One only has to look at events in the Middle East in recent weeks to understand the role of mobile phones in fomenting change. “It is impossible to silence the civil rebellion in Egypt because access to the internet gives people a voice,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a recent speech. “The younger generation will arm themselves with iPhones instead of stones.”
The Egyptian government’s attempts to control the message and the access failed. It forced three of the country’s mobile operators to send propaganda via SMS text messages but its ploy was quickly exposed. Government blocking of internet services for five days is likely to have cost the country $90 million, according to preliminary estimates from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The blocked communication services account for roughly four per cent of GDPor a loss of $18 million per day.
The block wasn’t very effective: When the internet was shut down, Twitter, Google and a company it acquired called SayNow, created and launched – in a single weekend – a service that allowed anyone in Egypt who wanted to tweet to continue doing so with a simple voice connection by leaving a voicemail on an international number. The service would instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt.
Mobile telephony is not only helping fuel revolutions, it is revolutionizing people’s lives, allowing those who traditionally have not had a voice to take control in times of crisis, access health care and information that is crucial to their livelihoods and send and receive money safely.
For instance, technology developed by Kenya’s Ushahidi, which played a key role in rescue efforts after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, allows the creation of crowdsourced crisis maps. People send in information by SMS to crisis mappers who filter the information for accuracy and normalize it for display. The same technology has been used to monitor elections and to alert authorities in real-time about outbreaks of disease or shortages of medicine in remote areas. Text to Change, a non-profit organization uses quizzes sent via SMS to educate people in emerging markets about health issues. mPedigree, a company in Ghana, uses SMS messaging to help people in Africa determine whether the pharmaceuticals they are purchasing are counterfeit. And mobile money services, also based on SMS messaging, are allowing millions of unbanked people the world over to not just manage their finances but also pay their bills and ensure, for example, that a relative in another town has enough money to eat that day.
As even the cheapest phones become more sophisticated, even the poorest people on earth will have access to health care and some of the world’s best teachers, thanks to their mobile devices. As broadband reaches more and more people, the services will become more powerful and so will the people who use them. Mobile technology can not solve all of the world’s ills, of course, but when it comes to managing disease or a crisis, or even forcing the change of a regime, people will increasingly find that now, there is an app for that.
This story appeared in a print publication Informilo produced in partnership with Raconteur Media, which was distributed at The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona February 14-17 and in a regular edition of the Times in the UK on Feb. 14. The print publication is the second in a series on innovation and technology that Informilo and Raconteur Media plan have produced.