Gone are the days when the utility of phones was to make phone calls. Mobile phones for development have endless potential surpassing that of the desktop computer. Their value is primarily in data-gathering and knowledge-sharing, but not without a fair share of associated risks.
Over the last few weeks, I have been busy with some elaborate research. And for once, I am not talking about coursework nor my job. This time I have actually been looking to replace my four-year-old and by now screen-shattered smartphone. Like most people, I use my phone for anything but calling, and on my days off work, I use it far more than I do my computer.
I then remembered my days in Uganda. In the small town where I worked, most people owned a mobile phone, some had a smartphone, but very few had a computer. In fact, the number of mobile phone users in sub-Saharan Africa has increased at an annual rate of 18% since 2007 (Taylor and Schroeder 2015), transforming communications as well as development projects.
Location and time bound data collection
For a device with such a short history, the mobile phone but even more so the smartphone is responsible for tremendous impact, all over the globe. For one thing, it has the power to collect a significant amount of information such as location, communication practice, behaviour, and even movement. The device can be taken advantage of even more profoundly – or invasively – and gather all kinds of big data, from political ideologies to dietary preferences. As smartphones are becoming the dominant way to access the internet, different services are enabled by big data approaches (Meikle 2016). And with the South being home to so many mobile phones, the region has joined the North in contributing to big data creation.
Held near to one’s body, with all its multitude of connection portals, the mobile phone becomes an extension of oneself (Meikle 2016). And it is for this reason that it becomes much more effective than a computer in collecting data – particularly if the data needs to be time and/or location bound. For instance, in a crisis situation like a disease outbreak, routinely-collected data, made possible by mobile telephones, can provide estimates of magnitude, distribution and trends in population displacement.
“If data science is to be brought together successfully with humanitarian response, timely data access is critical” (Taylor and Schroeder 2015).
Data collected from mobile phones is also useful in other crises situations such as conflicts or natural disasters. (Check out ICT4Humans: From tech to people in humanitarian response)
Fast and cost-effective
Mobile phone technology offers some ground-breaking changes in development practice , in terms of reducing expenses and local participation. Mobile phones empower local populations to more actively participate in projects either by communicating or simply by accessing knowledge on their own.
Collecting data via mobile phones is far more cost-effective and faster than the old-fashioned face-to-face interviews. The data produced in this way is in many cases thought to be more reliable than the existing statistics collected by governments (Taylor and Schroeder 2015). Mobile surveys are a great way to provide governments, development professionals and citizens relevant and timely information regarding public services, and the like.
Big data and digital technology offer better possibilities of analysis and integration of the plethora of variables. By merging information gathered on market prices, political situation, community’s habits and weather conditions, development practitioners may be able to predict food prices and act pre-emptively.
While the North is more used to (and often times annoyed at) phone surveys, poorer states are not as familiar with this practice due to the low telephone ownership in the past. Mobile phones are, in fact, interesting in that they’re an example of a leapfrog technology, skipping over the era of fixed lines, wires and desktop computers.
Risks and future
It is no secret that development is incredibly complex without shortcuts or single cure-alls. Thus, we have to expect that even the magnificent mobile phone does not aid without its consequences. The most obvious of which is the new divide created between those that have access to a smartphone and those that do not (See blog: If it Matters, it’s Measured #WomenMatter). The mobile phone, especially the smartphone, converges the public media and the personal communication (Meikle 2016), creating risks of privacy. And as with all big data, another issue is who gathers this data and to what end.
The mobile phone has hence moved far beyond its original purpose of calling. And, it seems that we’ve only tapped into its potential, with the development of blockchains and cryptocurrencies the future of mobile technology is boundless.
At four years old, my smartphone is looking rather old and I’m ready for a replacement. And to do so I will use the money I saved from not replacing my old desktop.
Photo CC0 Creative Commons
– Canuto, O. 2013: Mobilizing Development via Mobile Phones. The World Bank. Retrieved 9 March from http://blogs.worldbank.org/growth/mobilizing-development-mobile-phones
– End of the smashed phone screen? Self-healing glass discovered by accident. 2017. The Guardian. Retrieved 10 March from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/18/smashed-cracked-phone-screen-self-healing-glass-university-of-tokyo
– Meikle, G. 2016: Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility. Abingdon: Routledge.
– Schroeder, R. 2018: Social Theory After the Internet: Media. Technology & Globalization. London: UCL Press.
– Taylor, L., Schroeder R. 2015: Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 80: 503-528.
– The limits of leapfrogging. 2008. The Economist. Retrieved 9 March from https://www.economist.com/node/10650775