Tag Archives: cellphones

Mobile in East Africa

An interesting study on mobile applications in East Africa. It looks at whats limiting applications fully taking off, with conclusions aimed at recommendations for donors. Mobile Active notes:

While mobile phones are the main channel for information in East Africa, with mobile penetration covering over 40% of the population, sustainable, scalable mobile services for social and economic development are limited. The report is supported by secondary data, statistics, and field work carried out in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, along with numerous interviews, meetings and discussions with key stakeholders in EastAfrica. Major trends in mobile usage, barriers for increased use of m-applications, as well as opportunities for scaling are discussed.

Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations it reveals is how the Kenyan M-PESA money sending service M-PESA is being used to send money (in the form of airtime credit) between Kenya and Uganda. A Kenyan Safaricom sim card automatically roams on the Ugandan UTL network, allowing the transfer of credit between the two. Mr Michael Joseph, the Safaricom Chief Executive Officer, later commented the operation: “M-Pesa does not officially operate there [in Uganda]. We are investigating. It’s quite strange” (Telecom Africa 2009).

What does this mean for future remittance activities? Will expanding roaming agreements mean migrant workers can send home remittances cheaper than Western Union, and more directly than the Hawala network?

They also outline examples of mobiles for governance (without defining what they mean by governance). The report outlines aspirational examples of what mobiles could do to strengthen accountability, transparency (presumably with the aim of increasing more responsive political system). It goes on to give examples of how mobiles have supported service delivery such as water, electricity and basic health services.

For me, good governance is politicians and civil servants responding the needs and demands of their electorate. Driving this has to be the political will amongst both to recognise that their constituents needs come first – and not serving their political masters further up the chain as is so often the case.

The report is available here (pdf).


Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

Last mile connectivity – Bangladeshi InfoLadies

Good piece in the Guardian about how Bangladeshi women, armed with  a netbook, GSM mobile, blood pressure monitor and pregnancy kit, are ‘champions’ by people who used to think it was a scandal. The project, run by D-Net (disclaimer – with Panos Im helping D-Net develop a tool for NGOs to work out how to use mobile phones in their work) aims to provide information people need in areas such as agriculture, health, sanitation and disaster management.

Its a particularly good piece, because it makes the point that these efforts are filling in where the State is failing:

“The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.”

Its striking how much innovation in the area of communications in Bangladesh.

Mobiles and Politics – shifting power relations in India

Ive long argued that mobile phones represent a Gutenberg type shift in power relations, enabling people excluded from communication and debate to be part of the conversation. Owen Barder argues cheap communication reprepsents one of the four megatrends that will affect development, changing the relationship between citizens and states

Recent research by Australian researchers Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron are exploring how India’s mobile phone boom has helped parties representing the bottom rung of the caste system do well at the ballot box.

The Sydney Morning Herald has this:

“They say it is likely mobiles contributed to the electoral success of the Bahujan Samaj Party popular with India’s Dalits, previously the untouchables of the Hindu caste system.

The BSP won a resounding election victory in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 2007 that elevated Dalit hero Kumari Mayawati to the position of Chief Minister and entrenched her as a powerful player in national politics.

There is evidence that the effective use of mobiles by the BSP helped party activists to mobilise Dalit voters. The researchers suggest the mobile phone gave BSP organisers a new way to get round the power barriers that in the old days kept low-caste people down, under control of social superiors and confined to their villages.

They describe the mobile as the ”most disruptive device to come to India in modern times” and argue consumer and communication capitalism is posing new challenges for established structures of authority and power.”

But few development practitioners and even fewer donors recognize this, and take a strategic view of the implications. DFID has closed its Information and Communication for Development unit, focussing instead on its press relations team.

Its time for development practitioners to remember that development is about politics, and that politics is essentially a communicative act. And cellphones allow increasing numbers of people to be part of the political process.

Pakistan Government funds solar powered cellphones

Always reliable blog State of Telecom Industry in Pakistan notes that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has recently mandated that all cellphone towers funded by tax revenue from telecommunications companies (held by the Pakistan Universal Service Fund) will have to use renewable energy.

Given the massive power shortages the country faces, this is a very positive move. Two questions:

  • Where are the USF funded cellphone towers located?
  • Could the USF also pay for security for towers where they are threatened?

English lessons through mobiles

In Bangladesh, the BBC World Service Trust is delivering English language lessons through SMS:

BBC Janala (‘Window’) has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.

With 39% of callers returning to the service, BBC Janala has outperformed the majority of other value added mobile products in Bangladesh which typically achieve a 5% return of customers.  The beginner’s content is experiencing a 69% repeat rate. To date 1,030,583 lessons have been accessed, with users engaging with Janala’s interactive services – including audio quizzes, English story recording and direct feedback – an additional 130,000 times.

In insecure environments, such tools offer useful ways to reach out to audiences and provide useful services directly. This could work in Afghanistan, in Somalia, Sudan and so on.