Early in 2009, the number of mobile phone users exceeded 4 billion— with the majority of users living in the developing world. The implications of this fact are profound: most people on Earth are carrying computers that continually transmit information about their relationships, movements, and even financial decisions to closed databases distributed throughout the world. While the privacy implications of this data should not be understated, I believe this ubiquitous infrastructure of wearable computers can be repurposed in ways that better serve both the billions of individuals who carry them and ultimately the societies in which they live.
Customized mobile phone applications could dramatically accelerate economic development in the poorest communities in Africa, where my own particular interest lies. I moved to East Africa over three years ago, where I have been working with mobile phone operators and launching Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles (EPROM - eprom.mit.edu) programs, an initiative I began in 2006 to teach mobile phone programming within local computer science departments in order to develop applications specifically for local users. Despite the incredible growth of mobile phone usage, these applications are rare. Furthermore, the computer science curricula of universities across the continent still focus on traditional desktop computer programming.
As a result, African computer science graduates are poorly equipped to address the computing needs of African people. To date, EPROM courses are being taught in over a dozen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, empowering thousands of African computer science students with the skills needed to program phones, leading to hundreds of applications designed specifically for the African market, as well as several start-up ventures based in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and beyond.
In terms of bringing economic vitality to Africa, these start-up ventures are a tiny fraction of what’s necessary. But in a field dominated by large aid organizations focused on the macro level, these companies offer a grassroots lesson in empowering individuals. One such EPROM start-up is SMSMedia Rwanda; its founder, Jeff Gasana, realized that prepaid scratch cards could be used not only for buying airtime, but also any commodity. Instead of traveling to the capital and waiting in line to top-up their electricity balance, over 30 percent of Rwandans purchase electricity using their mobile phones through Jeff’s system.
At the University of Nairobi, Eric Magutu and I developed a SMS BloodBank system connecting rural district hospitals with centralized blood banks using text messages. Nurses were compensated via automatic airtime transfers to provide updates about the blood supply levels in effort to halt an alarming increase of blood shortages in rural hospitals across Kenya. This ability to automatically compensate rural nurses led to the creation of txteagle—a company that enables people to earn small amounts of money on their phones by completing simple tasks such as translations and surveys for corporations who pay them either in airtime or mPesa (mobile money). The txteagle service is currently live, transforming the phones of 15 million East Africans into a platform for income generation. We are on track to soon becoming the largest employer in Kenya.
Working with mobile phone operators for the launch of txteagle has also allowed us to explore some of the broader implications of mobile phone data. At the Santa Fe Institute, we have developed relationships with dozens of mobile phone operators from around the world, helping them analyze the petabytes of data being generated by their subscribers. Through these analyses, we have what we believe to be the largest social network ever analyzed—a network of roughly one billion people at the end of 2009. While most analyses of this type of data have focused on understanding Western societies, mobile phone subscribers from under-studied populations within the developing world are generating data that hold even greater potential.
Working with epidemiologists, we are attempting to identify behavioral signatures associated with potential regional disease outbreaks and are concurrently modeling human movement in East Africa to support informed decisions about allocation of malaria eradication resources. Using data from every mobile phone in Rwanda over the last four years, we are working with the city planners of Kigali to understand the dynamics of slums and the impact of policy decisions ranging from road construction to the placement of latrines. With developmental economists, we are attempting to quantify a society’s reactions to exogenous events, such as the collapse of crop prices in local markets or natural disasters, such as droughts and earthquakes.
The implications of the mobile phone, so ubiquitous to the lives of over half the globe, have yet to be fully realized. Whether enabling insight into human behavior or empowering economic opportunities, the mobile phone is one of the most transformative technologies of our time.