Mobile Technology a Game Changer in Developing World

Tech industry and nonprofit experts tout the transformative potential of mobile devices and mobile apps in developing nations. But first stakeholders must rethink their approach to solving problems.

By Kenneth Corbin
Thu, December 13, 2012

CIO — 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."

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