Mobile Myths and Reality: A New Series on Deconstructing Mobiles for Development

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Sep 28, 2009

Mobile tech as a tool for social development is makling the front pages in 2009. They are hyped as panacea for global issues such as rural health in developing countries, poverty alleviation, making rural markets more efficient, and activism. 

We have been working in this field since 2005, leading the industry analysis on mobiles for development and social change. While we agree that mobile phones are revolutionizing the developing world, we think it is time to take a very honest and realistic look at the promises of mobile tech for development and social change, and where these promises are falling short -- and of, course, why, and what to do about that.

We are starting the series off in our first part with a post by Ethan Zuckerman, a close friend and collaborator of  He gives a thoughtful overview of some of the key issues that we will be dissecting throughout the month of October.

Here is what you will hear more about in the coming weeks:

  • A Penny for your SMS: The Cost of Mobile telephony in many developing countries: why it's so high, what that does for social development projects, and why it does not have to be that way. 
  • The Perpetual Pilot Syndrome - and the issue of scale: Much has been said about the many mobile pilot projects that never go anywhere but end when the funding runs dry. We will critically examine the numbers, what it takes to scale, whether it's desirable, and take a close look at the most recent hype of 'horizontal scale' ion mobiles in development. 
  • Mobiles for Open Societies?  Much has been said and written about the power of mobiles in opening societies, enabling political participation, and engagement.  We are taking this notion apart with a deeper exploration of key issues, going beyond the hype.
  • Are Development Organizations Missing the Mobile Wagon (or just failing to ride it?) A critical discussion of the role development organizations have been playing in using mobile tech to advance their goals - and whhat is working, and what is not.
  • What is the Role of Donors in M4D (if any)? After dissecting whether development orgs are helping or hindering the deployment of mobiles in the social sector, we turn to donors who have discovered mobile tech as their new fad, though are mostly pondering right now how to effectively fund mobiles in development.
  • Mobile (In)Security will delve into how networks operate, who knows what about mobile communications, and what that means for activism, advocacy, and social development.   
  • Mobiles as a Male Enhancement Tool?  A close look at the issues of mobile phones and women's empowerment, both politically and economically.
  •  Do you have to read to use a mobile? As much as 20% of the global adult population is illiterate. Given the ubiquity of SMS services, as well as text-heavy interfaces, what does that mean for reaching the next billion uses (and serving those that already have a mobile but can not read) effectively?
  • Mobile Payments for the Middle Class? We will, of course, take apart the most recent hype about mobile payments and who is benefitting most - as well as who is left behind, promotions in mainstream media notwithstanding.
  • So, Realists, What's Next?  No series would be complete without the obligatory look into the future. We summarize key issues, and make some concrete recommendations on how to realistically and effectively think about, and do work, with mobile tech in social and human development and change. 

With that, we won't keep you waiting.  Proceed directly to Ethan's introductory piece -- his reflections on the subject based on a recent IDRC-sponsored day of conversations art Harvard's Berkman Center, and why Rip van Winkle might be surprised, and possibly dismayed if he were to wake up now.

Translation in french

A true disconnect: secondary and tertiary effects of mobile tech

I found the article and the subsequent comment by Mr. Dailey interestingly orthogonal.  The article posits several social phenomena as subjects of study within a framework that acknowledges severe disparities of power potentially abetted by mobile technology.  Mr. Dailey notes that mobile technology has facilitated the expansion of public access to financial services including "mBanking," an incontrovertible reality but one that doesn't quite speak to the article's point.

The misconversation is indicative of a longstanding argument between two communities each self-described as dedicated to a higher quality of life in developing regions.  On the one hand are the field workers and policy analysts who believe that the first order of business is addressing inequalities directly and unequivocally through new development policy, commercial regulation, and public investment.  On the other hand are the technologists and vendors of technology who believe that the availability of the technology is sufficient to bring about desired change and that new regulation will, in fact, hinder this type of progress.

It's difficult to say who's right in terms of the immediate issue of regional development, but from a larger perspective -- that of the world since 2008 -- it's clear that being better connected to the machinery of finance and commerce is not necessarily the road to betterment that technologists hoped it might be.  It can as well be the road to ruin. 

Similar issues were raised when the US reregulated its national telephone service in the 1940s to permit broader access to phone service of every type, but especially including non-local/long-distance services.  Eventually this resulted in the growth of a pervasive, almost ubiquitous telecommunications foundation for regional and national commerce and credit markets.  American production and consumerism certainly benefited from this change and the economy did, too.  But the lack of a telecom-system governor capable of balancing the inherent costs and benefits of secondary and tertiary developments meant that within a few decades, greater instabilities were regularly disturbing the economy, the differential between rich and poor was radically widening, business and consumer credit and debt were going through the roof, and resulting reverberations eventually resulted in today's Great Recession.  We don't know the Recession's outcome yet and may not for a decade, although the level of suffering in the US (and other nations sucked into the global economy) is terrible and increasing. 

While one may not champion a totally Luddite position that Americans were better off when phones were scarcer -- when for example, farmers had to guess at market prices and physical and social disasters were truly local affairs without knowledge within or input from the rest of the nation -- still, it's quite possible that had the right technology and social policies and regulation been put into place, the current economic cratering and resulting global distress might have been mitigated. 

Thus, while I apprecaite Mr. Dailey's vision and faith in technology, my feeling is that Mr. Zuckerman's critical assessment is probably more apropos now in the immediate future and more necessary in the long term.  For better or worse, the technology industry can take care of itself.  It needs public guidance, however.

What to do about it when we discover that, for example, women do not benefit equally by the availabilty of mobile services is a big question mark.  Mobile supply, unlike landline service, has been left largely to an unregulated private sector in which gender inequality is seen as just one factor among many in the sector's profit calculations, not a social blight that needs to be remedied.  Having given away the store, what tools are left for the public sector or NGOs to do to fix things?  This is bigger than simple utility regulation:  whole networks of commerce and social relationships need restructuring.  Who's responsible for that and has the know-how?

Mobile Computing and Microfinance and Public Health

On my blog a few years ago, I wrote:  

"This brings us to mobile networks and the ubiquitous data connections they provide.   As we enter an age where the mobile phone is used by more than any other information communication technology that has come before, we should contemplate just how remarkable it is to see finance for the masses converge with ICT (Information and Communications Technology).  While we have seen plenty of hype around this as well, we are also seeing a growing set of players who are building single-purpose transaction models on the mobile phone.  These include a surprising market for ringtone purchases, top-off value transfers, and remittances.   These are models that actually work and earn good returns for investors today."

Working with in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past few years on the issues of mobile banking and eCash, I came to realize that the biggest hurdle was the regulatory-policy regime, which has been (understandably) slow to understand and account for the new devices. 

So, while I agree with much of what Ethan Z has to say on this in his blog, I think it is important that we are still in early days of the mobile network and the policy frameworks around it.  And, while SMS is clearly the dominant data transport layer for developing countries, long term, the evolution is toward internet-enabled devices. 

It also seems likely that the telecom as the transport layer model will return, as this dynamic plays out.  We're already seeing this with the iPhone store, Android Marketplace, and GSMA Widgets standards.  Telecom players are really good at creating pipes and provisioning bandwidth and not so good at offering value added services to customers - its often third party providers that come and do this work.  Take the simple example of iPhone's location awareness on the AT&T network.  That was something that AT&T could have provided in concert with Apple, yet it took a third party company to recognize a disconnect and find a way to bundle that into the iPhone system.

Similarly, we can look at the different models for mBanking around the world and conclude that there are Banking-led models and Telecom-led models, but the reality is that most of them are offered by third-party providers, identifying a gap and moving the telecom and the bank into a new realm. 

It seems likely to me that in 10 years we will no longer make a distinction between a mobile phone device and a PC device. 

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