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February 19, 2007 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Bridging the digital divide - The ubiquitious cellphone has been recognized as a key tool for the social and economic development for many at the bottom of the pyramid - Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Yunus' GrameenPhone received an award in a category that didn't exist last year - "Best Use of Mobile for Social & Economic Development" for their Healthline project at the recently concluded 3GSM Congress in Barcelona last week. Another winner was the ultra low cost Motofone which was designed after two years of research into the needs of the rural and urban poor in India. We need many more such applications available for the "other 4 billion" if this bridge is to be built across the divide.
posted by infini (37 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
And which of these links do I click on to, you know, get the general gist?
posted by Jimbob at 9:14 PM on February 19, 2007


Who decides that there is a so-called "divide"? Handset makers who see only dollars? Empowerment of third world masses has a nice egalitarian ring to it, and it might open up avenues previously unavailable, but this all seems to me a bit hyped. Cell phones aren't going to make the water cleaner for downtrodden Africans or Indians, nor will it make the governments any less lopsided.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:19 PM on February 19, 2007


Aah but if the downtrodden Africans can ring someone and TELL them the water's dirty, maybe someone will do something about it!

(I presume that's the theory?)
posted by Jimbob at 9:19 PM on February 19, 2007


sorry - there isn't a general gist out yet, but the first link allows you to scroll down to the award and the healthline project description.

Or a self link that is still a work in progress.
posted by infini at 9:24 PM on February 19, 2007


Oh lord, another linkful paean celebrating another marketing ploy. Most of the world's poor don't even need electricity at home, let alone sophisticated electronics in their pockets. Let's try helping them establish an adequate diet, at least minimal heath care and a modicum of social peace before we push cell phones on them, okay? (Philosophers, present!)

[On preview, I see I'm only echoing what Burhanistan said. GMTA!]
posted by davy at 9:24 PM on February 19, 2007


Burhanistan: here's one view of possibilities with the flow of wealth that the cellphone has released in microenterprises
posted by infini at 9:30 PM on February 19, 2007


Davy: While potable water, health care needs and nutrition are certainly far more pressing than owning a mobile phone - here is one case where it is not a matter of the manufacturers trying to push their devices as discovering who has been buying them and how they've been making a difference to the daily wages they earn with it.
posted by infini at 9:34 PM on February 19, 2007


Well, nobody ever said that people should get cellphones INSTEAD of clean water. But mobile telephony has proven to be a very effective leapfrog technology that has helped people in third-world countries start businesses, stay connected with far-flung working relatives, and organize politically.

It's a market that can and should be served, and we shouldn't underestimate its potential benefits for other development avenues such as public health and political reform.

Also davy: a lot of the people who have cell phones in these countries don't have electricity in their homes. They charge their phones at a charging station (usually run by a local entrepeneur).
posted by xthlc at 9:34 PM on February 19, 2007


Nice post, infini!
Burhanistan: There is a pilot program in place that helps African farmers know when to irrigate their crops.
Davy, if you bothered to read any of the articles, you'd see that a number of these programs are about creating access to health care professionals and providing biofuels to run small generators to power phones. Phones are also being used as learning tools for children in poor areas.
Way to spread the hate without RTFA.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:35 PM on February 19, 2007


heh I was trying to collate and capture the gist of my own research, thanks oneirodynia - the mobilEd thing in South Africa is probably the next big application after banking the unbanked and providing connections.
posted by infini at 9:40 PM on February 19, 2007


Uh, inifini, heroin and crack have released a flow of wealth in Baltimore. That's what life's about, making some people wealthier, eh?

And oneirodynia, "providing biofuels to run small generators to power phones" presupposes the value of phones, does it not?

Saith xthlc: "They charge their phones at a charging station (usually run by a local entrepeneur)." Oh I see, this creates or reinforces local petit bourgeois! What marvellous social progress! That's right up there with getting people to entrust all their money to bankers and become endebted to them. Surely I must change my opinion straightaway; I wouldn't want anyone t think me a luddite or a pinko.

Eh, I'll perform RTFA when I'm not so bloody tired. I'll be a tough sell though, seeing as I'm living in a metropolis in the U.S.A. and don't see a pressing need to have a cell phone myself.
posted by davy at 9:46 PM on February 19, 2007


Yeah, communication is pretty unimportant to building a cohesive society. It's too bad that phones in the developing world are often used for frivolous things such determining the fair market value of your crops so that you don't get ripped off by your local middleman.
posted by FreedomTickler at 9:48 PM on February 19, 2007


All hail Mammon and his faith of Marketing!
posted by davy at 9:48 PM on February 19, 2007


true - any metropolis in the USA [save NOLA] has running potable water, social security, welfare checks, unemployment benefits and emergency healthcare even for the indigents on the street.

too bad I'm from Calcutta, its not known as the Black Hole for nothing.
posted by infini at 9:49 PM on February 19, 2007


Freedom Tickler might have a point. I'm not sure cell phones are the answer however.
posted by davy at 9:51 PM on February 19, 2007


Cellphones were not even considered the answer - the Almight $100 laptop was/is/whatever - but sheer numbers speak for themselves.
posted by infini at 9:56 PM on February 19, 2007


Davy, you're completely lost and are coming off as extraordinarily obnoxious. Who the fuck are you to tell people they don't need communication tools? What kinda bullshit attitude is it to sit comfortably in a metropolis created by the harshest capitalist economy on earth and hate on wealth generation in other places? You think crappy class struggle politics hasn't visited enough pain on human populations? What freakin obscene ignorance makes you think the benefit to rural populations of cell phones is the same as an urbanite with a landline deciding he doesn't need one? Do you have any idea what the telecommunications infrastructure and regulation environment is like around the world? This isn't about cell phones vs landlines, it's about cell phones vs. no phones. What kinda idiotic sentiment is it to mandate a technology progress dialectic? Do you want a show of hands about whether people would have better sanitation before they can have cell phones or do you just know better than everyone whose first contact with a digital network is a mobile phone? Look at the adoption numbers in even less well-to-do demographics and tell me you dare to say they're all idiots sacrificed to market hype.
posted by Firas at 10:47 PM on February 19, 2007 [8 favorites]


Many places in the developing world have food and clean water, but they can't quite move past the stage of having "just enough." That's the group that cell phones can help.

Potential uses:
* Calling to get medical help to an area
* Making business calls (like selling crops) without having to walk to another village
* Finding out the current price of crops (already mentioned)

Also remember that many impoverished areas have no land line telephones. People simply steal the copper wires and sell them.

I don't think that anyone suggests using cell phones to remedy famine.
posted by mazatec at 11:08 PM on February 19, 2007


In a lot of those places, cellular is pretty much the only way to get phone service. If you try to put in landlines, people go out at night and steal the wire. (I'm not joking; it's a real problem.)

Firas: Quite right.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:18 PM on February 19, 2007


By the way, if history tells us anything, it makes extremely clear that there's always been a very close correlation between degree of prosperity and the speed and efficiency of transportation and communications. The faster that people, goods, and information can move around, the better off everyone will be once they begin to take advantage of it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:22 PM on February 19, 2007


My question is; how's the coverage?

I live in the suburbs of a city in a wealthy first-world nation. At my house, I can't get mobile phone reception 80% of the time. At my office, a few suburbs over, it's a bit better; my mobile doesn't work maybe 30% of the time.

If I leave this city - go just 10 kilometers away into the rural areas, my phone doesn't work at all. I could get a CDMA phone that will work; at much greater cost for calls, and cost for the phone itself.

If the situation is this bad for me, how's it going to work in rural Tanzania? It's a serious question; if they have better cell infrastructure than I do here in Australia, then that's fantastic - I'm just wondering how they achieved it...
posted by Jimbob at 11:23 PM on February 19, 2007


Jimbob: It depends, I've had excellent coverage in a tiger sanctuary in a remote part of northwest India yet drop calls regularly here in my home office in San Francisco. While it seems instinctive that developed nations would have better facilities than the newly emerging ones, keep in mind that these are the latest technologies being implemented there while more established countries probably have older infrastructure.

They achieved it by lots and lots of investment - at least India and China stand out in that regard. Vodafone, the world's largest provider has just entered the Indian market with a significant purchase.

Across Africa, it can be spotty but I wouldn't be surprised if Celtel, MTN et al are doing something about if only because the landline doesn't exist as a fall back option if there isn't any wireless signal.
posted by infini at 11:46 PM on February 19, 2007


In terms of coverage, the biggest headache for operating companies is high-rise steel frame buildings. Not a lot of those out in the boonies in Africa.

CDMA is particularly good for this kind of thing because it's possible for a tower to communicate with a phone that's 30 miles away if conditions are right. So a single cell can provide coverage to a very large area.

Infini, I'm not so sure that these places are getting the "latest technology". In a lot of cases I think what they're doing is to buy second-hand infrastructure from Europe and the US which is being replaced with newer stuff. That allows them to get a lot of hardware cheap.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:58 PM on February 19, 2007


Steven C.Den Beste - I'm not sure either, I've not looked into it as yet but was thinking of what's been happening in India and China. I think you are probably right with respect to African nations. Though even that is changing - places with no existing infrastructure are great for prototyping and testing your latest technology under the harshest conditions - I wouldn't be surprised at the results ...

*wanders off to google*
posted by infini at 12:02 AM on February 20, 2007


...places with no existing infrastructure are great for prototyping and testing your latest technology under the harshest conditions...

As to that, we never did it when I worked at Qualcomm. Not once. Our most important location for field testing was Manhattan. In terms of reliable operations, that's the most "harsh conditions" to be found anywhere in the world.

What you're thinking of doesn't apply: the infrastructure equipment doesn't operate in "harsh environmental conditions", even in Africa. Manhattan, and maybe Tokyo, is the harshest operating conditions in terms of all the buildings and the level of RF traffic.

One reason for not trying to do that in the Third World was because it was a royal bitch, not to mention unsafe, for our people to go into those kinds of areas. Not worth it.

We were even leery of some more developed nations. One time a couple of our technicians working in Volgograd were arrested and imprisoned. It turned out to be a case of a bribe not paid; some disgruntled corrupt local official thought he was entitled to graft, so he trumped up some sort of charge against our people. We raised hell and the US government got involved for us. Eventually a face-saving deal was made: the case would get transfered from the local authorities to Moscow, our people were permitted to leave Russia as long as they promised to return if asked for further investigations, and everyone quietly forgot it. They never went back and never were asked to. Russia never formally admitted that the whole thing was a crock, but that was the essence of it.

The danger of that kind of thing, not to mention brigands and revolutionaries and other nasties ruining your day, is ten times worse in places like Nigeria and Botswana. It just ain't safe there.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:16 AM on February 20, 2007


FPP with 28 links in what amounts to a brief essay with reference material that exceeds the length of the essay. 8 comments with an additional 16 links, including 2 which are self-links (I was told recently that self-links were almost without exception verboten). I was under the impression that this was not our personal soapbox, not a forum to discuss our pet projects/causes, but a place to share interesting things we find.
posted by sluglicker at 12:48 AM on February 20, 2007


CDMA is particularly good for this kind of thing
As to that, we never did it when I worked at Qualcomm. Not once. Our most important location for field testing was Manhattan. In terms of reliable operations, that's the most "harsh conditions" to be found anywhere in the world.

Those poor Africans would be better off with clay tablets than anything sold by Qualcomm. GSM is THE technology choice for the developing world. With almost 2 billion GSM users, the security of the SIM card that makes micro-transactions possible - and no royalty greedy Qualcomm sucking the life out of the technology - the massive economies of scale of GSM are closing the digital divide.
posted by three blind mice at 1:17 AM on February 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


infini: Totally tangential point, but Calcutta wasn't called the Black Hole for its urban conditions.

An old piece on how mobile phones have created an electronic economy in the deepest Congo.
posted by the cydonian at 1:46 AM on February 20, 2007


If you ever doubt how important mobile phones are outside the world us rich kids live in, talk to Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who works for Intel. She's not only extremely enthusiastic about what's happening, she's very clear on the importance of not imposing our ideas of how the technology should be used. It can be hard to imagine just how desperate people are for information on their own terms, and if anyone can think of a better way of providing it than affordable mobiles with affordable infrastructure then I'll be delighted to hear it.

Get the tech out there, and stand well back.

(oh, and the best bit is - if by some all-too imaginable process we all end up scrabbling after scarce resources in an unforgiving environment, then the lessons learned now will be worth their weight in gold-plated Nokias)
posted by Devonian at 2:19 AM on February 20, 2007


cydonian: yah, I know but couldn't resist in that context of usage.

sluglicker: bad habit of mine to get carried away in a debate on a topic i'm passionate about, sue me or flag the post. self links are allowed in comments. and if jimbob hadn't asked for the gist there would not have been one. but its' pretty cool you counted all my links and comments :p

three blind mice: yes, nokia has pulled out of cdma from what I heard they closed down their design center in San Diego as well.

devonian: I'd just go one step further and add relevant applications such as banking or healthcare etc be developed as well as affordable mobiles with affordable infrastructure - get the tech out there, build the apps!! then get out of the way. That's the missing link, they don't have the tech to write the apps

Genevieve Bell rocks, btw, also have you seen Jan Chipchase's work?
posted by infini at 4:13 AM on February 20, 2007


sluglicker: self-links are allowed in comments so long as they're pertinent to the discussion.
posted by chimaera at 10:40 AM on February 20, 2007


Davy give up electricity and the internet or shut up. We'll know you have when you stop posting.

God forbid poor people actually enjoy life! If they wanted to be entertained or communicate with their friends they should have been born into wealth like we had the good sense to do!
posted by delmoi at 12:45 PM on February 20, 2007


Hey, firas...

Fact is, I know you would not talk to me like that in real life. Only my "SO", her ex-Marine father, and our cute 12-pound mutt talk to me like that. (And they know it it doesn't get them anything.)
posted by davy at 6:45 PM on February 20, 2007


davy, obviously not, I'm not that unhinged. What's your point? Would you call someone running a charging station a pestful petty bourgeoius to his face? I assume you have better manners. My point remains, it's ok to not know or pay attention to the dynamics of mobile device penetration and the attendant economic and regulatory factors; it's not ok to be dripping with patronizing dismissals of behaviour patterns there, especially not when coupled with a sinister denunciation of economic stratification. Africans and Indians are normal people, they have rich and poor sections of society, and businesses spring up amongst them to fulfill consumer demand. Deal with it.

I'm not someone who says that consumers make the best financial choices for themselves all the time--au contraire--but surely its better for technology adoption to happen bottom-up rather than top-down. That's the nature of tools, you never really know until you put them out there and see what happens.

I still find it unspeakably bizarre to mandate that everyone in a city should have clean water and electricity before anyone can have a phone. That's a serious misunderstanding of how human systems work. Surelu not everyone in Spain was well-fed and clothed before Columbus' trip was sponsored.

In sum, you're wrong on almost every statement you made in the thread. Surely you can see the flipside of the issue? Cell phones aren't like spinning rims. They have a transformative effect.
posted by Firas at 10:41 AM on February 21, 2007


Firas,

May I use this phrase of yours in my work? "the dynamics of mobile device penetration and the attendant economic and regulatory factors"

it sums up the essence concisely and clearly. thanks!
posted by infini at 11:05 AM on February 21, 2007


Sure. Although it's a hopelessly vague phrase :)
posted by Firas at 3:08 PM on February 21, 2007


Oh no, sir, its the perfect thesis title, were I to have been admitted to a school of thoughts, so to say. hm, someday there's an unfinished degree left in me yet, to finish. do you know I have two different but equal almost half of a graduate degree from two different schools based on the same philosophy on two different continents, i dropped out in two different centuries. so this work of mine is a night time hobby to pursue against the glow of my screen

it doesn't really matter how it is done, the most important thing in open source design is taht the important work must get done.
posted by infini at 8:49 PM on February 23, 2007


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