Mobile phones for development = grassroots innovations

7/20/2008 | Christian Kreutz

Recently, there seems to be a hype around mobile phones in developing countries. It is great to see the investments being made in mobile technology and communication. At the KM4DEV unconference Pete Cranston, Luca Servo  and I organized a little session around the potential of mobile phones for knowledge sharing. Obviously, mobile communication happens on a daily basis and already has a huge impact particularly in developing countries. Therefore, I am still eager to see what else will come in the foreseeable future.

In a recent article the New York Times went further by asking, "Can the cellphone help end global poverty?" It also described what a big difference a mobile phone could make:

“It’s really quite striking,” Hammond says. “What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications.” Over several years, his research team has spoken to rickshaw drivers, prostitutes, shopkeepers, day laborers and farmers, and all of them say more or less the same thing: their income gets a big boost when they have access to a cellphone.

During the session we also collected various examples, which I categorized as the following:

I find mobile communications particularly promising because most ideas can and will be developed by the users themeselves, as well as being embedded in the local context. The NYT article also gives some nice examples:

One Liberian refugee wanted to outfit a phone with a land-mine detector so that he could more safely return to his home village. In the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, people sketched phones that could forecast the weather since they had no access to TV or radio. Muslims wanted G.P.S. devices to orient their prayers toward Mecca. Someone else drew a phone shaped like a water bottle, explaining that it could store precious drinking water and also float on the monsoon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one designer drew a phone with an air-quality monitor. Several women sketched phones that would monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. Another designed a “peace button” that would halt gunfire in the neighborhood with a single touch.

Projects, such as Android, promised to have an open operation system on mobile phones, so own applications for specific needs can be developed and in a free open source fashion developed worldwide jointly by programmers. Twitter is a good example to show the ubiquitous of future web applications connected to mobile phones. Benedikt Foit writes about a new report from the W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium) Mobile Web Initiative and Mobile Web for Social Development (MW4D). Two findings are particular interesting:

  • Mobile phones should be considered as an access mechanism, where mobile browsing is one way to access the content, but using Voice applications (through e.g. voiceXML) is another way, and SMS could be a third option. All of these options should be considered as different delivery channels of Web content. Using the Web as a repository of information could leverage replication and cross-fertilization between different projects by offering visibility.
  • Key barrier for having useful and relevant content is lack of local expertise to develop these. Empower local actors to become mobile service providers (technical knowledge, entrepreneurship and business models).

We also discussed during the session the different challenges such as equality, prices, the interface, energy, language and illiteracy rate among others. In that concern, an interesting project in India shows "while village textual literacy rates are low, visual and oral expression thrive." The StoryBank project uses mobiles to share stories in an Indian village and underlines the potential for knowledge sharing through digital storytelling.

A village committee decides what kind of programmes to make and volunteers from the village, mainly women, undertake to research and record news items on health, education, farming and other topics that are broadcast alongside devotional music and public service announcements.

Lastly, Dr. Gary Marsden describes the changes through mobile social networking from South Africa with a fascinating example from collaborating children:

Most school-children in South Africa use a system called "MXit" MXit is a basic Internet chat application for the mobile phone, and five million people use it; because in South Africa, the cost of sending a single character via MXit is one ten-thousandth of the cost of sending a single character via SMS.  For two rand a day, less than 20p, these kids can stay all day on MXit, despite the fact that it has a terrible user interface that the likes of us wouldn't put up with.

Many of the schools have banned use of MXit.  But Gary and his colleagues discovered that the kids use MXit to do their homework collaboratively.  Therefore, they added functionality to the MXit system, having reverse-engineered the protocol, and added these features and functions into some of the chatrooms. The kids loved it.  Remember, they have no Internet access.  They added an equation-solver, for solving quadratic and linear equations, and an interface to Wikipedia.

No surprise the MIT started an initiative called for the next billion mobile phone users:

Within the next three years, another billion people will begin to make regular use of cell phones, continuing the fastest adoption of a new technology in history. Soon, this next billion will make their voice heard—and connect to the global information network.