Innovative Uses of Mobile ICTs for Development

Notes from the the II Encuentro Internacional TIC para la Cooperación al Desarrollo (Development Cooperation 2.0: II International Meeting on ICT for Development Cooperation) held in Gijón, Spain, on February 10-12th, 2009. More notes on this event: cooperacion2.0_2009. More notes on this series of events: cooperacion2.0.

Round table: Innovative Uses of Mobile ICTs for Development

Merryl Ford, Emerging Innovations Group of the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Mobile voice Wikipedia (MobiLed: you send an SMS to the mobile Wikipedia with the name of an article, and a voice reads you the whole article on your mobile phone.

Remote tutors that, through SMS, help kids in their Maths homework.

We have to de-skill the process of mobile application creation, thus why at Meraka they’re creating open source platforms for people to code mobile applications without much knowledge on developing applications.

Kentaro Toyama, Microsoft Research India (MSR India)

(disclaimer: he’s going to play the devil’s advocate)

The focus on putting development first, and then technology. If we speak about “M4D”, we’re putting technology first. Unless you have a strong interest in mobile phones (e.g. you’re working for Nokia) you should focus on what’s available, not just on a specific technology. Development is about human and institution capacity.

On the other hand, there’s also even more simple and broadly accepted technology than mobiles: television, community radio… so we should also focus in these if our arguments are cost, simplicity, broad usage and so.

There’s hype around M4D as there was hype about telecentres 15 years ago. It just does not make sense to fund projects that explicitly (ex ante) have to be run by mobile phones. And this happens. And this is hype.

Oleg Petrov, e-Development Thematic Group of World Bank

(in kindest answer to Toyama) The mobile phone is the new sibling, the new tool in the development toolbox. Enthusiasm vs. hype. It’s just enthusiasm, and other technologies, just like siblings, are “jealous” of the newcomer. But it’s a powerful tool indeed. We have not for forget about everything but mobile phones, but as a new tool, it deserves special exploration to determine its real potential and weaknesses.

The World Bank has plenty of projects that follow this excitement to test M4D: for health, for education, etc. We need a community of practice, ways to test this technology. Raise awareness and also move forward in the next direction of building toolkits, making it simple.

If you just look at the human side of development, you’re likely to miss (or not be up-to-date) state-of-the-art technological developments that might give you hints or ideas on how to solve human problems.

Jan Blom, Nokia Research Center – India

Anecdote: 6 months ago, a cab driver in Bangalore, using the mobile phone to SMS and as a GPS, but knowing nothing about what e-mail was. So: M4D is absolutely real.

There’s a dire lack of public information available (sometimes it does not even exist). M4D can focus on making this public information available, in providing location based services. There is much utility in taking local data, uploading to a central server, and publish it online (like Ushahidi does).

Stéphane Boyera, Device Independence Working Group of W3C

(also answering Toyama) It’s not that it’s a hype, it’s that technologists are approaching development in their daily lives, which is new and it’s great. Of course, when coming from the Development Cooperation field one must focus on humans, but the thing is that techies are approaching humans through tecnology, and the specific technology of their specific fields.

Q & A

Najat Rochdi: we have to know all the technologies available to be able to make the best decisions.

Stijn Vander Krogt: what is the role of governments in M4D? Isn’t it to analyse all that’s out there? Petrov: absolutely, this is one of the key roles of the World Bank, to provide advice on what can be used to solve any kind of problem. Thus why organizations have to know, and raise awareness, of the different applications of tools for human development.

Manuel Acevedo: What do we do when some laptops are really cheap and simple, and some mobile phones become increasingly complex and expensive? Thus, our task is to inform people of all the options available. Can we build multidisciplinary teams (as in research) at the government level? Can we build multi-institutional approaches in ICT4D?

Q: are we confusing needs for development? Are we artificially generating needs for gadgets? Aren’t we trying not to develop rural areas, but the broaden the target market of telcos?

Development Cooperation 2.0 (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Innovative Uses of Mobile ICTs for Development” In ICTlogy, #65, February 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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