ICT4D: When mobile phones link with computers

In a previous post, we investigated the future of ICT4D from a pretty high level. In this post, I am going to look at some of the new tools that individuals, groups, companies and governments can use to develop new projects around information and communication technologies.

Our underlying theme is investigating how ICTs affect human development. There are many who argue that connection to the internet and/or mobile phone technologies will increase people’s participation in government, in economies, in education and thus increase their standard of living.

Technology and access to internet has advanced so much in the past years, that some will argue that there is no longer a question of whether people in remote areas will soon communicate online. Rather, we should talk about what forms of communication will take place.

The UK-based blog Mainstreaming ICT, says the time to integrate the mobile phone and the computer is now.

The Internet and mobile phones are both communication and information technologies so it makes sense to try to integrate them. We’ve been trying to intergrate them for a number of years with limited success but finally the Internet is becoming widely available and usable on a large number of mobile devices and at a reasonably low cost in many countries.

Of course the mobile browser based Internet is a different experience. You have to think in a different way – for instance: -
• Instead of Email – Think SMS
• Instead of computer sized screen – Think Mobile Phone screen
• Instead of huge functionality – Think MOST IMPORTANT functionality and simplicity
• Instead of flashy stuff and high bandwidth – think SIMPLE design and low bandwidth

…It makes sense to initially look at linking in with the big social networks such as Facebook/My Space & Ning – they all have Mobile Internet Interfaces but .. the sites weren’t originally designed with mobile in mind and IMHO it really shows.

Low bandwidth? No problem

One major problem facing internet users in the developing world is the combination of slow connectivity (or, interrupted connections) and graphic-intensive websites. News websites and social networking sites are often the worst offenders. (Here’s a nice rundown on the popularity of various social networking sites in Africa and Asia.)

Christian Kreutz at the blog Crisscrossed has a theory that many of the world’s languages have not been widely translated for applications, because so many people can’t read popular websites. The reason? Page load times are too long for people with questionable connections.

Here's a few examples:

• Checking up a profile on Facebook or at least access the log in page, which has alone almost 800kb! In a cybercafe, where you have to pay fees per minute, it may take up to 3 minutes with a dial up modem connection.
• Video or audio upload is almost impossible with a low bandwidth connection and can cost you a lot when your tariff is measured in volume instead of time.
• This blog is based on WordPress, which is a great open source tool, but unfortunately not made for a dial up connections. If you want to publish a new post on WordPress (2.7.1), you have to download over 750kb first.

Unfortunately even the free and open source community has little activity around low bandwidth solutions.

The blog Aid Worker Daily, based out of the US, has found a solution to viewing these slow-loading websites:

I am not sure how many of you are familiar with Loband but it is one of the best options for viewing websites over low bandwidth connections. It strips out all images, formatting, etc and leaves you with a text only rendering of the page which is still quite legible. You can view Aid Worker Daily over Loband HERE. Loband is the offspring of the geniuses over at Aptivate. (Of course, if you are using Firefox you can always go to Tools -> Options -> Content and deselect ‘Load images automatically’.)

Here is the home page for Global Voices Online via Loband.

Crisscrossed lists other products for low-bandwidth connections.

One really great initiative is Maneno, which not only tries to provide a low bandwidth blogging solution in Africa, but also focuses on offering multilingual options emphasising on various African languages such as Bamanankan and Swahili, beside French, English, Arabic and Portuguese. I got in contact with Maneno recently and their team ensured me that their system is designed as low as 13 kb without images and 33 kb including images…
Twitter can make a difference as it lets you send and receive messages via mobile phone. But, unfortunately, Twitter gave up its free SMS service a while ago. I asked one of the Twitter founders, Jack Dorsey, at the e-stats conference when the free service is coming back, to which he replied ‘on mid year.’ This leaves the question, ‘what can be said in 140 characters?’ Quite a lot when you look at the Mobile Voices project just featured by the Netsquared N2Y2 challenge.

But one thing is for sure, just because you only have low bandwidth connection, does not mean you want to see dull, text based websites. There are various ways to make websites look appealing and still reduce the data size considerable. Aptivate has excellent Web Design Guidelines for Low Bandwidth.

Full disclosure: Maneno, the multi-lingual, low-bandwidth blogging platform, is in part run by three Global Voices authors. Here is a GV post about it.

Micro-blogging for fun and profit

People like micro-blogging, popularized through sites like Twitter and the business-oriented Yammer, because it is fast and relatively low-bandwidth. It’s quicker and easier than email and often even more informal. Micro-blogging has changed the way groups conduct crisis management, event coverage and issue advocacy.

But not everyone wants to attempt to micro-blog on the big sites because of the lack of privacy. There are a number of technologies that allow organizations to put micro-blogging to their own use to facilitate community building online.

Louis Gray, a US-based blogger, explains the federated platform of Laconi.ca, which he describes as a “group Twitter” – speaking to a distinct community rather than to the whole world.

Well, actually, it's more of a small community concept I'm refering to – your business can actually build communities off of this protocol, starting with the software that Identi.ca has provided. Identi.ca and Twitter are both very broad communities. People of all types and tastes are on those services. Those services are good for that – it's a great way to build relationships, meet new people, and find information. However, there is no way currently for me to associate only with those of like tastes and culture. For instance, if I am into college football and you are not, you aren't going to be interested in the details of the games I'm watching….

Now, what if [the US-based sports network] ESPN were to launch a version of Laconi.ca just for sports lovers? It would just take a simple install of Laconi.ca and a little cobranding of their logo, look, and feel and soon an entire community of sports lovers would be sharing their love for sports, communicating back and forth, and showing their other sports-loving friends what they're doing in their sports-loving life. At the same time, they could still follow all of those same friends they follow over on Identi.ca and even other interest communities, all while still on the ESPN sports community, remaining on the ESPN site. Imagine if this same technique was launched for Moms, Dads, religions, or even just your local city or town?

Here is a write-up on another open source micro-blogging platform: OpenMicroblogger.org

My mobile phone, my friend

The last post in this series began with the argument that we need to update the old story of the fisherman using his mobile phone to find the highest prices for his product. Back to the blog Crisscrossed, here is an update on what makes the mobile phone so important.

It is so special because it combines all former media, such as telephone, Internet, and even radio and television, and because one can:
1. Communicate and receive information (radio, television and Internet)
2. Document and collect information
3. Publish information in text, audio and video
4. Can network in different ways on a peer-to-peer basis

He also noted the mobile phone will help shape the public sphere by allowing citizen journalists to take photos. Phones allow people to participate in radio programs and through SMS-based campaigns. And they allow people to monitor elections.

Patrick Meier, from the group DigiActive, argues that people can now become activists simply by using a mobile phone. Portable telephones have been employed to organize and coordinate protests – specifically in the Philippines, Spain and Pakistan. Mobile phones have also been used to document human rights abuses, in Egypt, Tibet and Morocco.

But problems do exist. The cost of SMS communication is very high, especially in Africa. Mobile networks can be controlled by the government, Kreutz says. And, mobile providers are in businses to make money, not facilitate protest marches.

Sending hundreds of SMS texts

FrontlineSMS distributes a program allowing users to send and receive SMS messages in large groups without having to hook up to the internet.

Here is a write up in the blog Pulse + Signal about a FrontlineSMS project in Malawi, where they distributed mobile phones so doctors in hospitals can communicate with health workers in remote villages.

Despite all of the technological advancement surrounding these portable command centers of communication – all the bells and whistles that come equipped – we are at a point in the public/global health world hardly any of it matters.

A large amount of [moble technology for health] mHealth’s impact is being focused into developing, low-resource countries where there are numerous health issues needing to be addressed. The helpful technology that comes into play is SMS (Short Messaging Service). Fondly referred to as texting, SMS is one of the most basic aspects of the cell phone where data entered can be sent back and forth between phones. This service has been wildly useful in the implementation of more effective health initiatives around the world.

Finally, a video of FrontlineSMS staff training community health workers using SMS technology.


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