UOC Tech Talks. Jessica Colaço: Mobile technology and social change

Notes from the first Tech Talks series of lectures held at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), Barcelona (Spain), on October 19th, 2009.

Mobile Technology and Social Change in Africa
Jessica Colaço, researcher at the Strathmore Research and Consultancy Centre

Colaço works on Wireless Map Services for Smart Phones (WMS) in Africa.

Mobile Africa’s profile:

  • 370,000,000 mobile users
  • High demand for Health, Agriculture and Education
  • Huge market for SMS apps
  • Community of local software developers
  • Innovative mobile apps and services, that convert opportunities into solutions
  • For most Africans, the mobile phone is the only computing device, portable, networked


  • Communication
  • Access to information by subscription to short code services
  • Mobile payments (e.g. M-PESA)
  • Other applications such as Fish Detector (Kenya), developed by Pascal Katana, and which detects fishes accoustically
  • Creation of jobs through crowd-sourcing (e.g. txtEagle, which allows people to complete simple tasks via mobile via SMS and get compensated for it, that is, people get paid to work by SMS)
  • Tangaza (“broadcast” in Kiswahlili) that allows users to send voice to several receivers
  • M-Kulima (“farmer” in Kiswahili) allows buyers to store and retrieve information about the milk market via SMS. Of course, its application is not bound to milk, but can be applied to many other markets.
  • Waññigame allows children to recognize numbers and learn to count
  • M-guide for toursm, by Strathmore University: the user takes a photo of an animal, the photo is sent to a server that recognizes the animal and sends the information back
  • M-Word for learning

How to create innovative culture? Transferring skills and knowledge through mobile boot camps, sharing ideas and encouraging students to brain-storm in groups, mentoring students and liaising them with experts in this field, creating of a research and open-learning atmosphere.

Please visit http://ictlogy.net/?p=2812 to see the video

Please visit http://ictlogy.net/?p=2812 to see the video

Please visit http://ictlogy.net/?p=2812 to see the video

Discussion w. Luis Ángel Fernández Hermana and Eva Domínguez

Eva Domínguez: mobile phones are a revolution in fields as Education (m-learning) and Journalism, especially citizen journalism.

Jessica Colaço stresses the experience of Ushahidi regarding journalism and citizen journalism, how it is used for transparency and accountability, etc.

Luis Ángel Fernández Hermana points to the distinction between people that use technology on a compulsory basis or as a personal option. In higher income countries, technology is compulsory: you “have” to use the last gadget. This is not the case of lower income countries, where people seek benefit (or profit) in technology.

Luis Ángel Fernández Hermana: In what languages are mobile applications and services? Jessica Colaço: Normally in English, most of the times also in local languages.

Lev Gonick: the mobile platform is a much more crowdsourcing fitting platform to create educational content.

Carlos Miranda: it’s good that mobile phones are kept simple (no video, no cam, no anything). The “intel” is outside, it’s the people. [how strongly I disagree…]

Paul G. West: how to deliver mass-education via mobile phones? [unanswered question; what a pity, I would have loved to get that answer].

Marc Alier: if applications have to be developed, how are they distributed to a larger amount of users and other developers? Jessica Colaço: normally, SMSs are broadcasted with the instructions to find and/or install the application, as providing a URL is not usually a good solution (though still a possibility).

Susan Metros: what is the power of mobile operators? do they listen to their customers? Jessica Colaço: increasingly, customers “come in” the design of applications and services.

Sílvia Bravo: are mobile phones helping Africa to “emancipate” and “be Africa”, or just leading the path towards a copycat of richer countries? Jessica Colaço: the good thing of mobile phones is that they have been adopted at a so-grassroots level that there is no aim to copy, but to be.

See Also


Mobiles in developing countries: hope or mirage?

The World Bank’s last edition of the World Development Indicators stated that Seventy percent of mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies, a mantra that was also repeated on Saturday April 25th, 2009, at Africa Gathering. At least during the second talk it was said that 61% of the 2.7 billion mobile phones in the world are in developing countries, as reported by Ken Banks. Besides whether it is 61% or 70%, the thing is that 83.3% of the World population live in developing countries, a fact that puts in perspective the relative (i.e. per capita) penetration of mobile phones in relationship with the rest of the World’s.

So, is there no reason to be optimistic about mobiles in Africa, then? Well, it depends. Let’s bring some data in for the rescue:

Mobile cellular subscribers 000s (2002) 000s (2007) Compound annual growth rate Cellphones per habitant (%) % digital % of total phones (mobile + fixed)

Source: ITU ICT Eye

Or, graphically:

Graphic: Factors of inequality and exclusion in the Network SocietySource: ITU ICT Eye

Data don’t clearly show the distinction between developing and developed countries, though it can be roughly inferred at least by (sorry for the rude simplification) looking at Africa and Asia (with mostly Low and Lower-middle income economies with very few exceptions — see the World Bank’s Country Classification). The big highlights are:

  • Developing countries have less cellphones per capita than developed ones
  • Most phones in developing countries are mobile and digital
  • The compound annual growth rate of mobile telephony is higher the less saturated is the market

A logical comment about the last statement would be that it’s natural that less penetration leads to higher annual growth rates. Well, it is not that logical: on the one hand, there are countries with penetration rates above 150% (United Arab Emirates, Macao, Italy, Qatar or Hong Kong), so the concept of “saturation” is a tricky one; on the other hand, there are plenty of other commodities and capital goods (e.g. cars or washing machines) that not even dream of reaching these growth rates.

That said, one need to be cautious when stating that there are “many” cellphones in developing countries: this is true in absolute terms, but most untrue in relative ones. But reality shouts out loud that this is changing at an overwhelming speed and that innovation happens at a terrific pace.


Mobile Web for Development

In 2007, half the world population — 50.10% to be true — were subscribers of a mobile telephony service, representing 72.1% of the total telephony subscribers (fixed, mobile, satellite, etc.). The datum is even more shocking if we move into the African continent: there, still only one third of the population has (actually, is subscribed to) a cellular phone (28.44%), but it is important to stress the fact that this third stands for 89.6% of the total subscribers to telephone lines, the highest proportion of the five continents. Though it is but an average that goes way higher when looking into specific countries like Tanzania (98.1%), Mauritania (97%), the Congo (97.2%), Kenya (97,7%) or Cameroon 96%), just to put some examples.

These data absolutely support the creation, in 2008, of the Mobile Web for Social Development Interest Group (MW4D), fostered by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This interest group — a part of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative — has as a purpose to:

explore how to use the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Mobile phones as a solution to bridge the Digital Divide and provide minimal services (health, education, governance, business,…) to rural communities and under-privileged populations of Developing Countries.

Some projects using mobile phones for development
  • Kiwanja and their projects: FrontlineSMS, to help nonprofits to benefit from using SMS for advocacy and monitoring; nGOmoblie, a competition to encourage them to think about how text messaging could benefit them and their work; and Silverback, a game for mobile phones to raise awareness about gorilla conservation
  • TradeNet, to access and manage market information (specially on agriculture markets) from the mobile phone;
  • M-Pesa, to transfer money and make payments through text messaging;
  • Ushahidi, a platform that crowdsources crisis information, allowing anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.
  • Kubatana.net and their experience monitoring the elections in Zimbabwe, now converted into a handbook on How to run a mobile advocacy campaign

These and other projects, stories, people and organizations using mobile phones for social impact can be found at MobileActive.

On the other hand, Stéphane Boyera and Ken Banks, co-chairs of the Mobile Web for Social Development Interest Group will be at the II International Meeting on ICT for Development Cooperation, where there is a whole track on mobile telephony for development.

More information

Ken Banks just confirmed that he cannot come to the II International Meeting on ICT for Development Cooperation due to agenda reasons.


iCities (IV). Round Table: mGovernment. The Mobile Phone and its integration in e-Government

iCities is a Conference about Blogs, e-Government and Digital Participation.
Here come my notes for session IV.

Round Table: mGovernment. The Mobile Phone and its integration in e-Government
Chairs: Nacho Campos

What is a mobile phone

  • Mobile
  • A device you use every day
  • 110% of penetration
  • Many features

Tomy Ahonen: the mobile phone is the 7th medium:

  • Personal
  • Always on
  • Always with us
  • Integrated paying method
  • Immediate tool

mGovernment: how the Administration adapts itself to the nomadic style of the citizen (The Economist)

Goal: from m-murmur to m-chat to m-conversation (unidirectional, bidirectional, multidirectional).


  • Lack of leadership, political and technical
  • Infrastructures
  • Resistance to change of public servants
  • Telecommunication Operators
  • Lack of communication plans
  • Digital Divide

Mario Moreno Sánchez: Mobile Marketing expert

The advertising market is absolutely saturated: the customer can no more get a bigger amount of ads.

The key of m-development is multistakeholder partnerships between the Administration, Banking and Telecoms. An appropriate legal framework is a must.

MMS is likely to be the next multimedia revolution… maybe more than SMS, because, among other things, it’s really multimedia.

Virginia Moreno: CIO Leganés City Council.

Why mobile communication between the Administration and the citizen?>/p>

  • Highest penetration
  • New communication channel with the citizen
  • Integrated with other channels
  • Secure systems

Almudena de la Fuente: Vodafone Government and Public Services Director

How do you sign? With a pen or with a mobile phone?

Multistakeholder partnership: service provider, the Administration, the certifier of the digital signature.

Very simple for the user: just change the SIM (keeping the telephone number) and pay (!) the registration to the service.

Víctor Solla: CIO Avilés City Council

First things first: organizational change before the application of new communication channels.

Technically, it’s everything already done: penetration is (almost) total in the user’s part, and knowledge/data digital management in the Administration part is (or should be) already a reality. It’s “just” a matter of making it happen.

Thus, sometimes the only problem is cost, but not developing cost, but the cost of leadership and organizational change.

The Administration should watch over the existence of an appropriate connectivity so its services can be properly reached. Otherwise, it should foster the establishment of the needed infrastructures, supplied directly or through partnerships with the private sector.


iCities 2008, Blogs, e-Government and Digital Participation (2008)

Cheap technologies for Developing Countries

I’ve been recently interviewed by e-mail by journalist Ignacio Fossati. He put clever questions that made me think, which I really appreciated. Some of my answers were grounded on plain evidence, but other were just my own opinion — arguably all of them. As most of the interview dealt with “cheap technologies for Developing Countries”, such as the OLPC project, and we’ve been having some debate lately here, with Teemu Leinonen or at Peter Ryan‘s, I thought I’d share them here, so the debate can go on.

In bold characters, the questions; the answers following.

Cheap laptops, what do you think their acceptance will be like in developing countries? Do you think it will be a success?

Personally I think that they will undoubtedly have some acceptance. In part because there already is a government demand, but in my opinion, they will above all get into these countries through the private sector. The great success of Negroponte and his OLPC project has not been to create a new device, but breaking the spiral “more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – more powerful hardware – new software demanding more hardware power – etc.”, and showing that it is possible a good hard with a limited soft and vice versa.

Once broken this dynamic of “more, more, more,” the private sector will enter with force into a market of billions of potential users so far neglected because they could not afford that “more hardware, more software.”

I also believe that the mixed model pda+phone (smartphone) can be an interesting trojan horse, given the high penetration of mobile and the already numerous management applications for cellulars in those countries and that have been very successful.

Do you think the production of low cost laptops is the best way to extend and promote the use of computers in the Third World?

Absolutely not. But with two shades/comments.

The first one is that it has already been demonstrated — in developing countries, but in developed countries as well — that the user (citizen, Administration, firms) should see some use (and benefit) in the computer or the Internet. If not, once large infrastructures have been installed (e.g. wire) these will clearly be unused or underused. The laptop, without some clear uses in its design, has neither present nor future.

However, and this is my second nuance, this computer, accompanied by an intelligent design in the field of uses (e.g. a teaching method based on distance education, educational content embedded by default on the computer, a learning plan of shared learning within the family, etc.) can be a spearhead that will break the natural rejection that most of us adopt in front of a new technology.

Therefore, it is by no means the solution, but may be part — and, in fact, be the most attractive sometimes — of a comprehensive plan to promote the Information Society based on content and services.

These proposed low-cost products for developing countries (laptops, mobile phones, cars …), can actually help to reduce the gap of the digital divide?

This question has a short answer and a long one.

Of course, all that implies mainstreaming Information and Communication Technologies helps to narrow the digital divide, by definition: more technology, less gap. Elemental.

The long answer has three parts.

The first, and we discussed: the technology is useless if not used. All in all, and like any technology, the computer is just a tool, for communication and information in a digital world. If, in the end, we cannot access neither information nor communication, the gap remains.

Which brings us to the second part: quality. It is now already (almost) more worrying the quality of Internet connection that the penetration itself: many services require increasingly broadband to operate optimally. Therefore, if these low-cost products have, in addition, low performance, their contribution to bridging the digital divide is also tiny. We should not be thus confusing cost with performance.

Last, the digital divide is a reflection, a derivative of the socio-economic gap. In this regard, if these devices do not reduce poverty or increase welfare, sooner or later, the digital divide will widen as currently are social inequalities. We would then be putting a patch or attacking the symptoms rather than the disease.

Is there room for a number of competitors in the market for low-cost computers?

At the state we are in, we have to count connected computers. According to the statistics, 17% of the population in the World is already connected. So there still is a 83% left to be covered. Moreover, if we include both homes and businesses, we can potentially achieve (as happens with telephony in many countries) more than 100% penetration. So, effectively, and in theory, there should be room for everyone.

Of course, the problem is not supply, but demand: who among these 5.5 billion people can afford to be connected? That is the question to be solved. Mobile telephony, low-cost computers, wi-fi and mesh networks have provided a good bunch of examples of people who previously could not afford connectivity and that now can. And other examples have shown that, if there is a way to make the cost worthwhile (by reducing other costs due to use of technology), this is usually not a barrier.

Do you think that behind this “solidarity rush” hides an unreported trade war?

Businesses, by definition, with their owners and stockholders behind, are not nonprofits. And that’s it. They look for profits: this is their role and we should not make value judgments on this issue.

What is reprehensible is when these firms try to convince us of otherwise, or, much worse, when they harm others with their economic activity.

Almost 90% of the money that goes into research and development is spent on the development of technologies to serve 10% of the richest people in the world. Could this trend be changed or is there something being done in this matter?

I fear that the capitalist system works this way. We need to generate surplus value to satisfy the owner of the capital, and this can only be achieved by selling to the one that can pay, which is the richest.

It occurs to me, however, two ways to reverse this trend:

The first one, the more usual one, is trying to socially share the profit beyond benefiting a few stockholders. It is the model of most agencies for international cooperation, development aid and private foundations and NGOs in general.

The second one is the opposite: try to have more people that can buy things so that 10% becomes a 20%, 30%, etc. That is, betting for the development of the poorest to enable them to be good consumers, so that they “count” on the global scene.

Simplified example: we may investigate malaria (which does not affect the majority of developed people) and provide free vaccines as a way of sharing the wealth (in kind in this case), or we can increase the purchasing power of people who suffer from malaria so they can make demand for vaccines grow and hence the market believes that it is a profitable market to do research in this disease.

Both options have been supported and criticized simultaneously, by people working in development cooperation and solidarity: on the one hand, considering the most disadvantaged as a mere consumers (and squeeze them for profit) is something inhuman; on the other hand, is a way to make development more sustainable in the long run, abandoning charity (which would be the first option presented before) for further development in the strict sense.

But this is another debate ;)

The piece of news finally got published on March 26th, 2009: El bajo coste llega a los países en desarrollo


Development Cooperation 2.0 (V): Communications

Lady Virginia Mugarra Velarde
Education for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases prevention

The role of ICTs to educate about sexually transmitted diseases prevention, especially to educate educators.

An important aspect of such education is to ease the communication between the physicists and their patients.


  • Train educators about these diseases… and how to educate about them
  • Sensitize youngsters about prevention
  • Mobilize policy makers

The main successes are, above all, the speed and spread of information and training, with a strong focus on prevention, which is where information can actually make a difference.

Tools: a platform with three axes (1) content (2) spaces for debate (3) online assistance

María Jesús Medina
Cybervolunteering at Iníci@te Programme

[note: in this session, cybervolunteer = ICT volunteer, not online volunteer. See my Online Volunteering Taxonomy for more details]

Volunteers experts in ICTs to help users in telecenters.

Volunteers are trained about attitudes, techniques, the environment they are going to work in, the target beneficiaries of the several activities, etc.

The public-private partnership between the regional administration (coordinating the project) and the local administrations and telecenters a must for success.

Olga Fernández Berrios
Reflections, tools and experiences about cooperation 2.0

Training for nonprofits about technology for nonprofits, with a strong use of Web 2.0 applications, such as feed aggregation, metablogs, wikis, instant messaging, VoIP, microblogging, online volunteering, etc.

Blogs in the field: use of blogs to raise advocacy and transparency by writing within and from a development project.

Blogs at the headquarters: same, but from the nonprofit headquarters (no need to be really there, but the focus)

Directories of projects and institutions.

Metablogs: Global Voices Online

Planets: feed aggregators, automatically updated once have been set up. The information comes to you.

Wikis: Where nonprofits share their information, handbooks, procedures… and with the possibility that this information can be updated/build collaboratively.

Caveat: some of these initiatives are not top-down, not institutional, but raised by individuals, sometimes as a personal answer (critique?) to the bureaucratic slowness and lack of flexible response of some organizations.

Social networks: some of them using richest media, such as The Hub.

We should shift from talking about technology to talking about the uses of it. The Web 2.0 allows this shift, as technological solutions come more and more irrelevant.

Free flow of information: RSS, copyleft or open licensing, syndication


Vicente Carlos Domingo González

To enable media diffusion, especially video, for nonprofits and development issues.

Their role is to act as a new information agency to cover events, projects from nonprofits. It runs on a volunteering basis coming from the media sector + a technological platform to broadcast video.

The goal is not only to broadcast, but have audience too, thus the commitment with high-quality low-band requisites of the portal.

José Manrique López de la Fuente
Opportunities of Mobile Web in developing countries

Success bridging the digital divide

  • The will, motivation to access the Net
  • Material access
  • Personal capacity, competences
  • Access to advanced uses

The importance to generate local business possibilities based on ICTs.

Part of the material access and personal capacity interaction is about the ease of use, that should be kept clear in all ICT4D projects.

Mobile Solutions

  • Specific applications for mobile phones: maximum integration with the device, but device diversity can generate incompatibilities
  • Voice and/or SMS based solutions: simple and working, interoperability could be a pro or a con
  • The Web as platform: rich, standards are mainstream

Mobile Web

  • Advantage: Integration of existing solutions
  • Advantage: Technologies based on open standards
  • Problem: user experience, diversity and cost in some places
  • Problem: low-tech devices that cannot access the web, mobile carriers not providing access

Carolina Moreno Asenjo
Global Networks and social engagement: ICT integration strategies at Entreculturas


  • Improve quality in education, at a global level
  • Foster advocacy through ICTs
  • Fight the “loneliness” of the teacher in his classroom
  • Cut down costs in training and knowledge sharing
  • Create a link to catalyze network building

Leverage communities of practice and communities of learning with ICTs.


  • engagement of the beneficiaries
  • funding
  • logistics when setting up the hardware and technological platform
  • motoring, coordination
  • sustainability

Communication in Alegría Activity

Mobile (connected) classrooms.

Eduardo Pérez Gutiérrez
Geographic Information Systems in Educational Centers for Regional Development

Goals: Develop web-based GISs for diagnose and monitoring of educational centers for regional development.

To fight lack of education in remote, rural areas, governments supply these regions with instructors, that are not actually teachers but have a broader profile, socially speaking, but a lower profile as an educator. So, their social profile is good to interact with the community but the quality of teaching might not be as good as expected.

The GIS should help cross data about the reach of an instructor’s activity, the profile of the population reached by this instructor, etc. and then help the decision-making about the instructor, his activity, the way he spends his budget, etc.

Benefits: focused investments, allows centralized administration, transparency and monitoring, enables confidence, provides context and helps strategy design.


Development Cooperation 2.0 (2008)