We spent a lot of time to identifying the need,? said Rajesh Anandan, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and UNICEF Ventures at UNICEF USA, New York. ?We are all hooked on our phones but we all yearn to disconnect from it.

?The idea resonated in testing so we launched a simple Web app,? he said. ?It challenges you to see how long you can go without your phone.?

?We somehow stumbled upon on how do we get people to take time out of their day to understand the Tap Project." 

Nonprofit Mobile Day, a conference owned by Mobile Commerce Daily parent Napean LLC, was co-presented with the Direct Marketing Association.

Engaging mobile experiences
The Tap Project is seeing better engagements since evolving from analog to digital to social to mobile. The seven-year-old program is designed to get the American public to understand the value of clean water given that 6 million people around the world do not have access to it.

After initial efforts focused on restaurants and, later, on Facebook failed to generate the kind of engagement the nonprofit was hoping for, it shifted its focus to mobile and has seen a significant jump in performance as a result. 

When it comes to creating engaging mobile experiences for the American population, UNICEF is considering how active teenagers are smartphones for shorter interactions. This presents challenges when it comes to creating content for this audience that can be consumed in shorter spurts of time.

UNICEF has begun to address the needs of mobile users by creating a native mobile site. The mobile site had a big impact for the organization, and in a month resulted in an increase in the time people were spending with the organization online and decreasing bounce rates. The site doubled the engagement rates, which translates to more volunteer sign-ups and more donations. 

Trick or treat
UNICEF is similarly trying to use mobile to drive engagements with its Halloween program. Initial efforts have been less-than-stellar, with 2,000 people using an upload-your-costume app.

Building from that experience, UNICEF is testing a couple of different ideas that would enable children and their parents to engage for brief periods of time throughout the month of October.

?We are trying to understand what is the role of mobile and how can the idea of trick or treating for UNICEF evolve in a world where children have access to smartphones and spend a lot of time with them,? Mr. Anandan said.

?We are testing  on a small scale how can we create bite-sized experiences,? he said. ?A few seconds experience instead of a few minutes, that is where we think consumption experiences are headed.? 

Meaningful communication
The nonprofit is also starting to crack the code on how to leverage mobile to drive meaningful communication strategies in developing countries.

UNICEF built a SMS platform for developing countries that having an impact on a wide range of social issues, from helping citizens have a say in the legislation that impacts them to improving birth registration rates.

UNICEF operates in 190 countries around the world, advocating for the protection of children's rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. 

Increasingly, that work requires that the charity is more current with gathering and disseminating information, ideally in real-time, as well as being more precise in its solutions. Mr. Anandan said mobile is playing a key role in realizing both goals.

In developing countries, UNICEF focuses on feature phones as smartphone penetration is still around 20 percent in many of these places. Despite this, users are very active on their mobile phones.

Rapid SMS
A key measure to success for UNICEF is measuring the mortality rate for infants under five-years old. While the rate has been dropping even as the world population is growing, the nonprofit is looking to accelerate this rate and, to do so, it realizes it needs to be more current in the information it gathers and disseminates, with some of the information up to four years old.

To address this need, UNICEF has built an open-source data information gathering, dissemination and analytics program called RapidSMS, which is being used for a wide range of services, from monitoring the delivery of supplies to delivering quizzes for education.

For example, in Nigeria, where five years ago 40 percent of children were not registered, denying them access to healthcare, education, jobs or a passport, UNICEF deployed RapidSMS to address this issue. Working with local governments, the solution enabling births to be registered. A mobile app layered on top created visibility and transparency, enabling users to see how their local civil services office was doing in registering births.

Last year, two years into the program, every single birth was registered.

The key to the success of the program was that it leveraged features phone, per Mr. Anandan. 

Legislative impact
In Africa, the platform takes the form of U-report, which sends out questions related to topical legislative issues so that citizens can weigh in with their opinion.

The strategy is even having an impact on what legislation is being enacted.

For example, one question delivered via the platform asked users if they think elementary schools should have corporal punishment. Ninety percent responded ?no,? and within two weeks there was legislation on the books banning corporal punishment.

It took a year for the program to reach 150 million subscribers but not the rate is growing quickly, with questions averaging a 35 percent response rate.

The success of the program speaks to how powerful it is when nonprofits can pair mobile with a need their audience has. 

UNICEF continues to improve the platform. For example, it worked with its partners to write a better algorithm so it can better understand the meaning of messages as they come in so they can be prioritized.

In Uganda, every parliamentarian is on U-report, using it to poll their citizens about how they should vote on a topic.

Going forward, UNICEF believes wearables will continue to drive shorter engagement opportunities, per Mr. Anandan. With this in mind, the nonprofit is experimenting with heads-up displays in emergency situations so that users can detect safe water just by looking at it, for example. The challenge is that there is often no Internet connection in remote areas.

The nonprofit is also  looking at drones as  a way to deliver packages quickly to people in remote areas similar to what Amazon is exploring.  

Another mobile offering in the works is an activity-tracking device expected to launch next year and at a price point that will make it widely accessible.

 ?We can?t just deploy apps,? Mr. Anandan said. ?We have to look at  what is the consumer need and how can we solve it.

?In Africa, there is a need for the young to have a voice and to participate in the policies that were affecting them,? he said.

Final Take
Rajesh Anandan is senior vice president of strategic partnerships and UNICEF Ventures at UNICEF USA, New York