Mobile phones have changed the technology landscape and international development in ways never imagined before. In 1984, an Apple Macintosh with an 8 MHz CPU and 128 k RAM cost $2495. The 16.5 lbs behemoth however cannot hold a candle to 2009’s iPhone with 16-32 GB which costs $250 and weighs a measly 4.8 oz (0.3 lbs). From text messaging to cameras, from GPS and location-awareness to MP3 players, the device continues to shrink even as its capabilities expand.
We at WLP have experienced not only the high adoption of mobile technologies but are also witnessing first-hand how it is surpassing personal computers as the communication and connectivity device of choice. Here is a sample of a handful of WLP partner countries that proves the point (and note that cell phones are far newer than personal computers and internet):
|Afghanistan||4.9 mil+ (15%)||580,000+ (1.8%)|
|Bahrain||1 mil+ (144%)||250,00+ (34.8%)|
|Egypt||25 mil+ (33%)||6 mil+ (8.3%)|
|India||441 mil+ (38%)||42 mil+ (3.7%)|
|Iran||40 mil+ (40%)||23 mil+ (34.9%)|
|Morocco||20 mil+ (66%)||4.6 mil+ (15.1%)|
|Nigeria||49 mil+ (35%)||10 mil+ (7.2%)|
It is these trends that led WLP to partner with Center for Internet & Society, MobileActive.org, and Mobile Monday, Bangalore to organize the first ever Mobile Technology 4 Social Change Camp in India (in Bangalore on Sep 4, 2009). 70+ mobile technology enthusiasts congregated at the Mother Tekla auditorium, in a leafy enclave (sadly only a few of these still left), in Bangalore for a day of:
- interactive discussions about mobile tech for social good,
- hands-on-demos of mobile apps and tools, and
- collaborations about ways to use, deploy, develop and promote mobile technology in health, advocacy, economic development, environment, human rights, and citizen media.
With lively participation from a good mix of NGO staff, techies, social entrepreneurs, and corporate houses, Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org, compeered (and corralled and consolidated) the day’s break-out sessions and presenters. The plenary presentation was on WLP’s pilot project to use mobile phones, particularly texting, as the communication and collaboration tool for self-organizing youth groups to get involved in local community development projects (presented by yours truly).
There were so many interesting panels, hallway conversations, and learning moments during the day that it will be hard to do justice to all of it. But here is a quick summary of a handful of key moments:
Voice is the most critical and significant feature of mobile technology, an obvious but most often forgotten fact. Most mobile applications have multiple modes of delivery, but voice calls remain the most used feature. Voice has the ability to overcome literacy barriers and also provides the way to deliver services relatively easily in multi-lingual environments. As it was pointed out during the BabaJob break-out session, it is far harder to find advanced software developers who can create complex data processing script that processes multiple Indian language inputs than it is to staff a call center with staff who can speak the languages. This is the reason why JustDial, India’s premiere mobile phone search provider, uses voice calls as the primary way to deliver its service.
Mobile technologies are financially empowering hard-to-reach populations in a way that was almost impossible before. A break-out session highlighted how BabaJob connects informal sector workers (drivers, cooks, maids, etc.) with employers in metropolitan cities in India. As expected, call centers form a key part of BabaJob’s outreach strategy. This session also reminded me of Bangladesh’s CellBazaar (access to market for rural sellers) and Palestine’s SoukTel (linking young people with jobs). However, CellBazaar listings these days are more of the “MP3/DVD Players, Used Cars, Laptops…” variety than the “Goats, Rice, Shrimp…” that were predominant in its earlier days, an indicator of how success (and the need for sustainable revenue stream) can sometimes change the nature of the application.
Cell phones are sometimes the only tool that is in the hands of everyone, so much so that many payment solutions are looking to these devices as the transaction enabler of the future. Mobile phone based payment solutions seem to be sprouting in many countries. mChek, the payment application that was demonstrated during Mobile Marketplace in the afternoon, presented the possibility of how the phone’s SIM card can become the gateway to banking services.
Text messaging is fast becoming a case of signal getting lost in the noise. Cell phones are inundated with so much spam that the potential for using SMS to do anything useful is fast reducing. A bulk of the spam is from “offers” that essentially come through the cell phone providers themselves. Unless providers act fast to review and change their policies, their short-term gain has the potential to consume their long-term revenues.
For me, the lowest and highest points of the camp came in the area of multi-lingual SMS. During the plenary session, I did an informal survey (show of hands) of how many can text message in their native languages. Much to our shock, of the 70+ mobile mavens at the camp, only 10 had cell phones that had Indic keyboards, of which only 5 had their native language, and only 2 had used the capability. Multi-language support on cell phones was abysmal to say the least. However, I am glad to report that this situation did not last long. During lunch hour conversations, I discovered IndiSMS, an application that enables communication in many Indian languages. It is free. And open source. What more can one ask for?
The success of Mobile Technology 4 Social Change Camp in Bangalore is due to the fact that the field is nascent and filled with many innovative and interesting ideas and applications. Projects such as Suruk (using cell phone’s GPS to provide auto/cab metering information for commuters) and mDhil (health alerts via text messages); text message platforms like Google SMS Channel or SMS GupShup; mobile application development tools such as IndiSMS and Tactical Tech Collective’s mobiles-in-a-box kit; research presentations (text free user interface for low literacy users (pdf) from Microsoft Research); large government guided projects (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning – NPTEL and value added services for agriculturists from IFFCO Kisan Sanchar)… as I said earlier, this list can go on forever.
WLP for its part also has an interesting project under development (alpha) which is using SMS to coordinate a Youth Social Action Day in 2010. This will lead to use cases for a mobile phone based youth social action network which will be custom developed and available for public release (beta) late 2010/early 2011. Watch this space for more news on this front in the future…