Mobile Web for Social Development Roadmap Released

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 16, 2009

After more than a year's work, the World Wide Web Consortium's Mobile Web for Social Development is releasing its final product: a roadmap that outlines where mobile for social development is today, and will be going in the next few years.

The document is long and dense at times, but highlights a few noteworthy trends and developments.  As with any product developed by committee (and a small committee, in this case - no more than four or five people during the bi-monthly phone calls and drafting process, none of them actual NGO practitioners) this document is lacking specificity and actual relevant use cases, tending to be too esoteric to be useful.

Here are a few highlights of what we liked followed by a discussion of the documents shortcomings.

  • This the first attempt to consolidate and solidify what we know to date about some of the technical aspects of mobiles in social development and to bring together in a coherent way the technologies and to come up with a set of recommendations for various stakehoiders.
  • We really liked, conceptually, anyway, the two main tables/matrices in the roadmap that sum up the findings.  (And yes, we would love to link to it here, but alas, the design is so terrible that there IS not direct link). You will just have to scroll through the doc. The tables identify the challenges that are impacting either developers or users of mobile services and content, showcases the potential of existing technologies to meet these challenges.  To illustrate, for example, the findings from a user-perspective are as follows (click on the image for a bigger version).










Similarly, there is a nice summary for content creators, with an overview of the same technologies that is worth checking out.

Unfortunately, the roadmap has also significant shortcomings. 

  • Quite a bit of the information is dated already. Particularly, sections on voice and USSD are not taking into consideration that there is rapid progress in services both in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. USSD services are being offered there already as standard fare in a number of coountries with more being rolled out in short order.  We know of at least one large-scale USSD service that will be rolling out across multiple countries focused specifically on social development projects. Likewise, projects like IFFCO in India are already taken adavantage of voice services at scale with millions of messages being sent daily. Neither of these projects is even mentioned or considered in the Roadmap.
  • There are some other significant efforts entirely missing from the report.  For example, one of the recommendations includesthe following: "Share, cooperate, collaborate and document work and projects so that the whole community can benefit from the experience of others. In that regard, before engaging in new projects, one should carefully examine preexisting projects and real market needs/demands before (re)developing pieces that are already available."  We are, in fact, wholehartedly behind this recommendation -- that is the reason why exists in the first place.  However, that is never mentioned in the document. Likewise, the Roadmap suggest to "implement and rely on documented open data formats that would allow aggregation of information from different small systems as well as provide a global overview on what is happening locally."  And yet, there is no mention of some of these efforts already under way, for example, as part of the Open Mobile Consortium.  It seems that these are either ommisions of not knowing this field very well, or, as one might wonder, political in nature.
  • Mobile payments as a significant form of social development are given scarce attention.  While arguably somewhat beyond the scope of the document in terms of its focus, mobile payments and underlying standards and technologies hold huge potential for social development. After all, remittance payments with 305 billion dollars in 2008, for example, are, three times greater than development aid (which in any case, is estimated to only end up in country at a rate of 30-40% with the rest, in fact, aiding the donor countries and aid organizations). It would have behoved the authors of the Roadmap to acknowledge the key role payments will play in development, asset generation, and poverty alleviation. A short discussion of the underlying technologies and standards in this realm would have been useful given the significance of payments. 
  • The document is, so it states, targeted at so-called practitioners.  However, in its structure, language, and design it is most definitely not for the faint of heart and, if anything, targeting only the most technical of practiioners who are not afraid of acronyms, technical specs, and dense and at times incomprehensible prose. It would have helped to engage practitioners into the process but there was no community around the drafting or production of this document whatsoever.  This is a serious shortcoming.

It is a decent start but falls short of what will realize the potential of mobile technology for development:  Useful and practical information that helps practioners understand the landscape and options, and connets them in a community of practice with one another and necessary technical expertise.  A policy agenda that looks with a sharp and discerning eye and good data at the ways in which there isn't an enabling mobile environment for social development such as critical contextual issues like the high cost of mobile communications in many parts of the world in relation to people's income, and taxation, for example.

We applaud this first attempt, however, to solidify some of the wide-ranging discussion and develop a framework that, even if not quite adequate in process and presentation, nonetheless serves as a beginning on which to build on in future (and less time-consuming) iterations.

USSD projects?

Hi Katrin,

in your piece you mention some "USSD service that will be rolling out across multiple countries focused specifically on social development projects". Could you provide me with some details on this? We are experimenting with using USSD for M&E data gathering and I'd be very interested to see if others have used the technology in similar manners before.

Many thanks in advance & best wishes,
Johannes von Engelhardt

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