International development – how can mobile technology help

Five Mobile Systems

Five Mobile Systems (Photo credit:

Mobile penetration is at 89% in the developing world and could be a potential game changer for international development. The devices are being used to create crisis maps of areas stricken by natural disaster, distribute health information, enhance election monitoring, and help people without access to traditional banking services make transactions, pay bills and receive wages. The exponential increase in mobile coverage in the developing world, and the lack of traditional infrastructure means the simple device offers a cheap, alternative way of communicating to people. On top of the mass communication, mobility data is also being used in open data projects such as the IBM project in the Ivory Coast to track people’s movement in an effort to update the country’s outdated transportation system.

The impact of mobile technology is getting a lot of attention from businesses, charities and governments around the world and now USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, has recently launched a mobility office which advises the rest of the organisation on how to use mobile technology to start new initiatives. The agency works with governments in Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Peru, and the Philippines to identify mobile payment opportunities, which can avoid traditional pay packets and ensure workers receive a full salary, circumventing potential corruption. For example, police officers in Wardak province in Afghanistan saw their take-home pay go up 30 percent when their salaries changed from cash to mobile payments. In addition, a recent report from Agence France-Presse also highlighted how mobile banking has sparked a ‘minor revolution’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It allowed civil servants to both get paid on time as well as receive exactly what is owed to them, avoiding the traditional pay packet and the problems with their superiors syphoning off ‘tips’ for their own pockets. USAID is putting tens of millions of dollars into programs to support country-level mobile money initiatives and also sees them as a way to drive financial access for women in parts of the developing world where purse strings are traditionally controlled by men.

USAID is also looking at how mobile technology can also help with education in the developing world, where traditional educational tools are lacking. For example, non-profit Worldreader  brought more than half a million e-books to children in Africa via the 10,000 Kindles it’s distributed. After a one-year pilot program, the organization has launched Worldreader Mobile, a way for any feature phone user with a 2G connection to read more than 1,400 books for free.


Sir Tim Berners Lee evangelises open data

Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview

Tim Berners-Lee at a Podcast Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Tim Berners Lee spoke at an Open Government Partnership reception and highlighted how open data could help solve problems in the developing world. A 14 country study is being funded by Canada International Development Research Centre and will be overseen by leading open data experts from the Web Foundation.

The use of open data opens up numerous possibilities throughout the developing world. Whereas in the UK the use of open data is restricted by privacy laws, in developing countries it is being discussed as a potential solution to deep rooted problems. Mobility data, in particular, is helping in agriculture, education, health care,  and transport and its use is gaining the attention around the world.

Recent studies from IBM in Ivory Coast are highlighting the movement of people in an attempt to update the city’s bus system. This innovative use of mobility data is one of the largest of its kind and was made possible through the release of customer call and text data from the giant telecoms operator, Orange. Traditional surveys are too expensive so this use of mobility data, which is strictly anonymous, is cost effective.

There are of course challenges to the use of open data. In the case of Ivory Coast, Orange needed to be persuaded to release customer data and assurances needed to be made around privacy. Finally, it’s use in Ivory Coast may not be relevant in other parts of the world.