Mobile technology's world-saving mission

Countless anecdotes reveal the value of wireless communication for the developing world, but does technology hold the key to improving the lives of the world's most vulnerable people?

The 3.5 billion mobile phones in circulation worldwide represent more than half the world's 6.6 billion population. Of course, many people carry more than one mobile device, but that still means a large proportion of the world has access to wireless communications.

While almost all modern technologies are concentrated in rich countries — economies where the average person earns more than $30 a day — when it comes to mobile phones, the technology is just as prevalent in poor countries, where average income falls below $10 a day. Five-sixths of the world live in such areas.

The commercial success of the wireless industry is obviously impressive, but how is wireless technology changing the world? Is it, in fact, helping to make life better on earth?

For most people reading this, it is obvious that wireless technology has totally transformed the way we live. If we get lost in an unfamiliar part of town, we can use Google Maps on our smartphone to lead us back to familiar territory. Or when traffic has made us late for an important meeting, we can still get hold of the people we need to talk to.

In poorer countries these simple acts of hooking up and looking up are much more than mere convenience. In Kenya, finding the best price for a crop before starting a long, arduous journey to market can mean a substantial difference in daily income; for a contract labourer, being reachable while on the move can mean the difference between being employed for a day or missing out.

Given the impact mobile technology can have, it is right that we should have high expectations of its potential to tackle the world's most pressing problems in economic and social development. The majority of mobile phones are already in the hands of people living in poor countries.

Those sheer numbers, together with the technology's timeliness, speed, dispersion and decentralisation, make the mobile phone an instrument ideal for enabling the world's poorest individuals to help themselves.

A growing number of examples show how individuals and groups in the poorest countries use mobile technology in ingenious, important and even life-saving ways: for example, violence prevention under armed conflict in Kenya, or co-ordinating humanitarian relief in Syrian refugee camps and tsunami-stricken Indonesia.

Yet, because the stakes are so high, we need more than just anecdote and isolated case studies to understand the impact mobile technology can have in the developing world — useful though these can be for shedding light on the issues at hand. What succeeds in a small village might fail when rolled out...

...across an entire country. We need to see how those successes on a small scale can be made to work on a larger scale, to help many more of those desperately in need: the hundreds of millions afflicted by disease, disaster, famine and armed conflict; the billion people on earth living on less than $1 a day; the five billion people living in countries earning on average less than $10 a day.

Mobile tech for the greater good
When examining what will help the greatest number of people, some difficult questions need to be addressed. For example, having only finite resources and limited political will, should global society put yet more investment into wireless infrastructure? Or should it instead put those resources into carbon sequestration technologies, mosquito nets provision, or energy-efficient hybrid cars?

Two organisations engaged in research and field projects around the impact of mobile technology on developing communities are the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation — the charitable arm of the service provider. The organisations work towards ambitious goals that, at the same time, acknowledge the specific strengths and weaknesses in wireless technology. My own reading of those goals is as follows:

  1. To develop telecommunications systems to aid emergency humanitarian disaster relief
  2. To provide health data systems to combat epidemic and pandemic disease
  3. To track the impact of environmental change
  4. To foster innovative use of advanced technologies to further international development

These are no small aims. The magnitude of what is trying to be achieved here is truly massive, and its significance not easily grasped. 

For example, this month's cyclone in Burma and earthquake in China within days resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, many more people still missing, and hundreds of thousands made homeless. In the 20th century, 200 million people worldwide have died from measles, 80-250 million from malaria, 40-100 million from tuberculosis, and 300 million from each of smallpox and bubonic plague. The December 2004 Asian Tsunami killed 225,000–280,000 people in 11 countries with ocean waves whose total energies exceeded five megatons of TNT, double the destructive power unleashed in all of World War II (including the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Ethnic atrocity in Rwanda killed 800,000 in 1994; and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, over 200,000 between 1992 and 1995. The 1984 Bhopal industrial disaster killed between 4,000 and 8,000 within two weeks, with perhaps up to 100,000 people afflicted permanently with debilitating illness.

If wireless technology can be applied to alleviate the human misery in these situations, the calibration of its benefits would be incontrovertible. And those those benefits need not be limited to poor or developing countries: a Harvard Medical Practice Study estimated that in 1997, over 98,000 deaths in the US were caused by preventable medical errors, among them errors that could be avoided through better information and communications management — wireless technology. Even if this figure were a twofold over-estimate, that would still add up to more deaths in the US than those due to car accidents, breast cancer and HIV/Aids.

Case studies and anecdotes provide vivid understanding of how wireless technologies can make the world a better place. We now need to go beyond this, to provide top-down quantification of such effects, stacked against the largest challenges facing humanity that wireless technology can yet address. In a world with limited resources we need quantitative evidence, if we are to choose wisely from those technologies that have the potential to improve the state of the world. What is at stake is enormous.

Danny Quah, is head of department and professor of economics, LSE. This column is partly in response to the report, Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use, released by the United Nations Foundation and The Vodafone Group Foundation.