Archive for September, 2009

Smart phones, smart maps, smart apps…challenge Africa

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009 by

This week’s Economist includes a Special Report on Telecoms in Emerging Markets.   Some interesting trends are highlighted but care is needed when interpreting figures on teledensity.   Nevertheless, mobile data networks may well produce a more cost effective impact on poverty than investment in other forms of broadband Internet access.

According to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) mobile teledensity reached over 100% in 2007 (some people have more than one SIM and/or phone) in Western Europe.   In Ghana the density reached 98% in January 2009 and is forecast to get to 100% in Kenya and Tanzania by 2013.   But most of the traffic generated by this increased access will be voice – and voice is the most important means of communications for the poor who are more likely to have lower literacy levels.   A major challenge remains: to upgrade the voice networks to allow fast data.   Plans are in hand in most countries in Africa to improve the mobile data networks.   But the reality is likely to be that fast connectivity such as 3G networks will be restricted to the urban areas.   The costs of handsets is also an issue with a basic mobile phone down to around $15 but a smartphone costing over $100.  Network provider charges for Internet access to use applications such as Google Maps are also likely to be high.   In real terms probably many times higher than they are in the developed world.

Yet, amidst this context there are three encouraging signs for optimism:

  • There is a growing “open source” sector of the mobile phone market.   The Android operating system runs on mobile phones from various manufacturers.   The source code is open so that applications developers can write programs that are tailor made for specific functions, languages, cultures, and geographies.   These apps can then be downloaded free of charge by users.
  • Some of the new applications are very relevant for use in developing countries.      For example, epidemiologists and ecologists often collect data in the field and, on returning to their laboratory, enter their data into a database for further analysis.   The recent introduction of mobile phones that utilise the open source Android operating system, and which include (among other features) both GPS and Google Maps, provide new opportunities for developing mobile phone applications, which in conjunction with web applications, allow two-way communication between field workers and their project databases.  Source: Aanensen DM, Huntley DM, Feil EJ, al-Own F, Spratt BG, 2009 EpiCollect: Linking Smartphones to Web Applications for Epidemiology, Ecology and Community Data Collection. PLoS ONE 4(9): e6968. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006968
  • Scientists are prepared to share their findings in open source journals such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS – see above).   Thereby enabling scientists working in developing countries immediate access to good peer reviewed work.

The challenge is to upgrade the mobile phone networks to enable fast data traffic.   Perhaps this is a candidate for applying advance market commitments that have been successful in the field of vaccines.

Smart phones, smart maps, and smart apps are all very well but they need to be enabled by smart markets.

Will one drip quench your thirst for knowledge?

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009 by

Delivery of water is measured by the litre and the recommended daily intake (although contested by some) is that every person needs at least 2 litres per day to remain in good health.   Should there be a recommended daily intake of knowledge?    Whilst we might take for granted access to knowledge whenever we need  it, billions of poor people do not have this luxury.   Perhaps, like water, one drip at  a time will not quench the thirst for knowledge.   Some critical mass may be needed.

According to a story on the BBC News this week access to a mobile phone is more common than access to fresh water in Kenya.   The BBC are running a series of stories this week about the impact of a fibre optic cable reaching the east coast of Kenya.   It is clear from these reports that (comparatively speaking):

  • the cost of accessing the Internet is high (Access Kenya have reduced charges from £2500 per month to £750 per month)
  • the speed of accessing the Internet is slow (a domestic connection might reach 512Kb for £30 per month)

You may be wondering why, if people are short of drinking water they want access to the web?   A good question.   But the answer is not so simple.   Pause to think that supplies of drinking water might be a necessary condition for getting out of poverty but not a sufficient condition.   Access to knowledge that can effectively improve livelihoods will have an economic return.   But such information needs to be delivered in a timely manner and at a speed that makes it effective in helping to change ways of doing things.

“Mind the gap” …the new technology train is leaving

Thursday, September 10th, 2009 by

Last night the Royal Society brought  together leading thinkers to consider the future of nanotechnologies.   The invitation to the event said, “It is five years since the publication of the landmark Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties. The report highlighted nanotechnologies’ promise as well as defining the path to responsible exploitation. Progress has been made toward its recommendations, but has attention lagged behind the pace of development?”

It was interesting that the speakers identified many “gaps” (between science and technology, academia and industry, and so on).   One particular gap was not mentioned…that between the rich and the poor.   Yet if we go back to the report published 5 years ago it identified a potential nanodivide (section 6.3).

Although there has been a great deal of positive work on upstream dialogues and public engagement on nanotechnologies, there still remains the illusive challenge of how to develop appropriate nanotechnologies to meet human needs.   More practical research involving a range of stakeholders will be needed to learn about effective ways of reducing the gap between technology in developed countries and that in developing countries.