Mobiles for Social Development

There’s a very interesting paper on the web I came across recently that deals with the pros and cons of using mobiles for social development and linked to the discussions on Lirneasia’s recent post on the future of telecentres and the role of mobiles in complementing and / or supplanting them. 

The paper seems to end on a note that is weighted towards the mobile web – the development of the web as we know it and use on PCs for mobile phones. The paper also says that SMS is not a viable option to provide services to millions of people in the developing world who may be illiterate. I don’t agree with either proposition and find a disconnect here – if illiteracy is a problem (it is and more specifically, the lack of vernacular services on mobile phones) then how will the development of the mobile web ensure that more citizens get access to and use services on the phone?

The paper also talks about IVR, but in my mind, it’s not a question of one or the other by complementarity between various tools, platforms and services – with SMS as the basic foundation and developing up from there – that will reach the greatest number of citizens and encourage them in turn to actually make use of what’s available. 

In Sri Lanka, some relatively low cost mobile phones already fully support Sinhala and Tamil interfaces and UNICODE text rendering. And yet, there’s absolutely no interest in creating m-gov services for mobile phones, even though there are more than around 11 million SIMS in a country with a population of 20 million.

The paper was also clearly written before the advent of the iPhone, which in the US at least has revolutionised the way people access the web using their mobile phone:

M:Metrics, which has been researching the mobile market since 2004, found that the iPhone is “the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web,” with 85 percent of iPhone users doing so in the month of January.

That contrasted with 58.2 percent of other smartphone owners, and 13.1 percent of the total mobile market.

“It’s creating buzz among consumers that it can be pleasant and useful accessing the Web from your mobile phone,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer of iSuppli Corp. market research firm.

The lesson here is that it may not be entirely necessary to develop a mobile specific version of the web, even though it’s now possible to do so very easily using services such as Mofuse and other plugins for blogging platforms like WordPress

With regards to the points made about the high costs of data access on mobiles, all signs indicate significant reductions in cost to the point where in the near future, mobile web browsing may even be free with some packages.

Other points regarding the use of mobiles for governance are those I’ve already tackled in a recent paper published in the i4D magazine’s June 2008 issue titled Governance and Mobile Phones.

Read the paper by S. Boyera. It may be a bit dated, but it is a tremendously useful anchor to tether the heady optimism of mobile phone advocates. 

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