On the Many Manifestations of “Mobile Justice”

I’ve been thinking about mobile justice for about a year now.

The notion, as I have come to understand it, is as follows: as in the examples of mobile health or mobile banking, perhaps mobile technologies could be harnessed to increase citizen access to justice and to improve the public administration of justice.  It’s a topic that is both old (legal informatics practitioners have been using electronic case databases for years now, in many places) and new (virtual courts in Kenya use video teleconference technology to pipe in a judge, live and direct, to your locality).  I can point to examples that use satellite video link, radio, SMS forms, and live web-streaming.  I can come up with cases in India, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States.  Taking into consideration the differences in objectives, geography, technology, and scope, these examples seem to form an emerging field of practice.

A kindly commentor on mobile justice recently offered the following simple but honest question: if you were to ask the people who were implementing mobile justice projects how they would characterize their work, would they all identify with the term “mobile justice?”  Honest answer: probably not.

The picture above is an example of the “probably not” scenario.  It depicts a poster on the back of a truck in Accra, Ghana.  The poster reads:


Confidential information hotline

Call MTN short code


Kill crime before it kills you!

MTN is a multi-country mobile network operator in West Africa, and the toll-free short code described is a number that anybody can call to report a crime to the police or get information about crime-related issues. It launched in 2009 and is similar to the “911” system, which in the United States is a free, government number used by citizens to summon the police.  In Ghana, MTN owns just over 50 percent of the mobile operator market, followed by Millicom/Tigo at 20 percent and Bharti Airtel at 10 percent.

The Ghanaian short-code is offered as a free service of MTN — and according to the company’s CEO, has been made available as an example of MTN’s responsibility to social welfare and local community development.  Whereas the 911 system is coordinated solely by government actors in the U.S., it is the mobile operator that is really best enabled to provide this crime-fighting service in Ghana.

This brings up interesting questions about the emerging role of private actors in resourcing public activities — to what extent will governments be able to rely on private actors for the provision of these services?  How do we navigate the murky waters of conflict-of-interest (for example, what if I reported a crime committed by an MTN employee using the MTN short-code)?  And will these activities remain sustainable for telecom industries that are (necessarily) concerned with connecting people to their technologies?

All of these questions bring us back to my original probe: is this short-code a manifestation of “mobile justice?”

It is, effectively, a way for citizens to access the processes of justice more easily — and it also has the potential to provide data that can help the Ghana Police Service more accurately track crime and crime reporting.  (Although it appears that there have been some problems with serial “fake callers” — and in the coming days, I hope to get more information about outcomes two years after the launch.  Stay tuned …)

But it is also just “good business practice” or a “public-private partnership” or my favorite, plain ol’ “common sense.”   Call it what you will, the short-code example is part of a set of evolving, tech-fueled trends in judicial innovation, in corporate social responsibility, and in government-industry partnerships.  I think we should ultimately let the practitioners decide for themselves whether their activities are all part of some larger whole — and why that larger body of work is meaningful and important for the future.

This post is by Reboot associate Kate Krontiris. Kate is currently in Ghana developing the mobile justice portfolio for Google Ideas, a new think/do tank at Google.

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