28 September 2009

Deconstructing mobiles for development

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Katrin Verclas of MobileActive is launching a new series on “deconstructing mobiles for development”.

Mobile tech as a tool for social development is making the front pages in 2009. They are hyped as panathea for global issues such as rural health in developing countries, poverty alleviation, making rural markets more efficient, and activism.

We have been working in this field since 2005 and have been leading industry analysist, with direct work in a number of areas such as elections and democratic participation. While we agree that mobile phones are revolutionizing the developing world, we think it is time to take a very honest and realistic look at the promises of mobile tech for development and social change, and where these promises are falling short — and of, course, why, and what to do about that.

We are starting the series off in our first part with a post by Ethan Zuckerman, a close friend and collaborator of MobileActive.org. He gives a thoughtful overview of some of the key issues that we will be dissecting throughout the month of October.

His reflections on the subject are based on a recent IDRC-sponsored day of conversations art Harvard’s Berkman Center, and why Rip van Winkle might be surprised, and possibly dismayed if he were to wake up now. They were first published on Publius.cc and are a response to A Dialogue on ICTs, Human Development, Growth, and Poverty Reduction, also published on the same site

Here is what you will hear more about in the coming weeks:

  • A Penny for your SMS: The Cost of Mobile telephony in many developing countries: why it’s so high, what that does for social development projects, and why it does not have to be that way.
  • The Perpetual Pilot Syndrome – and the issue of scale: Much has been said about the many mobile pilot projects that never go anywhere but end when the funding runs dry. We will critically examine the numbers, what it takes to scale, whether it’s desirable, and take a close look at the most recent hype of ‘horizontal scale’ ion mobiles in development.
  • Mobiles for Open Societies? Much has been said and written about the power of mobiles in opening societies, enabling political participation, and engagement. We are taking this notion apart with a deeper exploration of key issues, going beyond the hype.
  • Are Development Organizations Missing the Mobile Wagon (or just failing to ride it?) A critical discussion of the role development organizations have been playing in using mobile tech to advance their goals – and whhat is working, and what is not.
  • What is the Role of Donors in M4D (if any)? After dissecting whether development orgs are helping or hindering the deployment of mobiles in the social sector, we turn to donors who have discovered mobile tech as their new fad, though are mostly pondering right now how to effectively fund mobiles in development.
  • Mobile (In)Security will delve into how networks operate, who knows what about mobile communications, and what that means for activism, advocacy, and social development.
  • Mobiles as a Male Enhancement Tool? A close look at the issues of mobile phones and women’s empowerment, both politically and economically.
  • Do you have to read to use a mobile? As much as 20% of the global adult population is illiterate. Given the ubiquity of SMS services, as well as text-heavy interfaces, what does that mean for reaching the next billion uses (and serving those that already have a mobile but can not read) effectively?
  • Mobile Payments for the Middle Class? We will, of course, take apart the most recent hype about mobile payments and who is benefitting most – as well as who is left behind, promotions in mainstream media notwithstanding.
  • So, Realists, What’s Next? No series would be complete with the obligatory look into the future. We summarize key issues, and make some concrete recommendations on how to realistically and effectively think about, and do work, with mobile tech in social and human development and change.

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