The Oxygen of Bandwidth, or How I Spent My Winter Vacation

One of my earliest posts on this blog related how difficult it was early in the last decade to keep in touch with the guides I met while I was hiking with my brother Dave in Madagascar. In March of 2006 I wrote:

When we asked how we could get in touch to plan our next trip the answer was usually something like “You can call this number.  It’s my sister’s husband’s brother’s mobile; he’s the only one with a phone…”

I just came back from another trip to Madagascar to visit my brother and his family. We went to the Andasibe park to see the indri (the largest species of lemur) and met an excellent guide named Jose. When Dave asked how he could get in touch with him on future visits, Jose said that he didn’t have a phone.

I was disappointed to hear this. Jose’s answer seemed to indicate a lack of progress on bringing the benefits of information and communications technology (ICT) to the people of the developing world. I started to think that little had changed in the country since I’d last been there, which was a depressing conclusion. I asked him “Why don’t you have a phone?  Wouldn’t it be useful for your job?”

He looked at me as if I were a little slow on the draw. “Of course I have a phone —  I just lost it a while back. I’m going into town to get another one later today. Give me your brother’s number, and I’ll text him as soon as I get my new phone so you’ll have my number, OK?” As he explained this I got the impression that he was sizing me up to make sure I could handle this level of complexity; I had shown myself to be pretty ignorant of communication basics in Madagascar in 2010.

Dave told me that the great majority of Madagascar’s people now live in mobile coverage areas, but that fewer than 20% of the population owns a phone. Even though the Malagasy can buy basic phones for as little as $5, this is still too much for many people in such a poor country. Instead of having monthly calling plans, most customers there purchase small chunks of calling / texting capacity as circumstances dictate and budgets allow.

Researchers report that people in the developing world are willing to skip meals in order to buy more bandwidth. It’s not hard to see why. Until very recently these folk have been living in a hard communications vacuum, and humanity abhors that vacuum. When the oxygen of bandwidth presents itself, people want to breathe it.

Does doing so leave them better off?  Evidence is mounting that it does. An impressive study conducted by Robert Jensen among the fisherman of Kerala, India found that mobile phone adoption reduced price volatility and led to measurable, quantitative benefits for both fishermen and consumers. A follow-on study by Reuben Abraham found that “The free flow of information ensures the fishermen get the opportunity to drive a harder bargain than before.” Work like this supports the strong statement made in a special report by The Economist on mobile phones: “Their spread in poor countries is not just reshaping the industry—it is changing the world.”

My brother Dave is working to accelerate this change. He’s founded a non-profit named Human Network International (HNI), the mission of which is “to afford people opportunities to access and reshape critical development information in sustainable and self-directed ways using information and communication technology.” (I am the chairman of HNI’s board).

In Madagascar HNI has several projects underway in support of this mission. It’s working with Zain, one of the country’s largest carriers, to make basic development information available nationwide using mobile telephones.   The concept is straightforward, but the end result is revolutionary.  Anyone, anywhere and at any time can call an easy to remember, toll free number (321) and, using the telephone keypad, navigate through a menu of information options.  HNI and Zain use interactive voice recording technology to make basic health, agriculture and micro credit information available.  Why is this revolutionary?  Because for the first time, the semi-literate, rural poor of Madagascar can access reliable development information on demand and for free, using a familiar device:  their phone.  Imagine how important this is in an information vacuum.  HNI and Zain are working to make the telephone not only a communication device, but also an information tool for the developing world.

A mother can use this service to find out, for example, what vaccinations her newborn needs.  A farmer can learn how to prepare a nursery for his rice fields.  A rural entrepreneur can find the nearest micro-finance institution branch.  And HNI and Zain have made this a bi-directional communication service, meaning users can ask questions, make suggestions, share ideas andcontribute content.

HNI is also working with other NGOs in the country to help them collect data more quickly and accurately. Aid organizations in the developing world often operate in a near-absence of information about what’s happening day to day in the field; with mobile telephony, this no longer has to be the case. At the end of every day, the organization doing vaccinations, for example, could have each of its health care providers text back to headquarters (or, to be more precise, to a server owned or rented by headquarters) the numbers of vaccinations administered each day, and the age ranges of the children seen.

Further possibilities open up if the mother gives her mobile number to the provider during the vaccination visit and opts in to receive follow-up messages. These could be used to share additional public health messages (“Don’t forget to give your child de-worming medication”) or to let her know when other health services will come through her area. They could also be used to send her a survey asking about the vaccination experience. Many NGOs in the developing world don’t know if their interventions are appreciated or effective for their target populations. They don’t know, in other words, how well they’re serving their customers. A bit of technology can go a long way toward remedying this situation.

As I wrote in my 2009 wrap-up post, I’m largely optimistic as I think about the future, and this is nowhere more true than in the developing world. Madagascar is in the middle of a protracted political crisis. Its economy and people are suffering, and I’m nowhere near naïve enough to think that a bunch of telephones and computers are going to solve all the country’s problems or lift it overnight out of its deep poverty.

But these humble technologies are, I believe, going to improve the lots and the lives of many, many people in that country, and in others. I’m with The Economist – these are mobile marvels, and we can expect a lot of good to come from their continued diffusion throughout the world, and especially at the bottom of the pyramid.

Let me close this post with a question: can you think of anything better for increasing quality of life in the developing world than increasing ICT diffusion and usage? This could be done easily by subsidizing the purchase of devices and bandwidth, and by supporting organizations that help make best use of these assets (How about free phones and/or bandwidth for rural mothers who bring their children to be vaccinated?) I know a bit about technology and just a little bit (largely thanks to my brother) about development. From what I’ve read, learned, and seen the combination of the two is already proving to be extraordinarily powerful, and will only become more so.

So my advice for helping the people of the developing world is simple. Help them acquire technology that lets them help themselves, and that lets others help them. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: give them the ICT tools, and they will finish the job.

Do you agree, or do you think this post is a technologist’s uninformed dreaming? Is ICT diffusion key to the addressing world’s development challenges, or not?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.