As much disruption and upheaval as the Internet age has brought to far-flung industries like education, energy and finance, the emergence of mobile computing has a much greater potential for change on a global scale, a group of experts said on Thursday.
Speaking at a mobile summit hosted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, industry and nonprofit leaders suggested that the near ubiquity of mobile devices, particularly in the developing world, could be the most far-reaching technological agent for change ever invented.
"A lot of people talk about mobile as an enabler. But it's more than that. It's really a multiplier. At its heart, it's really a game changer," says Shawn Covell, vice president of government affairs at Qualcomm. "You name a sector and mobile is not just enabling it; it's transforming it."
Covell points out that there are some 6 billion mobile users in the world. Of those, adds Eric Tyler of the New America Foundation, 5 billion reside in parts of the developing world. And the devices they are using are becoming increasingly sophisticated, says Tyler, an analyst at the Washington think tank who focuses on the intersection of mobile technology and economic development.
"Feature phones are still ubiquitous," he says, "but increasingly we're seeing smartphones in the developing world."
Several panelists pointed out that mobile technology is not an end to itself, arguing against an approach that frames the challenge in terms of how mobile devices can be used to combat poverty or cure diseases. That gets it backwards, explains Sonal Shah, a senior fellow at the Case Foundation.
Mobile Movement Starts on the Ground
Instead, a more effective approach begins on the ground, in a specific community, and identifies the problem before turning to technology for a solution. In some cases that can be as simple as determining how people could benefit from improved access to relevant information, explains Shah, a former Google executive who also served as a deputy assistant to President Obama, heading up the newly created White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
She described a mobile application a small operation has developed and put to use in a poor area in India where clean running water is scarce. The application, which villagers can access for a modest fee, draws on government information, and issues an alert to a mobile device an hour ahead of the scheduled time when water is to become available.
"What's important here I think is it's what's the problem, and then what's the solution and what's the technology that can help with that?" Shah says. "I think sometimes in development we try to solve the technology problem first, and then we figure out that it wasn't the problem we were solving for. It's an information problem that needs a technology, not a technology problem that needs information."
In that light, she suggests that governments, nonprofits, businesses and others working to improve conditions in the developing world reconsider their conventional approach to tackling social challenges with technology.
"From a development perspective we tend to want to solve the problem at the top and then we want to go in and implement it, and if it doesn't work it was a failure," Shah says. "Well, the failure was in the process, not the product necessarily, and what Google and everyone else does is they're constantly changing the product as they're getting feedback in. Whether it's Facebook or Google, as they get feedback they're constantly adding and making changes to it, and that I think is one way in a process of innovation that we might think about how we look at technology differently."
Government, for its part, could do well to position itself as an information platform, she argues. Governments collect and sit on massive stores of data that, if made accessible to the general public -- and the developer community in particular -- could provide the foundation for innovative new applications that address social challenges and evolve into a commercial product for a startup, such as the fee-based water application in India.
Sonal recalls that when Todd Park was serving as the CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, he embarked on a campaign to open up the stockpiles of health data the agency collects, an effort that resulted in the launch of at least 10 new startups. (Park later went on to serve as the CTO for the entire federal government, the position he currently occupies.)
Watching the Mobile Money
Other panelists emphasized the importance of governments establishing regulatory frameworks that encourage the development and application of mobile applications with an appropriate level of oversight, particularly for apps in areas such as the transfer of mobile money.
Then, too, governments have a role to play in providing the fundamental infrastructure that supports the flow of an escalating volume of data over wireless networks.
"If you do subscribe to the idea that mobile technology really is going to be a game changer in a lot of these areas -- health care, financial services, etc. -- we really do need to work on releasing more spectrum, because the need for data is only going to increase as time goes on, and spectrum is basically the highway through which all of these services travel, so we need to look at that," Covell says.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.