Stéphane Boyera: Mobile Phone for Human 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.

Mobile Phone for Human Development?
Stéphane Boyera, Device Independence Working Group of W3C

More than 4,000,000,000 mobiles phones today, circa 80% people covered by mobile phones: a revolution. Mobile phones are changing the way people work, communicate, live. But there is still is no evidence on the impact on development besides person to person communication.

Nevertheless, mobiles have changed the landscape in the developing world: access to education, to health, to agricultural informtion…


  • Connectivity: bandwidth and devices
  • Information availability: Relevant and useful services
  • Information availability: Affordable, accessible and usable services

Notwithstanding, mobile phones solve — or minimize — hardware and connectivity issues in relationship with computers and Internet access, so it is easier to focus in services (instead of hardware), thus why we find more and more applications for mobiles phones in developing countries. In this same train of thought, mobile phones enable a bottom-up approach in designing mobile phone based projects.

Reasons to promote mobile for development (M4D):

  • Scalability
  • Open to entrepreneurship and local innovation capturing
  • Putting governments out of the critical path
  • Putting pressure for more transparent accountable Governance

Challenges and barriers

  • Capacity building, curriculum and degree at universities
  • Availability of software and tools, free or open source, easy to use
  • Awareness, as the major point to be solved in the nearest future
  • Accessibility, of both services and content
  • Availability of services, including localization of such services, adapted to local languages and culture
  • Information literacy

The mobile phone is the swiss army knife: it’s got plenty of tools and fits in your pocket. SMS, the flagship of mobile tools, has easy setup, is tied to plenty of services, has free reception, is available on all phones.

Mobile phones, and besides voice, have also data access, web access…

Voice, that seems underrated, is actually one of the easiest “technologies” to use, included illiterate people. But there are few services that rely on voice. So more research and investment should be put on voice.

Next steps?

  • Community building around the creation of services and content, to do research on M4D
  • Understanding the needs, issues and challenges in the field
  • Identifying and bridging challenges to lower access barriers
  • Solving the empowerment challenges: lowering development and deployment barriers, and building capacities


  • Constrained device
  • Mobile networks still very expensive
  • Maybe other approaches (e.g. low-cost laptops) can better fit some purposes better than mobile phones

We have to move from the proof of concept to real, broad and successful implementation stories.

Some links:

Q & A

Stijn Vander Krogt & Anriette Esterhuysen: Internet link is still a need. We should combine, do not substitute, PCs and Internet access with mobiles.

Anriette Esterhuysen: what’s the importance of open standards for mobile phones? Q: Of course they are crucial.


Development Cooperation 2.0 (2009)