How Mobile Phones Will Power Social Good

Jan 9, 2012Dan Blue

As mobile technology spreads like wildfire through the developing world, it brings with it incredible potential.

Just over ten years ago, there were 15 million mobile phones in Africa. Today there are 616 million. In 5 years, there will be 1 billion on the continent. This same story of massive mobile growth and penetration spans the globe.

This growth means that cellular telephony, through standard voice calls and Short Message Service (SMS is how the world knows it), has become the default-and sometimes the only-way in which people in the developing world communicate.

The bottom line is simple: people have access to similar communication technology at rates and levels that few imagined a decade ago. In addition to the natural leveling effect this has on inequality and its ability to break down barriers within communities, this widespread communication platform also presents an opportunity to us as a society. We can use this widely available platform to drive and enable social good, particularly in the developing world. We're only beginning to scratch the surface of all the potential applications and services, like mobile banking, polling and data collection, social networks, distribution of public service information, and more.

Many point to the growth of the internet as presenting a similar opportunity. But while the growth of internet access has been notable, it pales in comparison to the mobile phone. Today, Africa has a 6 percent internet penetration rate, but 65 percent for the mobile phone. There is an important context to these numbers: some people in these markets have multiple SIM cards (there is no replication of the traditional U.S. method of 2-year contracts), enabling them to access different cellular networks depending on coverage. Research has yet to concretely identify exactly how widespread this is, but the growth rates and total mobile subscription stats are telling nonetheless.

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The developing world is on the verge of the same convergence the U.S. has been experiencing over the last few years: combining the two mediums into a single network and single piece of hardware, i.e. "smartphones." Fifty percent of people who access the internet in Africa and Asia only do so through a mobile device, a terrific starting point for mobile internet usage, and the introduction of 3G connectivity by operators in countries like Zimbabwe and Kyrgyzstan underscores this trend. Again, it is just beginning and only at the top section of society-voice and SMS will continue to dominate, especially until rates on mobile internet come into the price range of the world's poor.

Stories on how mobile phones are being used for social good are already coming out: empowered youth coordinating a fight against repression; the unbanked poor now having access to savings and credit through their device; community health workers going from village to village and entering public health data into an international database in seconds. The world is just now learning how to scale these ideas. Some concepts, like the ability to directly survey millions upon millions of otherwise unreachable people in a matter of days, are just beginning to take shape.

The story of the last 10-15 years was about the wildfire spread of access to communication and information technology, particularly cellular telephony. The story for the next 10-15 ought to be about how we, as a society, develop the tools and know-how to use these communication platforms and widespread access in innovative ways to drive social good.

Dan Blue is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Business Analyst at Mobile Accord.

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