Smartphones for Development

Posted by MelissaLoudon on May 27, 2009

At the turn of millennium, tech journalists (clawing their way back from the Y2k=K non-disaster) found smartphones. Futuristic interfaces, newly-discovered mobility and the work-anywhere promise of the Blackberry kicked off the trend, later boosted by the emergence of high-speed mobile Internet and a new crop of Internet-enabled devices. Market figures are for smartphones are certainly impressive, with Gartner recording device sales of 139.4 million in 2008, up 13.9% from 2007.

That same year, the meteoric rise of the iPhone gave us the ability to purchase third-party smartphone applications through the App Store which became a major selling point for the hardware. In the first quarter of 2009, smartphone sales represented 13.5% of mobile phone sales worldwide. Sales show no sign of slowing, and neither does the blistering pace of innovation in hardware, interfaces and 'ecosystems' like the App Store.

But what does this mean for those of us working on mobiles and social change? For projects wanting to leverage the mass communication potential of mobiles, the best technology is often the one that works for everyone - the lowest common denominator in terms of phone support, accessibility or cost, predominantly voice or SMS. Smartphones are designed for business and power users, with high-end features and a price to match. If you want to build something that everyone with a phone can use, smartphone platforms are obviously not a sensible target. Conversely, 'low-tech' alternatives are inherently limited, as anyone who has ever tried to collect complex data using SMS will tell you.

Fortunately, the social impact potential of a tool isn't always dependent on the size of the user base. Smartphones promise that sophisticated applications, which previously would have required a PC (probably with wired Internet), can run on devices that are light, portable, and highly connected. People whose work involves a high degree of mobility - among them key development and civil society professionals like aid workers, activists, medical professionals, and journalists - are an obvious user group.

The user group for such applications might be relatively small and narrowly defined - for example, journalists working under repressive regimes, or doctors at central clinics. In terms of development impact, though, there is much to be gained by supporting their work. When the best tools to do this are smartphone-based, it makes sense to take advantage of mobility, advanced features and processing power that smartphone platforms offer. As Katrin posted recently, it's not all about large-scale solutions – what matters is that the solution is context-appropriate.

Introducing Android

One of the more exciting recent releases in the smartphone world is Google's Android platform. In 2009, Strategy Analytics predicts a 900% growth in sales of Android handsets, from 0.5 million in 2008. Two Android phones (The HTC Dream and HTC Magic) are already commercially available, and handsets from Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Huawei, Samsung and others are reportedly on the way. There's an Android Marketplace for third-party applications, with a rapidly increasing assortment of applications. Interest in other Android-based devices, such as netbooks and game consoles, is growing too, which can only be good news for the platform's future.

From its launch, Android promised a full open source release of the entire platform, including the operating system core, libraries, application environment and several standard applications. This took place in October 2008. The lure of an open platform approach seems to have competitors convinced too, with 2009 seeing the launch of the Symbian Foundation and a commitment by its members to open source the Symbian platform. Symbian is currently the world's most widespread smartphone platform.

Why is an open platform so important?

To date, mobile platforms have been largely proprietary, with tight hardware integration (a good example being the iPhone). In this model, control of software innovation is held firmly by device manufacturers, who design devices according to the needs of network operators. It's easy to see how non-commercial applications lose out, as manufacturers perform tricky balancing act between end-user satisfaction and network revenue.

Closed platforms take control out of the hands of the user, with the device manufacturer (and/or the network) effectively deciding what to allow the user to do with the device. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with closed platforms, at least for mobile activism work, is the threat of surveillance. Without access to the code, there is no way of knowing that surveillance features aren't present. For anyone dealing with sensitive data or communications, this should be a red flag. It's a topic we've discussed before on MobileActive, and the danger is very real.

Fortunately, open platforms offer exactly the opposite. By allowing developers to exploit the advanced features and greater processing power of smartphones, netbooks and other portable devices, additional security precaution can be built in to applications and to the system itself, with the objective of actively circumventing surveillance.

Guardian: Secure, Private Telephone Built on Google Android is a great illustration of this. Recently announced the winner of the UCB Human Rights Mobile Challenge, Guardian aims to build an open source Android-based smartphone distribution for users who need guaranteed secure communications. The project plans to do this by developing operating system components, libraries and applications to support secure and private mobile browsing, instant messaging (IM), SMS and voice-over-IP (VOIP) calls, as well as encrypted data and contacts storage, contact key management and a remote destruction 'poison pill' function.

What's out there now for M4D on Android?

Little more than a year after it was first announced, Android-based systems are just beginning to emerge in the mobiles-for-development space. Guardian and applications like it show the potential of a platform that makes it possible to develop not just applications, but new, targeted and specialised software systems. Another area where this kind of far-reaching customisation is extremely valuable is the design of accessible mobile systems for people with disabilities, a key example of a group that has largely been passed over by commercial platforms. Already, there are several projects working on Android interfaces for the blind, some taking advantage of touchscreen technology.

Evolutionary advances in applications are valuable too, and perhaps the most compelling and well-developed use-case for Android devices so far is in the familiar field of mobile data collection. Here, applications are taking advantage of better memory, processing power, media recording and location capabilities of Android devices. Open Data Kit, working to the OpenRosa standard for data collection on mobile devices, has prioritised standards-compliant generic data collection on an Android client, while projects like Moca Mobile (a mobile client interface to the popular OpenMRS open source medical records system) and POSIT (a data collection and communication tool for emergencies and disasters) have chosen to develop domain-specific tools. We also posted recently about RapidSMS on Android, an implementation of the UNICEF's RapidSMS bulk messaging platform that can also receive SMS forms, making it a self-contained data collection server.

In a previous MobileActive post, Yaw Anokwa of ODK says

As researchers we want to push the boundaries of what organizations can do today to collect their rich data. We want users to own, visualize and share this data without the difficulties of setting up and maintaining servers. We want the tools to be easy to deploy, easy to use, open source and freely available. It is only now that technology (hardware, software and infrastructure) which matches our above ideals have become available.

I can't imagine a better description not only of the role of smartphones in development and social change work, but also of the unprecedented opportunity that Android presents. For the first time, we have a well-resourced open smartphone platform, with support from both manufacturers and developers. It's still very, very early days, but my prediction is that Android will be the platform to watch over the next few years.

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