A cell phone message is a lot cheaper and easier to send than a Peace Corps volunteer.

That’s the motivation behind Scientific Animations Without Borders. Sending a video is cheap and can reach a huge audience very quickly via cell phones and email. Those videos can go viral and be spread by the people they are designed to inform without outside help from groups like the United States Agency for International Development or OXFAM.

The program was started by Scientific Animations Without Borders, a group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are building a library of these videos at the website SusDeViki.

“This is a very different paradigm from some other current development projects, where U.S.-based educators are flown to another part of the world, interact with people in the field for a few weeks to several months, and leave,” said University of Illinois entomology professor Barry Pittendrigh, a member of the team in a U of I press release.

“From a financial perspective, this is a much cheaper way to do international development,” Pittendrigh said.

Animations make for smaller files than live-action movies. So, they can be transmitted via cell phones and email.

Cell phone technology leap-frogged right over land lines in many developing nations. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s 2.4 billion cell phone users live in the developing world according to statistics published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

BLOG: Solar-Powered iPhones Around the Corner?

I remember from my service in the Peace Corps in Honduras that people in the most remote areas had cell phones. Even in areas where there was no electricity to charge them, people had cell phones and decent reception. They could be a lifeline if someone was injured.

Scientific Animations Without Borders could be a lifeline in many ways too. By providing people with information about how to improve crop yields, prevent insect pests, purify water, and avoid disease, the animations are a cheap and easy way to help work toward improving the lives of billions of struggling people.

BLOG: Poverty During Early Childhood May Last a Lifetime

For example, the first video demonstrated safe insect control methods using materials readily at hand in the developing world, such as plastic sheets, ashes, and plastic bags. The video was produced in cooperation with development workers and farmers in West Africa and the United States Agency for International Development.

Another shows farmers how to extract an insecticide from the Neem tree, Azadirachta indica. The drought tolerant tree, native to India, is now grown world-wide because of the cheap, human-safe pesticide it produces. I planted one in my backyard in Honduras.

“In Mali they are using this technique and it’s very effective, but in Burkina Faso, for example, there are not many people using this technique,” said team member Julia Bello-Bravo in the U of I press release.

“If we can show these animated videos in different parts of West Africa where this tree grows, we can get the information to many, many more people,” Bello-Bravo said.

Another video is being used to fight cholera in Haiti. It is available in English, French, and Haitian Creole.

To produce the videos, Scientific Animations Without Borders uses email to coordinate efforts between aid workers, farmers, entrepreneurs, and an animator to produce the content. The team then approves the content and creates two scripts, one for the narrator and one describing what the animation will show.

One very convenient feature of the videos is that since they are animations, they can easily be translated into different languages. Once the video is produced in one language, the audio script can be easily swapped for a different language.

Videos on the drawing board next include how to deal with bed bugs, lice, and malaria.

IMAGE 1: A cell phone ad in Kampala, Uganda (Wikimedia Commons)