Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Though mobile technology may help increase the standard of living in poor, rural, and remote communities, it also holds the promise of other benefits, like better health, and closer ties to the central government.

Mobile technology can act as an accelerator to help communities in developing countries raise their standards of living and offer their residents more opportunities to realize their potential.  It’s a message that’s been overlooked these past few years from the spirited debate on the roles for technology and innovation in international development.  Wide-spread use of mobile technologies will also have extensive economic benefit, but the focus of this investigation is their extra-economic impact, or the widespread benefits to the overall well being of a community.

In particular, mobile technology can help in three important aspects of rural life: monitoring and managing community health; two-way sensors for better forecasting and quicker response to emergencies; and linking remote areas back to their central governments, strengthening democracy and civil society. 

Infrastructure and end-points

In discussing mobile connectivity, there are two overlapping technologies to consider, infrastructure and the devices using that infrastructure.  Neither can affect change without the other. Yet even together they are insufficient without trained, dedicated staff in the local communities, as well as in the central cities which run the development programs.  More on that below.

Numerous companies are creating or expanding infrastructure, launching pilot projects that provide or extend Internet access.  The Israeli company Gilat has contracted with South American telcos to provide satellite-based cellular and Internet access to remote areas.  Infrastructure is not inexpensive (Gilat recently launched a project in Bolivia for $12 million), but the cost can be justified by the expected gains once the system is being fully utilized.

Both private-sector companies and nonprofit organizations such as A Human Right are experimenting with ways to provide Internet coverage to large swaths of the world. Meanwhile, government agencies are expanding Internet access through both wireless and cable transmissions.  Together, the public and private sectors are accelerating the speed at which remote populations are able to access the Internet (and increasing the speed at which data flows once they have that access).  According to the International Telecommunication Union, “Mobile-cellular penetration rates stand at 96% globally; 128% in developed countries; and 89% in developing countries.”  This is important, because even if a community doesn’t have broadband, there are ways to automate and optimize Internet connectivity with tablets or smartphones using dial-up, or point-to-point protocol (PPP), connections.

Infrastructure, however, is only half of the story.  The other half is end-points, or the devices using that infrastructure to send and receive data.  While some companies have looked to create all-new products (for example, $100 laptops) another possibility is repurposing discarded, but functional, connective technology from developed nations.  People can easily obtain late-model iPhones for less than $100.  First-generation iPads are even less.  Devices like these may be more suitable for remote connectivity than a laptop, given their minimal power needs, constant updating, and wide range of applications and accessories.

The twin tasks of creating infrastructure and delivering end-points fall to very different parties, yet both benefit from government coordination at the very least, if not direct government involvement.  Finally, the people using the devices will need to be trained – a significant effort for whatever agency, public, private, or NGO, that assumes it.  In India, the company CommCare is working with the National Rural Health Mission to train 750,000 Accredited Social Health Activists to use devices with a “low-literate” interface to improve their community’s health.

Three extra-economic benefits of connecting remote and rural communities

There are numerous benefits that accrue to communities with access to mobile data devices and infrastructure, and almost all of them will have at least some indirect economic impact.  The examples cited here will all have a positive impact on a community’s economy and on the financial condition of individuals and their families.  But it is shortsighted to look only at the economic benefits of health—as if the prospect of a healthier community, the peace of mind afforded by mobile sensors, or the participation in national life were not laudable goals on their own. 


mHealth: mHealth is a term used for the practice of medicine and public health, supported by mobile devices. In his 2012 article in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny discusses mHealth, writing, “In theory, getting community health workers to show up on time, ask the right questions, and offer the right answers could have huge real-world effects. Every year, nearly 7 million children under age 5 die from causes that could be easily prevented using effective, low-cost interventions that already exist.”

The intervening year has seen advances in this field that give greater urgency to mHealth initiatives.  The publication EHR Initiatives, a health-care industry periodical, reports that “the mHealth apps market [is expected] to experience a compound annual growth rate of 25.5 percent — from $6.6 billion in 2013 to $20.7 billion in 2018.”

Indeed, machines that can diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses have long been portable, but operating them, to say nothing of interpreting their readings, requires skills that may be lacking in certain areas.  Mobile technology, however, can allow for devices to communicate immediately with far-flung offices, so that chronic conditions can be monitored, and thus managed, and communities can participate in their own healthcare.

Already, companies mass-produce Internet-connected scales, blood-pressure cuffs, and accessories for smart-phones that test for blood glucose or perform urinalysis.  Though mHealth is not a substitute for access to skilled healthcare providers, it can streamline healthcare delivery and help a community respond quickly when necessary.  Another example is the Spanish public healthcare organization, Servicio Extremeño de Salud, which allows patients to make appointments at a treatment center close to them, and forwards to their provider the patient’s complete medical information, streamlining healthcare delivery.

Connected Sensors: One way to understand mHealth is as a single image in the larger tableaux of connected sensors (mHelath being those sensors directed at the human body).  The universe of connected sensors, however, far outstrips the offerings of mHealth—though quite a few sensors can report that data that directly affects our health, for example, devices that measure the air for compounds that may trigger asthma attacks.

Dedicated, always-on devices can monitor air temperature, soil moisture, and wind speed and direction, while local residents equipped with smartphones can input any number of other data that might be useful.  What becomes possible is more accurate, more timely, and ultimately more actionable information—because data is now flowing both into and out of the community.

Information, it must be noted, is not the same as action; knowing that food is running low in a specific area is not the same as shipping food to that area, to say nothing of medicines or emergency assistance.  But tracking the path of a storm might cut down response time, as well as help a local community prepare itself for the event.  Further, collection of data allows for better modeling to forecast cyclical events and predict their occurrence with greater accuracy, and the same types of “smart meters” that help the developed world monitor and adjust their own water- and energy-use can be used by remote areas to great effect.

Data Services as institutions of democracy: this is perhaps the most important aspect and should be the most powerful incentive for governments to invest in providing mobile access and end-points to developing areas.  When citizens feel that they have a stake in their government—both by dint of receiving services from their government and of giving actionable information to their government—then they are more likely to see their government as a legitimate, beneficial force in their community.  This paves the way for future involvement both of the government in their community, and of their community in the government.

Data services becomes an institution—like the postal service—within civil society that fosters democracy and empowers both individuals and communities. 

Not a Panacea

Mobile technology will not cure every social ill that communities face, nor will it necessarily—all on its own—have an immediate transformative impact.  Communities that have never been strongly connected to their own central government, much less to other remote areas, will not likely know how to reap all of the benefits that mobile technology can offer.

Yet, mobile technology can act as an accelerator, which, when used in conjunction with education and other staples of international development, can help communities raise their standards of living and offer their residents more opportunities to realize their potential.