Mobile phones, developing nations, an amazing solution! (Article by Shane)

Shane M. Coughlan shane at
Sat Apr 22 08:43:16 UTC 2006

Hash: SHA256

Simon Morris wrote:
> My question (most probably a rhetorical question) is from a technology
> point of view how can we break this cycle, where people don't have
> access to affordable technology (or healthcare, social support)
> because of their poverty which in turn drags them further behind the
> rest of the world and deeper into poverty?

There appears to be only one way to break this cycle, and that is to
create sustainable infrastructure in developing nations.  Aid, either in
the form of money or food, has tended to be an ineffective and
short-term comfort for nations in crisis.

The provision of sustainable infrastructure is tricky.  Developing
nations often lack the facilities to developing base infrastructure on
their own, and creating infrastructure for them does not address the
issue of sustainability.  The developing nation must be able to
self-maintain the infrastructure elements it inherits or implements.  It
could be argued therefore that two things are key when it comes to
helping out developing nations: willing infrastructure donors, and
methods of ensuring the developing nation can provide the people and
resources to maintain the infrastructure.

When we address technology this gets very complex.  Many developed
nations have difficulty dealing with technology infrastructure, let
alone developing nations.  Spare parts, future development and support
infrastructure are dependent on relatively few manufacturing companies.
 The gadgets tend to cost a lot of money both to purchase and maintain.

I would suggest that there is no easy way to provide sustainable
technological infrastructure to nations that inherently cannot afford
it.  We cannot solve the problem in a neat way.  On the other hand,
there is no reason we should expect to.

The problems that developing nations face are not problems we will solve
this generation.  Our commitment - as developed nations - must take this
into account.  We need to provide education, resources, tools and
experts.  Technology is essential to helping develop effective logistics
and providing modern education, but it's a far out part of the overall
infrastructure picture.  We're going to have to pour a massive amount of
resources into initial provision, training and support in political,
social and technological arenas before any developing nations are going
to reach the point of technological infrastructure sustainability.

Perhaps the question is not really *how* we can do that, so much as
*will* we do that.  Our commitment to developing nations has been patchy
at best, and genuine infrastructure provision is a massive operation.

> However the output interface you describe you have to be either a)
> developed and implemented by device vendors specifically for the idea
> that consumers will donate the phone or b) the output to TV interface
> will have a useful function for the original owner.
> Not only would the interface have to be useful to the original owner I
> suspect the phone vendor will have to be able to sell services based
> around people wanting to watch their phone via the TV set. Seeing
> people watching movies on their PSPs riding the London Underground
> this may be a reality someday, but I think that is a barrier there.

Correct.  However, there are several reasons that manufacturers could
use as justification for the inclusion of the additional hardware support.

1) The video output would allow slide shows and videos for consumers in
developing nations.  This is something that might prove 'sellable' to
people.  Apple managed it with their iPod photo, and this could be
considered in the same way.

2) The addition of two relatively low-cost hardware extensions would
provide tools for developing nations.  Perhaps these future functions
could be sold as human eco-system additions.  I guess it would depend o
selling the idea that we need to recycle phones into developing nations,
and asking consumers in developing nations to shoulder the additional 50
pence or a pound the extra hardware would cost to include.

> If we look at the functionality of phones today and the technology
> available I can see a "version 1.0" to your plan that you described in
> the paper.
> Phones today have the following characteristics
> * They can output the full ASCII alphabet (or at least common
> alphanumeric characters and a host of commas, semi colons etc etc)
> * Predictive texting
> * They have SMS functionality
> * They have network access over GSM and possibly GPRS
> * They have voice capability
> Could governments in developing countries provide a telephony
> interface to services using commands sent by SMS, or possibly voice
> recognition software.
> As a user of a Blackberry (which admittedly is a richer interface than
> a standard phone) I regularly access a bash session over MobileSSH and
> GPRS. I'm not suggesting we teach the entire developing world
> /bin/bash but you could develop any text based system you wanted and
> allow people to access it over a thin SSH client

The voice command software does depend on rather expensive systems at
the other end of the line, but then again...such systems can serve a lot
of people in relatively little time, and they can do so 24 hours a day.
 For certain aspect of technological infrastructure such a system could
be useful.

Using a think SSH client over mobile networks could provide some basic
text services.  Perhaps word processing, simple spreadsheets or
databases.  Bandwidth would be a problem with any form of rich sorting
or data input, so it would be limited by that...but could be an
extension of what people have right now.  It would be an incremental
improvement, providing another step down the path of technological

> I believe that technology could be brought to the people you described
> in your article based on todays technology, but the methods you
> described would be the next generation of the concept.

You may well be right there.  What I suggested depended on two things:
hardware extensions (a relatively minor issue) and significant
development of software tools.  I imagine that the development of these
tools could be on-going, but is still likely to consume time.  It might
be possible to make a word processor and basic web browser today, but
before a true mobile office suite could be realised a lot of work would
have to be done.  It's not as simple as cutting and pasting code :)  Based on the proposed methodology of the
article, the software is provided by very light-weight services that can
call each other as needed.  It's about really modular design on top of
an exceptionally light framework, with the whole design intended to
reduce processor and memory overhead.  It works on the assumption that
most of the time people don't really use their CPU.

What you suggest is pushing forward today's technology - without
modification and with minor edtension - while casting our eye towards
more elaborate developments in the future.  I could certainly nod my
head at that.  If we can extend the utility people get out of existing
hardware, and introduce useful and timely new technology in a realistic
timescale, I think we're doing something very useful.


- --
Shane Martin Coughlan
e: shane at
m: +447773180107
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