“Technology only becomes socially interesting once it has become technologically boring” says Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody. It is an adage that neatly fits the world of mobile phones.
From a standing start in 1979, the number of mobile phones around the world has exploded. According to the ITU, there will be more than 4bn mobile phone subscriptions before the end of the year. They are even inviting people to guess on which day the milestone will be achieved.
Much of this growth has happened in the Developing World and the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies. For example, China shot past the 600m mark by mid-2008, whilst India had 296m mobile subscribers. BRIC economies alone are expected to account for over 1.3 billion mobile subscribers by the end of 2008. However, it is Africa which has the highest annual growth rate with 65m new subscribers during 2007, according to the ITU.
Of course, the number of subscriptions does not simply translate into number of people with access to the technology: some people have multiple phones, and in other cases multiple people use a single phone. This latter phenomenon is seen in rural Bangladesh, for example, where the hugely successful Grameen phone often serves entire villages.
Image courtesy of kiwanja.net
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that the last three decades have been a period of phenomenal growth, which has brought with it huge changes. As mobile technology has edged closer and closer to ubiquity, people have found new and interesting ways of using it, particularly in the developing world. In Shirky’s words, the technology has become socially more interesting. I have written about innovative uses of mobile phones before, such as the anti-counterfeit drug application M-pedigree, the crisis-information reporting project Ushahidi and the free, large-scale text-messaging application Frontline SMS.
Today, I went to see the next generation of mobile applications like these. They had all been designed by MIT students taking part in Nextlab, “a hands-on design course in which students research, develop and deploy mobile technologies for the next billion mobile users in developing countries”.
There were seven applications on show; many of which addressed issues that others have looked into before, such as telemedicine, microfinance and the dissemination of agricultural information.
All were of an exceptionally high standard (what else would you expect from MIT?), had been developed for different platforms (including Google’s Android platform) and were at different stages of completeness. But two really stood out for me: NextMap, for disaster management and environmental monitoring, and an m-shop, to allow remote villagers and shopkeepers to order supplies via SMS.
The latter, built on work by MIT start-up United Villages. UV originally started as a “store-and-forward” service, putting short-range Wi-Fi antennas and a hard disk on board bikes, trucks and buses travelling around rural India. Villagers could then drop off emails and other information at solar-powered internet kiosks to be picked up by these e-postmen who would upload the data when they got back to the nearest city, and hence net connection.
Image courtesy of NextLab
Since then, the company has diversified and now offers Commerce to villagers. At the moment, this is done by distributing a paper catalogue to villages; people place an order by phoning a call centre. However, this is an expensive, time-consuming process and often orders are wrong. So, the NextLab students designed a Java-based electronic catalogue which runs on virtually any phone (although not the iPhone!). Shopkeepers use the application to browse and choose items, which are then ordered by SMS. A conformation SMS is sent back to the purchaser. The application was up and running when I saw it this morning, although the real test begins in January when the students head out to India to test the application in the field.
NextMap is also partially aimed at India. The application, which mashes together several technologies, such as Twitter and Frontline SMS, has many uses. The one which impressed me was an ad-hoc disaster warning system. Users could subscribe to the service by texting “follow nextmap” to 40404. A user then locates themselves by texting “L:” and their location. When a disaster occurs, users can text in their reports which can be mapped and monitored by aid agencies and pumped out to subscriber’s phones. The developers believe it could be useful in areas of India, such as Bihar, which are prone to flooding. In areas such as this, they say, there can be an 8 hour lag between upstream flooding and the waters reaching urban areas. The SMS alerts from people upstream (e.g. “waters are rising in x”) could give people valuable time to evacuate an area about to be hit.
This is just one of the uses of NextMap. You can find out more about how it is being used for environmental data collection in Vietnam, as well as the six other NextLab projects, here.