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Upwardly Mobile

Salon owner Josephine Macaladad with Merlita Werlan at the Balayan Public Market in Batangas, Philippines

Photograph courtesy of Microenterprise Access to Banking Services (MABS) Program

Few technologies have impacted the world as significantly as the mobile phone. The ability to connect with others anywhere and anytime has changed the way people think and behave. Yet, beyond phone calls, messaging, Internet access, the ability to snap photographs, and share data, these wireless devices have ushered in profound social changes that ripple into commerce, banking, healthcare, and beyond. "It is the first time in the history of technology that social class and geography are largely irrelevant," says Jhonatan Rotberg, a lecturer at MIT.

Although mobile phones have already transformed more affluent nations, they are ringing up some of the most profound changes—and biggest dividends—in developing countries, where new and innovative ideas, services, and methods of interaction are rapidly emerging. Today, people are using mobile phones to track crop prices in Kenya and manage micropayments in the Philippines. They are tapping into these devices to handle healthcare information in Nicaragua and oversee bakery orders in Nigeria.

In fact, with an estimated three billion-plus mobile phones in use worldwide and approximately 80% of the world's population within the reach of a cell tower, almost no corner of the globe remains untouched. "As the number of mobile phones has grown, an accompanying explosion in innovative approaches to using mobile technologies has taken place," says Jonathan Donner, a social scientist and researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group at Microsoft Research in Bangalore, India.

Mobile technology, Donner says, "is creating broader economic and social development opportunities. Yet, at the same time, it raises questions about how we use the technology and the types of norms and expectations that should exist."

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Dialing Into a Better Life

Although the idea for a mobile phone dates back to 1915 and wireless radio devices have been used for much of the 20th century, it wasn't until the 1990s that the technology took off in a significant way. As the size of mobile phones shrunk and the devices became simpler and more powerful, consumers began to snap them up in order to stay connected at work and in their personal life. Meanwhile, developing nations, which often had little wired infrastructure, began embracing mobile technology as a way to leapfrog expensive telecommunications investments and put phones in the hands of citizens.

The ability to skip straight to mobility has created remarkable economic opportunities. Jonathan Ledlie, a researcher for Nokia in Cambridge, MA, points out that without an existing infrastructure and legacy systems for handling financial transactions and human interactions, entrepreneurs in developing countries have become astute at inventing applications and processes that tap into the needs of these societies. "In some instances, entrepreneurs are deploying capabilities that are more advanced or innovative than those of developed nations," Ledlie observes.

"For the first time in history, information is no longer the exclusive domain of the powerful and the rich," says MIT lecturer Jhonatan Rotberg. "The ubiquity of mobile devices is changing the political and economic dynamics around the world."

The need for a person-to-person payment system prompted U.K.-based Vodafone to roll out a mobile banking system called M-pesa in July 2007. Vodafone predicted that it would sign up 200,000 subscribers in Kenya during the first year. Instead, it quickly exceeded the projections and acquired 1.6 million customers. Vodafone is now set to introduce mobile banking in neighboring Tanzania as well as India.

Meanwhile, firms such as Wizzit in South Africa and GCASH in the Philippines have introduced systems that allow customers to make purchases, payments, and withdrawals through the post office and kiosks. Those holding accounts can also exchange money and credits directly with others using these systems. And in places where no formal micropayment system exists, people have turned to their mobile phones as a way to exchange pre-paid phone card minutes via short message service (SMS).

Mobile technology is also changing how people farm. Sugarcane growers in Warana, India use their phones to check on water levels, fertilizer stock, and other supplies needed to run a cooperative, Donner says. With 70,000 farmers spread across 75 villages, buying and managing PCs is too expensive and impractical. Instead, an application using SMS disperses information to subscribers across the network. At the same time, some microentrepreneurs use mobile phones to expand their customer base. Donner tells the story of a Nigerian baker who started taking orders for cakes via SMS and quickly expanded his presence beyond his immediate neighborhood. He experienced a 30% increase in sales.

In fact, microfinance may represent the most significant aspect of mobile phone use around the world. So-called "inclusive capitalism" is making waves and changing the nature of some societies. In Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, Grameen Bank uses microcredits to put mobile phones equipped with long-lasting batteries into the hands of women. They become a village phone provider and collect small commissions from their customers. Already, more than 250,000 "phone ladies" exist and Grameen Bank has grown into Bangladesh's largest telecom provider, with annual revenues approaching $1 billion. Similar programs have popped up in other countries, including Indonesia, Rwanda, and Uganda.

Healthcare is another area attracting attention. A program piloted in Nicaragua monitors tuberculosis patients via their mobile phones. Because compliance is critical and any break in treatment can result in a relapse or others becoming infected, patients must urinate on a reactive strip every day to reveal a code. However, the process of monitoring patients and sending a healthcare worker to collect results on a daily basis is both costly and time-intensive. Instead, officials now ask patients to send data via SMS and then reward them with free cellular minutes.

In some cases, the technology is bridging the gap between the Internet and phone messaging, and improving education. In South Africa, for example, a program allows students to query Wikipedia via SMS and receive audio text that they can record on their handsets and play back anytime they desire. The hybrid nature of the application achieves something relatively rare, Donner notes. "It breaks down the walls between Web content and SMS content. In doing so, it demonstrates a way in which rich, dynamic Internet content can be made accessible to—and can be created by—communities using relatively affordable and common basic mobile handsets."

Ledlie says that enterprising minds have created a slew of other mobile solutions, incorporating ideas as diverse as M-journalism and classified advertisements. The latter includes apartment listings and "available for work" postings that serve as a simplified form of Craigslist. "For people and societies without access to computers, these types of phone-based systems offer revolutionary capabilities," Ledlie explains. "They are likely to improve lives in significant ways."

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Designs on the Future

Mobile phones have followed a predictable evolutionary path, says Minoru Etoh, a researcher at NTT DoCoMo's laboratory in Tokyo. The first stage of development was speech communication, the second stage was data communication (Web and email), and the third stage is life assistance. "SMS-based money transfers in places like India represent real life assistance," Etoh says. More importantly, "mobile phones may fill the digital divide between PC owners, who are typically more affluent, and non-PC owners."

For minorities and the disabled, mobile phones can provide critical capabilities as well as social networking opportunities that haven't previously existed. The technology also breaks down social structures and class divisions. "For the first time in history," Rotberg observes, "information is no longer the exclusive domain of the powerful and the rich. The ubiquity of mobile devices is changing the political and economic dynamics around the world. The technology is empowering people that have in the past been disenfranchised."

Those in more affluent regions are also altering the way they view the world. Social networking—through text and photo messaging, games, and sites such as Facebook and Twitter—are creating opportunities to interact in entirely different ways. "Social networking allows people to create distinct networks of friends, family, and colleagues and to broadcast what they are doing along with short updates about their lives," Ledlie says. In the coming years, he notes, phones are also likely to replace subway cards, parking passes, and credit and debit cards.

The challenge for engineers and designers is to build devices and interfaces that meet the needs of diverse populations. So far, most mobile phones have undergone a "trickle down" process of moving from more demanding and affluent users in developed nations to individuals in poorer countries. However, the situation is beginning to change, as Nokia and other manufacturers introduce phones that are sand-proof, incorporate flashlights, and use easily replaceable parts that better fit the needs of those who live in places where phones cannot be easily repaired.

Designers such as Etoh and Ledlie say that, in the future, it is vital to adapt user interfaces to better match the needs and requirements of specific groups and user segments. It's also necessary to design phones that support customized applications, such as those running on Java and Ajax, and develop better mobile Web browsers, improved speech recognition, and more streamlined user interfaces that blend voice, data, and Web features into a single, seamless package.

Researchers are also exploring ways to bring the Web closer to mobile phones, through audio wikis and audio "anthro" features that would allow people to record stories and share them. And while text messaging is inexpensive and easy to use, it lacks the advanced features of custom-designed applications, which come at a steep cost in terms of development and adoption. Finally, there's the social and psychological element. It's crucial to confront the implications of "individual addressability" and the changing personal boundaries created by mobile communications.

Yet, research and development marches on. MIT's Next Billion Network is now working to promote mobile technologies that affect change from the bottom up. The initiative aims to explore the use of mobile phones as more than mere talking and texting devices and to push viable technology solutions from the lab to real life. "Tremendous barriers to widespread adoption still exist," Rotberg observes. "But the opportunities for change and economic empowerment are enormous. We have only begun to unlock the power of mobile technology."

Promoting change is also at the center of David M. Reich's universe. The former telecommunications analyst has his sights set on developing a mobile marketplace to connect low-wage workers and employers around the globe. The company, Assured Labor, will roll out its service later this year in an attempt to address the 280 million individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, or toiling in subpar work conditions. "We want to make it simple for employers to find good and trustworthy workers quickly, anywhere, and at anytime," Reich explains.

Make no mistake, the future of mobile technology looks bright. "What makes mobile phones so remarkable," Donner says, "is that they connect people to people, whereas landlines connect places to places." By unwiring the world, people are ultimately able to rewire their minds—and change things for the better. "Mobile technology," he concludes, "has the potential to help enterprises, villages, cities, and regions connect and conduct matters of daily life more efficiently than ever before."

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Samuel Greengard is an author and freelance writer based in West Linn, OR.

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UF1Figure. Beauty salon owner Josephine Macaladad, left, shares a lighthearted moment with Merlita Werlan, who converts cash into mobile phone-usable GCASH at the Balayan Public Market in Batangas, Philippines.

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