How the Developing World is Using Cellphone Technology to Change Lives

Monday, March 26, 2012

In Nigeria, a young girl can ask questions about sex discretely through SMS and get accurate information.

After the earthquake in Haiti, survivors in remote towns could receive money for food straight to their cellphone.

In Senegal, election monitors sent updates on polling stations through their mobile phones, revising an online map in real time with details about late openings or worse.

Projects like Learning about Living in Nigeria, MercyCorps in Haiti and Senevote2012 in Senegal are just a few examples of how the rapid spread of mobile technology has changed life in the global south.

Many places are jumping straight from paper records to mobile information because they are getting cellphone towers before Internet connections or even traditional phone lines. This means that for the first time it’s possible for a doctor in Guatemala City to monitor a newborn baby in a rural part of the country.

“People who never had access to information can get to a telecentre or a computer at their church or they have a mobile phone even if they share that mobile phone with their whole family and everyone just has their own SIM card,” said Revi Sterling, director of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD) graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“If that’s your data collection tool instead of papers that get blown away and eaten by goats, that’s valuable,” said Sterling.

Sterling founded the master’s program in 2010 to help produce students who could capitalize on the boom of connectivity in the developing world. It focuses on building connections between the world of technology and the world of development — something many see as a lucrative opportunity.

In 2001, just eight out of 100 people in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription. Now, nearly 80 out of 100 do.

In India, more people have access to cellphones than toilets, according to a 2010 report from the United Nations University.

“I have lots of students who come from an engineering and science background who say, ‘But you can’t eat (network) cable and you can’t drink YouTube,’” said Sterling. “The idea that you could ride the development wave on an emerging trend like technology certainly makes the technology a really indispensable tool.”

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