I ran into Douglas Gardner, DD BDP, on my way to the restroom and this conversation on mobile technologies started after he asked me what we were doing in this area. After 20 minutes of discussion, he asked me to send him a short note on the subject. The note is below. He then asked me to post in Teamworks and asked Geraldine to share with BDP´s policy group. All this happened in less than 24 hours. Ok, so sometimes we are efficient, indeed!
1. The rate of diffusion of Mobile technologies across the globe has been totally unprecedented (as well as totally unexpected). No other technology has spread out so fast and to so many people in such little time. Today, the most optimistic data suggest that over 5 billion people are using a mobile device (other less optimistic indicate that the figure is around 3.5 billion, still significant and still larger then the number in Internet users – 2 billion)
2. In most poor regions of the developing world, specially rural and marginalized areas, there is now access to basic mobile services (but not to the Internet), both voice and texting. So-called “smart phones” are not readily available due to costs (of both units and connection) but mobile data networks do exist in most developing countries.
3. This “democratization” of the access to a mobile communication device opens the door for rethinking the way we provide development assistance to out programme countries. In many places, the focus still remains on the “latest and coolest” technologies (such as Facebook and Twitter) which we need to use for corporate purposes but many seem to be ignoring the fact that texting can be a much more powerful, specially if our mandate is to target the poorest of the poor (not only in the economic sense) and help countries achieve the MDGs, reach IAGDs, etc.
4. Most UN agencies have been slow in reacting to this new environment. BTW, the same thing happened in the early 1990s when the Internet was emerging and was openly ignored by not only the UN but also by most IT companies (such as Microsoft for example). As a result, NGO and small entrepreneurs have taken the lead in this area and are working in things such as m-health, m-education, m-governance, etc.. or what we can brand as m-development.
5. The other issue was to why development agencies have been slow in up-taking this areas of work is the apparent gap between technology and development -as they are seen as mutually exclusive (the old “PCs vs Penicillin debate). This is yet another area where UNDP can assist programme countries in making the connections between policy and technology (as we did in the 90s with the difference that now there is no “digital divide” in terms of mobiles!)
6. NGOs and small entrepreneurs have been developing all sort of applications for mobiles including quite a few focus on SMS or texting. There is now (so-called)
crowd-sourcing software that provides gateways between SMS and web sites. For example a poor farmer can use her cell phone to report some environmental issue in her area by using SMS. This messages can then reach millions via the SMS gateways provided by the crowd-sourcing software. The same software has been sued to monitor elections, report HR abuses and corruption, and organize doctors and nurses visits to poor rural areas, etc.
7. The above approach faces at least two issues: 1) policy: most governments in the developing world do not really work close with NGOs and SMEs so they do not take any action to make development policies out of successful initiatives. 2) Scale: most of these initiatives are focuses in small communities and scaling up (in addition to replication) are daunting challenges. In both of these areas UNDP can play a critical role (UNICEF is doing some of this so they are ahead of all of us).
8. Some examples:
* Cuidemos el voto was the first formal electoral observation platform in Latin America built on Ushahidi, an open-source platform that allows citizens to send
information in a quick and easy way through cell phones and Internet with the purpose of coverage during crisis. Cuidemos el Voto allows the collection of reports, links,photos and video, and places them on a map where the information can be filtered. This engine has been used recently for media coverage: in early 2009, news network Al Jazeera used it for reports on the war on Gaza and later an independent project used it for surveillance on swine flu.
* Lebanon held an important parliamentary election on June 7, 2009. For this reason, local organizations and citizen efforts on the ground that are using mobile
technology for sophisticated election observation efforts. The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) and the Coalition Libanaise pour l’Observation Elections (CLOE), for example, put in place an extensive SMS reporting system. LADE deployed a total of 2,500 volunteer citizen observers throughout the country directly at the 5181 polling stations.
* RapidSMS Child Nutrition Surveillance in Malawi. Can mobile technology be used to improve the monitoring and surveillance of child nutrition? This was the question at the heart of a pilot project conducted in 2009 by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with UNICEF. The project implemented the use of text messaging to replace the paper-based reporting system of child nutrition trends in a number of Malawian health clinics.
* Efforts to reduce deaths from preventable diseases depend upon the reliable distribution of vaccines to all citizens. However poor immunization supply logistics in
developing countries can obstruct citizen access to vaccines, especially among marginalized populations. Kenya’s Division of Immunization and Vaccinations has developed HealthTrack, a mobile phone-based vaccine supply monitoring system, to ensure that immunization supplies are distributed more accurately and efficiently to populations in need.