Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Leading a Computer Revolution We Cannot Ignore

Shackled to our desktop and laptop computers, we in industrialized nations might just be missing the next computer revolution. Wouldn't it be deliciously ironic if developing countries leapfrogged ahead of us by using inventiveness born of the need to make-do with less? It might very well already be happening in the form of mobile-phone-based computing.

With the advent of the iPhone, Americans have begun thinking about the broader potential of mobile phones, but in the developing world, especially in Africa, mobile phones have become the computers of choice. Joel Selanikio, star of the video above and a new hero of mine, calls it the "invisible computer revolution."

He notes that at the end of last year, developing countries had created an international network of wirelessly connected computers--mobile phones. While we think of them primarily as a medium for voice (and increasingly typed chat) conversations, Africans are making them much much more. Selanikio says the "one laptop per child" effort might just be left in the dust as the size of the mobile phone network continues to explode. He points out that sub-Saharan Africa, where neither laptop nor desktop computers are at all common, is the fastest growing cell phone market in the world.

Another new hero of mine, Nathan Eagle, an MIT research scientist, points out that Africans are jumping at the chance to learn mobile phone programming to develop the kinds of applications uniquely suited to meeting everyday needs in their own countries--needs no American or European programmer is likely to envision.

There's plenty here for the U.S. government to ponder. An easy question: Why can't the Census Bureau manage to move its citizen survey onto fancy handheld computers, while Selanikio's tiny nonprofit has been able to make an easily user-modified free public health survey software now being used on cheap cell phones all over Africa? Why hasn't the U.S. disaster response system put Selanikio's EpiSurveyor (about which more below) into place on every emergency health responder's cell phone? Why aren't federal agencies bringing smart African programmers here to teach them how to better serve low-income Americans via cell phones or having Eagle set up programs to teach mobile programming to youngsters in need of bootstrapping here at home?

Selanikio's certainly no stranger to the federal community. He's a former Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist, Public Health Service officer and chief of the Health and Human Services Department post-9/11 command center.

DataDyne, Selanikio's nonprofit organization, has created open source software that makes mobile phones into public health survey tools. The EpiSurveyor software first was designed to work on personal data assistants like the Blackberry or Palm, but now is moving to cell phones. That's huge in Africa, where mobile phones are huge.

With more than 280 million mobile subscribers in 2007, Africa had an overall cell phone penetration rate of 30 percent, according to Africa Telecoms News. There are more than 3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, a 35 percent penetration rate. The African mobile explosion might seem surprising, but phones there are relatively cheap--as little as $20 new and much less used--and 75 cents can buy 10 minutes of off-peak calling in Kenya, for example.

Many who can't afford even those low rates simply buy a card to plug into someone else's borrowed, shared or rented handset. Phones are becoming a vital means of exchange. M-Pesa is an example. The service allows far-flung Africans to pay cash to a phone dealer in one town, who sends a code to the intended recipient of funds. That person or business redeems the code for cash from another M-Pesa dealer. The service, run by mobile carrier, Safaricom, Ltd. (owned by British multinational Vodafone), signed up 1.6 million users in the year after its March 2007 launch. Economists believe the opportunities created by mobile phone expansion cause economies to grow, perhaps by as much as 0.6 percent for every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration.

And that brings us back to Dr. Selanikio, who noticed the horribly inefficient and slow paper-based health information systems of the developing world. The obvious answer was to take advantage of mobile phones. His EpiSurveyor can be easily downloaded and adapted by national health ministries and their field workers. The system obliterates the need for error-prone data entry by hand and for paper.

It helped Kenyan health officials prevent a polio outbreak in 2006, when a refugee from violence in Somalia carried the disease into a Northeastern province after it had been eradicated 20 years earlier. Officials used the program to decide where vaccinations should be given and to control supplies.

And Nathan Eagle wants many more such applications to be developed by Africans themselves. His Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles program offers a variety of mobile phone programming classes in 10 sub-Saharan African countries. It also is teaching courses in creating applications based on cell phone text capabilities. And it operates txteagle, which connects Africans with cell phones and extra time with companies seeking simple text-based help, such as Nokia, which seeks African translation assistance, or health agencies seeking more effective ways of delivering services. The companies pay for the aid.

It's not hard to think up ways federal agencies could use such a service to improve their own services while helping people receiving Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance at the same time. Not surprisingly, Google already has figured out there's a market here, though not the mobile phone angle.

C'mon, Uncle Sam, here's a chance to grab the reins, head up another revolution like the Internet and find some efficiencies and much needed infusion of income for the growing number of hard-hit Americans. What's not to like?

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