cell phones


The explosion of mobile phones in Africa in two graphs | 

Billionaire investor Kerr Neilson is betting on Africa in part because of its mobile revolution.

“To have reliable information about anticipated weather conditions and prices of agricultural products, to be able to transmit funds to relatives in remote and distant villages, to be able to access healthcare advice on one’s mobile phone, are huge breakthroughs,” he said.

Here are two charts from the Financial Review that will certainly please Neilson:

e366b4d0-1a81-11e3-b6e2-76e4ec7b1ea5_ves snag africa telco

HT World Bank Media Revolutions blog

UNICEF Gets a Little Bit Cooler and More Innovative | 

Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian work together on mapping the future of innovation at UNICEF House, New York
Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian work together on mapping the future of innovation at UNICEF House, New York
Susan Markisz

Celebrities often fill the pages of the annual TIME 100 list. The 2013 list fulfills that trend with the inclusion of Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Jay Z, and Justin Timberlake. A more cynical article would gripe about placing musician Beyonce and skier Lindsey Vonn in the same ‘icon’ category as a woman who endured years of house arrest in an oppressive country (Aung San Suu Kyi) and a pair of women who survived assassination attempts (Malala Yousafzai and Gabby Giffords).

Heck, we here in Humanosphere are ones to do that more often than not. But I can’t help but remain fixated on the inclusion of two ‘pioneers’ from UNICEF, Chris Fabian and Erica Kochi. The two are the co-leaders of the innovation unit over at UNICEF. That’s right, one of the oldest development institutions has a group devoted to innovative solutions. Here is just a things the team is doing as summarized by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for TIME:

More than half of the 6 million births each year in Nigeria are not recorded. Without a birth certificate, a child is much less likely to get educated, be vaccinated or receive health services. Two young UNICEF staffers — Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian — moving fast within their 66-year-old organization, have made registering a birth as easy as sending a text. They’ve employed similar methods to prevent early deaths as well, creating systems to track the distribution of some 63 million insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets to stop the spread of malaria. Erica and Chris are using technology and accessible, intuitive interfaces to quickly transform the face of humanitarian aid and international development. The world will benefit from their continued efforts.

The most notable achievement by the pair is the open source technology tool RapidSMS. The tool uses cell phone text messages for collecting data that supports logistics coordination, database building and improved coordination. Its simple set up allows development organizations of any size to support their work through mobile phones. It is one of the more important developments in the realm of mHealth and it is no mistake that Kochi played a game of musical chairs at the 2012 edition of the mHealth Summit by shuffling from one panel to the next. Continue reading

Smart phones for poor farmers | 

Grameen Foundation, Heather Thorne

Simon Obwoya, Ugandan knowledge worker

Part of the reason many farming communities in Africa are poor is because they lack ready access to valuable information — about market price fluctuations, improved seed types or planting techniques and opportunities for farmers to collaborate with each other to sell in bulk.

So lots of folks are looking at the revolution in information technology (e.g., cell phones) to solve this problem, and other problems. Using cell phones to augment health services in poor communities is perhaps the biggest boom area right now, often dubbed mHealth.

(NOTE: I will for this report ignore recent goofiness about cell phones and cancer. See my post yesterday and this NPR backgrounder if you’re still interested in that story.)

Most of these cell-phones-for-the-poor projects are based on using cheap, low-end cell phones, for obvious reasons. These people are poor.

So the idea that a farmer in Uganda who makes $1-2 a day could benefit from an Android smart phone just sounded ridiculous – like another one of those pet projects a Western donor forces on some poor community whether it really fits their needs or not.

“We didn’t start out planning to use them,” said Heather Thorne Matthews of Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center.

Because, yeah, it sounded absurd. But as it turned out, Thorne said, the smart phone proved to be more financially self-sustaining than a dumb phone. Continue reading

WHO says cell phones may cause cancer | 

Flickr, by liber

Yikes, put down that phone!

Yeah, they may. Or may not.

This is a perennial story and it never seems to make much progress toward resolution.

Today, a number of news agencies like Reuters, AP and the BBC are reporting that an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization has determined that cell phones may cause an increased risk of cancer. The Telegraph reported on this last week.

NPR’s Scott Hensley notes that the WHO finding is a “bit of a surprise” since only last year a WHO-sponsored study found just the opposite:

Only last year, a WHO-organized study of cellphone risks that was the largest conducted to date found scant evidence to support a link between cellphones and brain cancers.

But a group of 31 experts from 14 countries conducted a review of the scientific literature and determined that the evidence, though limited, could support a connection between cellphone use and two types of brain cancer — gliomas and acoustic neuromas. (A summary of the findings is described in this press release.)

Again, the conclusion that cell phones are “possibly carcinogenic” is hardly new. But the finding seems to be getting a lot of news attention even if it appears to offer no new information or any kind of useful risk assessment.

Here’s a story I did years ago featuring a UW professor, Henry Lai, who has been sounding these kinds of warnings for a decade — and claims to have been blackballed by industry for raising the question.

CNET has done a fairly thorough job looking at the history of, and evidence for, this hypothesis.

Muhammad Yunus, Craig McCaw, mobile phones and poor people | 

Tom Paulson

Founders of Seattle's Grameen Technololgy Center share a laugh. From left, Alex Counts, Peter Bladin, Susan McCaw, Craig McCaw

A decade ago, few thought poor people had much use for cell phones and, likewise, few in the cell phone industry had much use for poor people.

The folks who launched Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center, which yesterday celebrated its 10th year anniversary (and new digs in Belltown), disagreed with both of those assumptions.

More importantly, they proved both assumptions stunningly wrong. Africa, for example, is today home to the fastest growth in mobile phone use. In Seattle alone, there seems to be a new company springing up every month looking to grow the cell phone business in the developing world.

“When we started on this, others in the industry thought Africa was irrelevant,” said Craig McCaw, the wireless magnate who built an empire in the early days of the cell phone industry and who contributed the seed money (a mere $2 million) to launch the Grameen technology center.

“We’re in a unique position right now,” said Peter Bladin, outgoing director of the Grameen tech center, which is a branch of the Grameen Foundation — one of the world’s leading microfinance institutions founded on the poverty-fighting principles of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pioneer of microfinance Muhammad Yunus.

Progress amid controversy

The field of microfinance, and Yunus himself, has been embroiled in a number of controversies lately — partly as a result of having exploded in popularity as a financial scheme and suffering all the attendant problems of rapid growth (opportunism, mission creep, debates over impact or outright scams).

While many seem to be arguing the merits of microfinance these days, few seem to be arguing anymore that cell phones don’t have a place in poor countries. What the Seattle-based Grameen tech center aims to do is make sure the rapid expansion of mobile telephony also serves the needs of poor people.

Yunus, it turns out, was also an early advocate of using cell phones to fight poverty in Bangladesh, which eventually led to Bangladesh’s largest telecommunications service Grameenphone. With McCaw’s financial assistance, the Grameen tech center was created to expand on Yunus’ vision by funding research projects devoted to making the best of the emerging technologies.

“We wanted to create a center of excellence here,” said Alex Counts, president of the Grameen Foundation, headquartered in Washington D.C.

McCaws made it possible

Counts credited the McCaws with making that possible, briefly noting the turmoil in microfinance but quickly moving on to celebrate all of the many advances being made today in exploiting the ubiquitous cell phone to help poor people improve their lives and livelihood.

“What we are doing is closing the information poverty gap,” said Bladin.

Some of the Grameen Foundation Technology Center’s projects: Giving a smallholder farmer the information he or she needs to improve agricultural productivity or get the best prices for a crop; providing traveling health workers with on-the-go access to critical information they need to care for people; developing software that allows people without access to banks to make payments or transfers on a cell phone.

I’ll explore one of these projects in more detail tomorrow, a project in Uganda known as the community knowledge worker program.

The goal of all of these initiatives, said Bladin, is not merely to make use of the cell phone as just another tool that poor people can also use. The goal of the Grameen Foundation, he said, is to bend technology to serve a much bigger aim: Defeating poverty.

“Too many of these (technology) projects are one-offs,” said Bladin, with the untested assumption that somehow technology alone will help bring people out of poverty — or maybe just another commercial scheme, gilded as a “social” venture, which is only aimed at selling a product or a service.

“Our goal is to figure out how to leave most of the money in the village,” Bladin said.

World Health Assembly opens to Taiwan outrage, smallpox debate, speeches by Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus’ arch-enemy | 


World Health Organization

The World Health Assembly opens today in Geneva for week-long confab on what to do about global health.

I’ve not attended one of these meetings, which sets priorities for the World Health Organization, but from a distance it always looks like kind of a mess. A well-intentioned mess maybe but a mess nonetheless, partly because almost everything under the sun is allowed a place on the agenda. Continue reading

Geek heretic: Technology cannot end poverty | 

Kentaro Toyama

Kentaro Toyama is clearly a heretic. A geek heretic.

And, based on his career path, I would guess brilliant.

A computer scientist currently at the University of California, Berkeley, Toyama co-founded Microsoft Research India in 2005 and remained there as assistant managing director until 2009.

If you’re not familiar with what they do at Microsoft Research, think artificial intelligence, computer vision, terabyte juggling, high-octane mathematics and the craziest things you can try to do with bits, bytes or any kind of information technology.

While in India, Toyama launched Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets group. (The website shows a toddler who appears to be sending a text message by cell phone.)

So you’d expect Toyama to be another one of those folks claiming that if we can just “bridge the digital divide” in poor countries, many chronic problems will be more easily solved. You’d expect him to be happy to see headlines like this New York Times article Can The Cellphone End Poverty?

Nope. ”That’s the reason I quit Microsoft,” said Toyama.

Continue reading

Gates Foundation funds research into dirt-charged cell phones and other wacky ideas | 

Gates Foundation

Harvard's Erez Lieberman-Aiden and her dirt-powered battery

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Thursday announced the latest winners in one of its more interesting initiatives aimed at stimulating creative, novel solutions to problems in global health.

The project is known as Grand Challenges Explorations and today the philanthropy announced 88 winners of $100,000 grants aimed at supporting unorthodox approaches to health problems afflicting the poor.

“One bold idea is all it takes to catalyze new approaches to global health and development,” said Tachi Yamada, outgoing chief of the global health program at the Gates Foundation.

The Seattle philanthropy was this year especially interested in supporting new — Yamada likes to say “wacky” — ideas aimed at furthering the goal of polio eradication, exploiting the ubiquitous cell phones for use in low-resource communities and reducing the massive health problems caused by inadequate sanitation in poor countries. Continue reading