The Electric Swiss Army Knife

With apologies to Victorinox, the mobile telephone is fast becoming the Swiss Army knife of technology, a cheap, versatile device that just about anybody can use for what seems like an infinite number of uses.

In doing so, cellphones are dramatically altering society. Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project, has called them "the single most transformative technology for development."

It has long been recognized that the relationship between communication technology is changing society itself , famously allowing young people in ultraconservative communities like Saudi Arabia to make dates to meet and so on. But cellphones are moving far beyond that, according to a new research paper by Shin Hye-Jeong, a research fellow with Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul.

In a world of 7 billion people, there are now 6 billion mobile phones, Shin notes, two-thirds of them in the developing world, where they are making their biggest impact on some of the poorest segments of global society. They are helping to close the income gap by providing improved access to favorable market information and financial services. They are having a dramatic impact on male-female economic equality, with 41 percent of women in developing countries surveyed saying the phone has increased their income and professional opportunities. They also help improve productivity among small farmers, contributing to raising household incomes for those at the very bottom of the poverty pyramid, defined as refers to the world's 4 billion poorest people who live on less than US$2 a day.

Cellphone banking has become the single most important aid to banking in areas of Africa including Kenya, allowing people outside the range of conventional communications access to their accounts. They are being used increasingly by community health care providers to monitor patients’ health status where they can’t be reached by conventional means. They are contributing to eradicating illiteracy for Pakistani women.

“In some remote areas in developing countries, access to mobile phones is actually more widespread than access to electricity and piped drinking water, and more people can connect to the Internet through mobile devices than through desktop PCs,” Shin wrote. The rapid spread of mobile technology, he said is having a dramatic impact on the lives of those at what is called the “Bottom of the Pyramid,”

The implications are that mobile technologies not only enable remote access to health and other services and cut back on the need for transport in areas where infrastructure is poor or nonexistent, “they can support effective self management, lower the costs of health care, education and financial services, making them affordable to the bottom of the pyramid, who would otherwise not be able to use them due to higher service, transport and health care costs,” Shin wrote.

Mobile technologies have enabled small farmers to communicate with merchants and distributors on prices and marketability for their products, increasing the efficiency of the supply chain. They are also leading to the rise of new businesses, while expanding job creation thanks to enhanced access to job information, the SERI paper notes. “Forty-one percent of women in developing countries surveyed say that the phone has increased their income and professional opportunities. Palestine-based Souktel has matched young people with jobs through a simple SMS (text messaging) platform, reducing college graduates' job-seeking time from an average of 12 weeks to less than one week, while increasing their salary by up to 50 percent.”

Community health workers now are using mobile apps to monitor patients' health status in the community and report their data to health professionals in hospitals, who can provide remote advice or treatment. This has been especially effective in isolated areas, where children and pregnant women frequently die due to lack of basic healthcare services, the paper notes.

Shin cites the case of Etisalat, the Middle East's leading telecommunications service provider, in collaboration with Qualcomm, D-Tree International and Great Connection, to develop an application called "Mobile Baby" to deliver affordable prenatal care services to the most remote areas, with a dramatic effect on mortality rates, with maternal deaths falling by 30 percent.

Smartphones' high resolution screens, camera functions and various applications enable the phones to substitute for delicate medical devices. A smartphone-based eye exam tool developed by t MIT Media Lab researchers that costs as little as US$2 replaces a bulky and costly auto refractor via simple applications and smartphone attached accessories, performing eye exams in just two minutes.

“This ‘destructive innovation’ may bring new life to 600 million people who previously did not have access to and could not afford vision correction,” Shin writes. Other open source mobile applications have been developed to collect birth, death and disease records in developing countries, where health statistics and health information systems are often weak. Clinics can track inventories of drugs and medical supplies via mobile phones, ensuring adequate stocks and improving availability to patients. They are being used to bring malaria treatment to hundreds of thousands of patients in Tanzania.

A single device like an e-book reader shared with family and friends in the village can replace hundreds of books and act as a library for the local community, as Shin notes. Free mobile education material is benefiting both teachers and students. Where there is low smartphone uptake, mobile education content can be more useful in strengthening teachers' capability than it can be for students. Teachers in Tanzania can download videos for math, science and English lessons onto their mobile phones, improving students' scholastic achievement and their attendance rate.

In these poverty-stricken areas mobile financial services are now expanding to product purchases, payment of medical and educational costs, farm banking, payment of water bills and foreign exchange transaction services. The number of users of Vodafone and Safaricom's M-Pesa (mobile-phone-based money transfer service) stands at 32 million, and the number of transactions in 2011-2012 reached 1.5 billion.

Shin quotes Microsoft founder Bill Gates as saying that today's innovative information technologies have benefited only those who can afford to purchase them. He called for "creative capitalism" that responds to basic needs that can allow capitalism to sustain itself into the future. It is clear that that is already taking place.