What I find particularly interesting about the mobile-for-development field is how a disproportionate amount of innovation occurs in the very places where resources and funding are often in shortest supply. Just as mobile payments started off as an indigenous phenomenon long before Vodafone, the British government and Safaricom brought the world M-Pesa, numerous mobile health initiatives start off as innovative, small-scale projects before the bigger players spot their opportunity and attempt to take them to scale. One can only imagine the number that fail and fall by the wayside before they get this far -- Darwin's "survival of the fittest" can be equally applied to the mobile applications world as our own.
Stories by Ken Banks
For most of us, not knowing what the weather is going to do might at worst result in a soggy barbecue or a washed-out cricket or football match. For a farmer in the developing world it could result in the loss of an entire harvest which, at best, makes life that much harder or, at worst, brings on financial ruin or considerable human suffering. If enough farmers over a wide geographical area are affected, widespread famine becomes a very real possibility.
We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. Only last week Grameen's AppLab initiative, in conjunction with Google and MTN, launched a suite of SMS services in Uganda. These are the services you'll get to hear most about when you search the Web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side -- I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day (at most) possibly want?
The October 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan did more than mark the beginning of the "War on Terror." It also paved way for the introduction of the first mobile phone networks into the country, networks that today find themselves pawns in the fight between the Taliban, the government and security forces.
With mobile banking taking off around much of the developing world, how long will it be before international aid is delivered electronically? Sound crazy? If you think so, you might be surprised to hear that it's already started happening.
Whether you're building an application for the 3G iPhone in the United States or trying to figure out how to deliver health information via SMS (Short Message Service) to a rural community in Botswana, the mobile space is diverse and exciting in equal measure. It touches on more fields than you could throw a phone at: anthropology, appropriate technology, electronics, programming, telecommunications, geography, literacy, gender and poverty to name a few. It's this diversity that makes it so exciting. Yet, at the same time, it's this same diversity that presents us with many of our greatest challenges. In many ways, the mobile world -- particularly in the ICT4D (ICT for Development) field -- is fragmented and often misunderstood.
Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others, it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It's also a discipline shrouded in mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better known for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones or other high-tech gadgets. In today's high-tech world, anthropologists are as visible as anyone. In some projects, they're all that's visible.
Late last year, the mobile phone industry passed a remarkable milestone, one that not so many years ago it didn't even expect to reach. Media sites and blogs around the world buzzed as the news was announced with equal measures of excitement, amazement and, in some cases, guarded jealousy. We'll never know who it was, or where it was, but on that day someone, somewhere bought a mobile phone and tipped global sales past the three billion mark. "More than half the world's population now own a phone" was a typical headline.
Anyone with the remotest interest in ICT development will have noticed the battle raging at the "bottom of the pyramid," where competing initiatives have been vying for the hearts, minds and dollars of schoolchildren and education ministries the developing world over. This particular battle is being largely fought by Intel and OLPC (One Laptop Per Child), once partners but now sparring in opposite corners after months of wrangling led to an acrimonious split earlier this year.
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