The future of mobile applications and some other ideas

The Google Android Developers Blog lists the top 50 applications submitted to Round 1 of its developer’s challenge. It’s a damn impressive list. I was alerted to this from Appropriate IT’s excellent post on it, which I fully endorse. 

A PDF slideshow of all the apps, with screenshots and mock-ups, is available here

However, as Appropriate IT notes although the developer challenge suggested humanitarian work as a potential field to develop apps for, none feature in Round 1. However, there are potential uses for some of these apps in peacebuilding, governance and humanitarian aid (e.g. scanning barcodes through mobiles as a means of population tracking, just in time IDP registration and refugee camp logistics).

My biggest concern is into the future with the birth of a plethora of mobile apps that are not interoperable, leading to information silos and further fragmentation of action in response to, inter alia, crises, disasters and peace processes. While emergent mobiles apps can and often do communicate via web services, there isn’t yet a data standard say for the exchange of presence information, or disseminating vital information in the cloud to other mobile apps (e.g. needs in a particular areas matched with resources in another at a time of a disaster). 

There is also a proclivity to be shackled by a PC mindset in the development of most of these mobile apps. The point of a mobile phone is precisely that – it isn’t fixed to a location. Apps need to leverage far more location and presence awareness (enabled by most mobile networks and GPS functionality) and communicate with each other based on network, proximity or other settings (e.g. for users to “tag” their mobiles with meta-information related to work / interests /needs / challenges / deployment / agency / office / responsibilities / health / sex et al enabling proximity alerts and automatic mobile to mobile information sharing whenever individuals with shared interests, common goals are within certain radius. More interesting would be AI algorithms that alert individuals of potential solutions to a challenge, alerting / pairing for example the need for child protection in an IDP camp and the presence of a UNICEF aid worker within 1km of the camp).

Sadly I haven’t also seen, yet, an Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) application. As Appropriate IT states

In many ways, cell phones have become the sole communication and connectivity device for millions in the developing world. Therefore, it is imperative that we move away from thinking of a cell phone as another connected computer and treat it as a totally new device with its own specificities and peculiarities.”

This is precisely what I’ve been saying for years and proposing to the ODR practitioners and system builders and its great to recognise that others.

Further, instead of perennially balking at the smaller screens, lower resolutions and inferior processing power when compared to PCs, we need to start looking at them as devices of empowerment that are already in the hands of more people than PCs are and ever will be (see Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide).