Smartphones are the PCs of the developing world

Smartphones are the PCs of the developing world


01 August 2007
Jessica Marshall, NewScientist.com news service

THEY were once simple little devices that we used to call our
friends from the road to say we were running late. But no longer. As
the unfettered drooling over the iPhone has demonstrated, these days we
like our cellphones to come customised for our amusement with games,
video cameras and internet access.

Smartphones
may seem like a frivolous indulgence for rich westerners, but it turns
out that their added features can be harnessed to help people in poorer
countries do business, educate their children and even hold those in
power to account.

"Smartphones
are probably much more revolutionary for developing countries," says
John Canny, an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who
is creating educational video games that run on smartphones (See "Learn English by phone").
"Here smartphones are a bit gimmicky. In the developing regions you
have hostile conditions for a PC so phones have a lot of potential to
become the computing platform for people," says Canny.

Being
able to communicate in real time via speech and text using basic
cellphones has already proved invaluable for communities that were
never connected by landlines. Ajedi-ka,
an organisation that works to promote human rights in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, distributes phones to local teachers, elders and
business leaders so that they can report incidents of children being
drafted as soldiers. The phones make reporting faster and easier.
Meanwhile, health workers across the developing world have started
using cellphones to monitor disease outbreaks in real time. In Kenya
phones are being turned into mini-ATM machines via Vodafone’s M-PESA
program, which allows users to load money onto their phones in shops
and then send it via a text message to someone else, in their village
say. They can also withdraw the money at another location using a
password, which in Kenya can be much safer than carrying cash.

For
some financial uses, however, it is the phones’ ability to take photos
and record and send video clips that researchers believe will come in
handy.

Micro-lending
groups are typically run by women in rural areas who arrange small
loans for each other or act as mediators between banks and the local
community. They have proved to be a successful strategy in sparking
business endeavours and combating poverty. But one problem is that
these groups often keep poor accounts, which can make it difficult for
banks or other lenders to invest in them with confidence.

"When
banks are interested in lending to these people, if they’re lucky the
groups will have a stack of paper records," says Tapan Parikh, a
computer scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who works
with micro-finance groups in India.

Typically,
these records would include forms stating the agreed amount, duration
of the loan and repayment receipts. Parikh learned that group members
prefer the paper forms because many can’t read and so fill them out by
memorising which numbers go in which boxes. As a result, he stuck with
paper but turned to camera-phones to make the accounting process more
secure and transparent.

He
created a new version of the paper forms, which look like the old ones
except that a barcode has been added next to each box or section where
you need to fill in numbers. Instead of filling out these new forms,
you take a picture of each barcode with a cellphone. Software on the
phone recognises the barcode and a message appears on the screen,
prompting you to enter the figures that would have gone in the section
that corresponds to that barcode. There is also a spoken version of the
message to make things clearer for those who can’t read. In this way,
the borrower or lender scrolls through the whole form, taking snapshots
of the barcodes and entering data via the phone’s keypad. The result is
an electronic version of the form, which is initially stored on the
phone and later uploaded to a central server when the phone is near a
mast.

Saving
the information on a server makes accounting simpler as data can’t
easily be lost, and it provides a way for large banks that are
considering investing in these small businesses to check how successful
they are.

Parikh’s
system has another advantage, however: additional information, such as
photos or videos, can be attached to the electronic form that was
saved, and stored on the central server as well. In order to inform a
potential lender of what exactly the business does, you might
photograph a written description or send a video of the business in
action. "You can capture data potentially in the local language or with
people who can’t read or write," says Parikh.

After
running trials of the barcode system in communities in Tamil Nadu,
India, Parikh has co-founded a company that will charge banks trying to
decide where to invest for the data the system stores.

The
forms can also be used by inspectors who certify rural farmers as
organic or fair trade. By laminating the forms so that they can survive
the rough and muddy conditions the inspectors face, the barcodes are
being used to bring up the correct part of the electronic forms,
allowing data gathered on site to be entered straight into the phone.
Again, photos or videos can be attached.

Farmers
can also use photo and video-recording facilities on cellphones to
share information about farming practices. In India, the non-profit
organisation Almost All Questions Answered (aAqua)
already operates a network where farmers can send questions to
agricultural experts via text message or the internet, and check crop
price information. But it is only accessible to those who can read,
says Srinivasan Keshav of the University of Waterloo in Ontario,
Canada. "If you’re educated, you can send text. If you’re not, you need
video or audio."

"Farmers can use video recording on phones to share information about farming practices"

Keshav
is working on ways to help farmers send videos from their cellphones in
place of text and to make these videos searchable by other farmers.

He
also sees other uses for video and photo sharing, such as tracking
whether development funds assigned to build a dam, say, are being
properly used. With videophones, whistle-blowers could publicise
footage showing that a dam is not actually being built or that logging
regulations are being breached. Keshav’s group is trying to work out
how to send such videos anonymously.

One
problem with relying on video and photos is the expense. While the cost
of the hardware will probably come down, sending photos or videos via a
standard cellphone network is expensive because the files are large and
take a long time to send. Using Wi-Fi to send messages, instead of
cellphone networks, would provide more bandwidth and cost less. But
although cellphone chips capable of Wi-Fi have been available for
years, phone service providers have fought to keep them shut off,
because people talking via Wi-Fi instead of the cellular networks would
cut into their revenues.

Now
that could change. Last month, T-Mobile tried to snag new customers by
becoming the first US cellphone provider to allow users to talk via
Wi-Fi whenever they were within range of a base station, from anywhere
in the world, for a monthly fee of $10. Keshav hopes that allowing
phones to use Wi-Fi networks wherever possible will also speed up the
sending of video and pictures in the developing world and make it
cheaper.

From issue 2615 of New Scientist magazine, 01 August 2007, page 24-25

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