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Smartphone Library – An innovation to bridge the digital divide in the COVID-19 pandemic

Jun 4 2021 / Posted in Adolescence

- Vinita Ajgaonkar, Research Consultant and Mitchelle Dsouza, ICT Consultant from EHSAS (Empowerment, Health and Sexuality of Adolescents), SNEHA


Urban informal communities were among the hardest hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. EHSAS (Empowerment, Health and Sexuality of adolescents), a programme at SNEHA (Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action), works with young people from these communities to improve their health and wellbeing. Since the lockdown prevented in-person interventions, the programme strategised to connect with the tech-friendly target group through smartphones. Most of the programme activities were conducted online. Individual and Group education sessions were conducted using Google Meet and WhatsApp calls. Participants were supported to prepare audio podcasts and video clips relevant to the programme, which were circulated to other young people in the community through WhatsApp.

A major drawback of this strategy was that not all participants owned or could access smartphones. The younger adolescents would use phones belonging to their parents, which became increasingly unavailable as the lockdown was lifted and parents started going out to work. Smartphones were usually shared between siblings, and participants often had to miss programme sessions because a sibling had to use the phone to attend online school or tuition classes. In some families there was not even a shared  smartphone, and some could not afford to pay for data packs and recharge.

To overcome this challenge, the EHSAS Programme came up with a solution - A 'smartphone library' from which participants could 'borrow' a smartphone as and when required from a smartphone volunteer living in the area. Since programme activities were conducted at different times for different groups of participants, a single phone would enable many to access those.


The following are our learnings during and after the implementation of this idea:


Better to buy new than use old:
The initial idea of starting a drive to collect refurbished smartphones was soon dropped after realising that not all the refurbished smartphones collected would be in state suitable for re-use and repairs would be expensive.

Persistence pays:

A brand that had initially promised money for 500 smartphones could donate only Rs. 12,000. Undeterred, other donors were sought and Rs. 2,50,000 was raised to buy new smartphones. With a cost of Rs. 7,800 per smartphone, this was enough to purchase 30 smartphones, along with purchase of and recharge costs for SIM cards.

Innovation can balance needs and resources:

With 30 phones and 350 needy participants, sharing phones through a 'smartphone library' was the only plausible solution. The urban informal communities that EHSAS works with are spread over a considerable area. Accessing a central smartphone library from far-flung clusters within each community was difficult for our youth. To address this, we developed multiple 'libraries' in the form of volunteers living in different areas in these communities as custodians of the smartphones.  The participants would take the phone from them at the time of a session, and return it after the session was over.

Selection of volunteers is crucial:

Volunteers mostly comprised local SNEHA staff. Some older participants who actively participated in  programme activities and had demonstrated a sense of responsibility, as well as parents who empathised with the aim of the programme were also approached to be volunteers.

Encrypting library protocols is important to build ownership:

The volunteers were asked to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with protocols for management and maintenance of the smartphones as well as rules for borrowing and lending clearly outlined. Since lending and borrowing smartphones would involve physical contact, the protocols incorporated COVID-19 related safety precautions. The volunteers were trained on these protocols. They, along with the young participants, were also trained on digital and cyber safety. Volunteers were given a register to maintain entries of participants borrowing the smartphone. It was made clear that they would be responsible for the safekeeping of the phone and should impress upon the users the need for careful usage.

The smartphones were to be returned to the centre once a month to be checked for any damages and subsequent repair by the programme. It was emphasised that in case the smartphone was damaged or lost, the volunteers would have to write an explanation about the incident. In case of damage, the phone would be returned to the programme and a decision to give the phone back to the volunteer would be taken after a review. In case of theft, the volunteer would have to file a complaint at the local police station. The idea of making the volunteers pay a fine for any loss or damage to the phone was dropped after realising that this would discourage them from volunteering.

Equipment needs to match requirement:

The programme opted to buy a post-paid data plan, with an everyday rechargeable data pack of 2 GB so that the multiple users of the phone will have continued internet access. The programme staff created unique e-mail address to download relevant apps such as Zoom, Google Meet and WhatsApp. The ready-to-use phones were then handed over to the volunteers.

Regular supervision is essential:

A few of the young volunteers used the smartphone as their asset, refusing to let any other participant borrow it. Also, some parent volunteers were overzealous in executing their responsibility, "I call these girls home, make them sit in front of me, and let them attend the session". In this arrangement, with the parent overlooking the session, open discussions during sessions on sensitive subjects such as gender and sexual health would prove impossible. Regular supervision and meetings were held with the volunteers to address such issues along the way.

Analysis and feedback of interventions can strengthen a programme:

Mostly girls, not boys, were found to require smartphones, furbishing evidence of gender discrimination at home the programme aims to address. A qualitative enquiry revealed users' satisfaction with the improved access to programme sessions. The protocols were followed and the users as well as the volunteers were careful with the phones. Group processes, as important as the content of the group education sessions, were enabled by the shared use of smartphones. "After the session all of us discuss what we learnt. When I started using this facility, my greatest joy was that I was able to attend the sessions as part of a group", said Vivek, a smartphone user. These smartphones also enabled adolescents' access to education, as reported by Roshani, "I and my siblings use the phone that SNEHA has given me for studies when required". These findings were used to pitch for more donations to get more smartphones, to be distributed to volunteers in each lane of the community and improve the programme outreach during the pandemic.

Assets need to have multiple, long-term uses:

In a post-pandemic situation, the smartphones would be available for participants not having access to smartphones/laptops but desirous to learn courses such as mobile phone photography, film-making or blog writing. These could be used by the participants to video/photo document their civic initiatives to improve awareness and health outcomes in their community.


Thus the smartphone library, which ensured seamless delivery of the programme interventions to young people in vulnerable urban communities, could become a way to bridge the digital divide in India, in the current pandemic situation and beyond.