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Global gadgets, small-town churches: Using the latest technology at home

By Laurens Glass*

At the 2015 Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, the latest in information and communications technology was on display and the global applications were evident. 3-D printers can reproduce objects like medical supplies in minutes, cutting the cost and delivery time dramatically. Surveillance video from a drone can warn a village of approaching armed forces, and solar devices, portable servers and drinking filters all demonstrated how technology can improve the quality of life for people in developing countries.

So, can a local church use the latest technology for their programs at home? Can small parishes make a difference for the underserved without spending a lot of money? The answer is yes.

Mobile Money

According to Lauren Woodman, CEO for NetHope and a speaker at the summit, an estimated 2.5 billion people do not have access to financial services, often because they lack access to banks or the Internet. New mobile phone apps like Google Wallet or Western Union are making it possible for “poor” but working people to save and transfer money, granting them privacy and security through a phone.

For faith-based and non-profit organizations doing mission work in other countries, mobile money applications mean workers don’t have to carry large amounts of money on their person. Money can be utilized at the point of purchase and, as Woodman noted, it can be tracked digitally. Even if you don’t sponsor projects overseas, mobile money apps could be useful for fund-raising events or if you partner with a local organization like a women’s shelter and need to move money securely.

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Recipients of solar lights in the Philippines smile during distribution of supplies after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by April Mercado, United Methodist Communications..

Let there be llight

Solar-powered devices were some of the favorite new gadgets at the summit’s technology fair. Portable lights such as the Huron provide off-grid lighting and phone charging in remote areas, and as Director of Network Security for United Methodist Communications, John Fusco puts it, “the same tech that works in remote areas around the world, would work in rural areas in the U.S.” He noted that the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas uses solar devices in disaster relief at home.

A solar light might be a great investment for congregations that sponsor camps or overnight activities like hiking trips. At $40, buying a light or two for a hospital or school in a developing country is a reasonable donation even for a small church. During the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Special Projects Manager Philippines April Mercado used solar lights in relief efforts – some of them donated by church members from the U.S. The Light-A-Life 350 LED light is another option.

Feel the Power

Some of the most powerful images during the summit (no pun intended) were of people who came up with ingenious ways of creating, well, power: a man who charges his cell phone while riding his bicycle; children who built a urine-powered generator to keep the lights on at their school. Not having access to renewable power was a recurring theme.

The $400 Goal Zero Sherpa 50 Solar Recharging Kit and Power Inverter offers a versatile “go-anywhere power source” that charges devices such as laptops, tablets, e-readers and smartphones. Power packs can store 50 watt-hours of power and hold a full charge for up to 8 months. The Sherpa 100 Solar Kit provides even more power for only $200 more. Is your church in a remote area? Do you do you have VIMs who work overseas or in outlying areas of your own community? A backup source of power might be a good investment.

Raspberry Pi and other small, tasty computers

This credit card-sized computer, designed by a non-profit for the advancement of education, got a lot of attention at the summit for its low cost and power-efficiency. As did the Aleutia, a compact, book-like PC that, according to Matt Crum, technology manager at UMCOM, does not have the moving parts that make larger computers susceptible to dust, and is lightweight and easy to transport -- a great advantage in the field.

Did we mention the cost? With prices averaging $35 to $150, the new mini-computers (and there are many to choose from) allow you to access your files and work from a satellite office for a lot less than buying a laptop or second PC. The minis can’t do what a large computer with a DVD drive can do, and you will need a keyboard and monitor, but imagine adding a second computer to your program for under a $100? The fact that they’re more “green” is just one more reason to feel good about buying one.

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Children hold LifeStaw personal water filters. Photo courtesy of LifeStraw..

LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

Named as a Time Magazine “Best Invention of the Year” winner, this personal water filter has been used in developing countries to assist with the United Nations’ goals for clean drinking water. The LifeStraw is also used for emergency preparedness for campers and hikers, or by travelers who do not want to rely on the quality of local water. The lightweight compact straw is $20 and would be a great purchase for people in areas without access to clean water.

For information about donating these or other items to a worthy organization or project, you may contact Neelley Hicks, Director of ICT4D Church Initiatives.

Welcome to the Outernet

Eighty percent of humanity does not have access to the wealth of free information available online. Thane Richard, CEO of Outernet, is working to change that. Using a satellite signal, the company can beam data into remote areas where there is no Internet or it’s censored by the government. Subscribers need only a satellite dish and a receiver to download free online collections like Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and much more.

While this may seem like an application for a remote corner of the world, it’s worth noting that this technology works anywhere. Is your town is too small to have a library? Do you work with children in programs without access to the Internet? You can request books on any subject, in any language and at any educational level, not to mention classics and theological texts. You will need a computer or hard drive for storage but otherwise the cost of the receiver and satellite dish is minimal. Think how expensive 50,000 books would be!

Text Messaging – Communications when all else fails

As a child growing up in England, keynote speaker Ken Banks felt called to make a positive difference in the world. He developed a simple text messaging system called FrontlineSMS that works on the most basic of mobile phones. This “short message service” was used by The United Methodist Church to send texts about prevention during the Ebola crisis and is used as an alert system to combat human trafficking in vulnerable communities.

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A 3D printer creates plastic parts from a computer file during the United Methodist Communications Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

For a local church, setting up a list of cell phone numbers with an application like Frontline SMS or TextIt is a great way to reach everyone in your congregation in the event of an emergency. Because you can use text messaging with just a cellular (satellite) connection, if your parish does mission work overseas, it would be an efficient way to reach volunteers on the ground. Are there other applications that would help your church communicate to a group of people beyond the range of Internet or landlines?

It’s a Two-way Technology Street

Attending this year’s Game Changers Summit was eye-opening. It’s easy to think technology is not as important as the basics of food, water and shelter until you hear first-hand accounts of how it saved lives and changed futures. And, while some of the more expensive items like the 3-D printer might not be within your church’s budget, learning about these technologies opens your mind to the possibilities. The main takeaway from the 2015 Game Changers Summit? That in any form of communication, the human element is the most important factor of all -- and that technology is free.

*Laurens Glass is a writer and content manager for, website for United Methodist Communcations. She may be reached at

Top image shows Matt Crum of United Methodist Communications demonstrating a solar battery charger during the agency's Game Changers Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.