Moore’s Law also applies to global development. From futuristic wireless networks for rural Africa to tracking water well drillings, digital technology is a powerful boost for development as evidenced by a growing number of initiatives.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal unveiled a Google project designed to provide wireless networks in developing countries, more specifically in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the Journal, the initiative involves using the airwaves spectrum allocated for television signals or teaming up with cellular carriers already working there. In its typical “outside-of-the-box” thinking, the project might also rely on high-altitude blimps to cover infrastructure-deprived areas. Coupled with low-cost handsets using the Android operating system, or the brand new Firefox OS for mobile, this would boost the spread of cellular phones in poor countries.
Previously unavailable, mobile access will be a game changer for billions of people. At the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I chatted with an Alcatel-Lucent executive who explained the experiments she witnessed in Kenya, such as providing the equivalent of index cards to nurses to upgrade their knowledge of specific treatments; the use of mobile phone translated into an unprecedented reach, even in remote areas where basic handsets are shared among many people. Similarly, tests for access to reading material were conducted by UNESCO, the United Nations branch for education and culture. Short stories, some loaded with interactive features, were sent to phones and, amazingly, kids flocked to read, share and participate. All of this was carried on “dumb” phones, sometimes with only mono-color displays. Imagine what could be done with smartphones.
Moore’s Law will keep helping. Currently, high end smartphones are out of reach for emerging markets where users rely on prepaid cards instead of subscriptions. But instead of a $400-$600 handsets (without a 2-year contract) currently sold in Western markets, Chinese manufacturers are aiming at a price of $50 for a durable handset, using a slower processor but sporting all expected features: large screen, good camera, GPS module, accelerometers, and tools for collective use. On such a foundation, dedicated applications can be developed — primarily for education and health.
As an example, the MIT Media Labs has created a system for prescribing eyeglasses that requires only a one-dollar eyepiece attached to a smartphone; compared to professional equipment costing thousands times more, it runs a very decent diagnostic. (This is part of the MIT Global Challenge Initiative).
This, coupled with liquid-filled adjustable glasses such as this one presented at TED a couple of years ago, will help solve vision problems in poor countries for a couple of dollars per person. Other systems aimed at detecting vision-related illnesses such as cataract or glaucoma are in development. So are blood-testing technologies based on bio-chips tied to a mobile app for data collection.
Last week, I attended the Google’s Zeitgeist conference in the UK — two days of enthralling TED-like talks (all videos here). Among many impressive speakers, two got my attention. The first is Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University. In his talk — filled with a mixture of Indian and British humor — he described self-organizing systems experiments in rural India built around basic internet-connected computers. The results are compelling for language learning and basic understanding of science or geography.
The other speaker was the complete opposite. Scott Harrison has an interesting trajectory: he is a former New York nightclub promoter who changed drastically his life seven years ago by launching the organization Charity:Water. Harrison’s completely fresh approach helped him redefine how a modern charitable organization should work. He built his organization around three main ideas. First, 100% of donations should reach a project. To achieve this, he created two separate funding circuits: a public one for projects and another for to support operational costs.
Principle number two, build a brand, with all the attributes that go with it: Strong visual identity and well-designed web site (most of those operated by NGO’s are terrible); the web site is rich and attractive and it looks more like than an Obama campaign fundraising machine than a NGO, (I actually tested Charity:Water’s very efficient donation system by giving $100, curious to see where the money will land.)
The third and probably the most innovative idea was to rely on simple, proven digital technologies to guarantee complete project traceability. Donors can find precisely where their money ends up — whether it is for a $60 sand-filter fountain or a $2000 well. Last, Charity:Water funded a drilling truck equipped with a GPS tracker that makes it visible on Google Maps; in addition, the truck tweets its location on a real-time basis. Thanks to a $5 million Google funding, the organization currently works with seven high-tech US companies to develop robust water sensors able to show in real-time how much water is running on a given project. About 1000 of these are to be installed before year-end. This will help detect possible malfunctions and it will also carries promotional (read: fundraising) capabilities: thanks to a mobile app, a kid who helped raise few hundreds bucks among his friends can see where his or her water is actually flowing.
As I write this, I see comments coming, denouncing the gadgetization of charity, the waste of money in technologies not directly benefiting the neediest, Google’s obscure and mercantile motives, or the future payback for cellular carriers from the mobile initiatives mentioned earlier. Sure thing, objections must be heard. But, at this time, everyone who has traveled in poor areas — like I did in India or in sub-Saharan countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Burkina-Faso — comes back with the strong conviction that all means must be used to provide these populations with basic things we take for granted in the Western world. As for Charity:Water, results speak for themselves: Over six years, the organization has raised almost $100m and it provided drinkable water to 3m people (out of 800m who don’t have access to it in the world — still lots of work left.) Like in many areas, the benefits of new, disruptive models based on modern technologies far outweigh the disadvantages.