Crash Course: Mobile Phone Applications for Development

This is the third edition of the CTED Crash Course, a regular feature which shares some essential background information that will help explain what we do here at the intersection of innovative technology and economic development. We hope to shed some light on some of the basics of solar energy, mobile technology and Internet accessibility that are at the very core of CTED’s research. We also hope to provide some economic and developmental context in light of these areas of research and to examine their importance in solving some of the issues facing the developing world.

In this Crash Course, we will look broadly at the way that mobile phones are being used in new and interesting ways in the developing world and the possibilities available through this ubiquitous device.  Perhaps many people in developed nations take having a cell phone for granted, but for millions, if not billions, in the developing world, a cell phone opens up a huge world of possibility. On the one hand, they are connected to the world beyond their village in ways that were only previously possible after long journeys across countryside. Now, they are able to reach family and friends with just a couple quick key strokes. Beyond the basic voice call application of mobile phones, there is a multitude of new applications that are being developed that enable anyone with a mobile phone to conduct financial transactions, report news, track counterfeit pharmaceuticals, teach literacy, check market prices on goods and get medical information.

Given the astonishing numbers of cell phones in the developing world – an estimated 400 million subscribers in Africa (about half of the population) and an estimated 750 million subscribers in India alone – it makes sense why your basic $40 cell phone is the most practical platform for this development. There are several other factors that have added to this mobile revolution – namely, continued limited access to the internet and traditional power grids and large populations who are illiterate. Take India, for example, which has 1.1 billion people, of which only an estimated 8.4% have regular access to the internet and only 52.5% of rural homes have electrical power. These people are not going to be able to check their bank account online or look up illness symptoms on WebMD or use PayPal to send a loan payment, as people with regular, reliable internet access might. Yet, they often need to do these exact same things and until the mobile phone came along, they were forced to do so through costly travel to a town or city or through intermediaries who could easily take advantage of their situations. Mobile phone applications empower individuals in the developing world with the potential to take their lives into their own hands quite literally.

Yet, there are some challenges to overcome that prove difficult for the further expansion of mobile technology and applications. As we mentioned before, access to power grids and cellular infrastructure is something that we never really consider – it’s a given that if we plug our charger into the socket in the wall, our phone will be charged in a couple of hours and that if we press send, we will soon hear another voice at the other end. But what if you didn’t have sockets or couldn’t get any reception? How would you charge your phone? How would you use the phone? In many developing nations and especially in rural areas, this becomes an issue, but also an opportunity for further innovation. Generators or solar home systems become entrepreneurial enterprises in such communities, and systems such as CTED’s own SIMbalink, which through SMS, helps to ensure that solar home systems are properly monitored and maintained before any disabling damage occurs to the system. WiRE, another CTED project, is a system that uses a unique network design to provide greater connectivity to rural areas and populations who are not covered by traditional cellular and wireless infrastructure. With innovations such as these projects, the penetration of the mobile phone and its applications are able to spread even wider than before.

What about the users of the phone? How do mobile applications for development address the varying skill levels, languages and literacy of the billions of people who use them?  These are some of the issues that Microsoft Research Bangalore researcher Indrani Medhi discussed in her fascinating presentation at the first annual CTED Conference on March 8th (to be uploaded soon!). Indrani has been conducting research in the slums of Bangalore about what are the most effective visual representations in user interfaces for semi-literate and non-literate populations. In the least developed countries, about 41% of the population is non-literate – an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, which limits their ability to use mobile phones’ SMS features, but allows for interesting opportunities using the traditional voice feature of mobile phones. Bill Thies, another researcher with Microsoft Research Bangalore, detailed one such project, CGNet Swara, in his own presentation at the same CTED Conference (also to be uploaded soon!). CGNet Swara allows people in the Central Gondwana region of India to record news as voicemail messages in their local language and also to listen to appropriate broadcasts over their phone. In a couple of instances, the reports have been picked up by much larger news sources and networks, leading at times to redress for some of the grievances that have been aired over CGNet Swara.

A common obstacle as well for many in these communities is the intimidation or lack of familiarity with technology. As Indrani mentioned in her presentation, one consistent challenge to the efficacy of mobile applications or ICT in general in non-literate populations is the belief in the value that these tools will provide. To have a stranger come up to you and tell you there are jobs available in this plastic box they call a computer must be a befuddling experience had you never seen this box before. But with consistent help and reassurance as the technology is introduced and explained, such challenges can be minimized and overcome, leading to greater self-confidence and self-efficacy. Much of the power derived from mobile phone applications is derived from their mobility and adaptability – they remove the intermediary from an array of processes and interactions and enable users to create, interact and make decisions in ways  not previously available to them.

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About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
This entry was posted in About Us, Crash Course, Education, Energy, Mobile Phone Applications. Bookmark the permalink.

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