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Can Cell Phones Solve the World’s Problems?

It’s no secret that the rise of the cellular telephone has had a profound social impact, enabling people to stay connected and access information from almost anywhere, whether at home or on the road. Yet the potential of mobile phones to become tools for positive change is just beginning to be tapped, say global leaders in technology and social development.

“We are witnessing a new dawn in the way new technologies can make a difference, even in the most remote places,” states United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his preface to a recent UN report entitled “ICT, Enterprises and Poverty Alleviation.” More than 50 percent of the world’s population now uses mobile phones, and over half of these users are in developing countries, making cellular technologies among the most ubiquitous in the world. Professionals and academics are now exploring how mobile technology could be used to improve social welfare in developing countries.

Mobile devices have been touted as tools to improve access to health care in developing countries, through both the development of new technologies and the benefits of instant communication. Ideas proposed during the November 2010 mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., included both the simple—providing daily texts with prenatal tips to expectant mothers—and the highly complex, such as a SIM card biosensor to detect malaria. A report released by the UN in partnership with Vodafone, “mHealth for Development: The Opportunity of Mobile Technology for Healthcare in the Developing World,” describes projects in countries such as India, Burkina Faso, Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and Rwanda that range from education and awareness to epidemic tracking to diagnostic and treatment support.

Similarly, the ubiquity of cell phones has the potential to improve access to education, particularly among women and girls. A UNESCO study in Pakistan, targeting females between 15 and 24, has shown the effectiveness of promoting literacy through text messaging. The cell phone “is not only a device; it is a door to greater education and information,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the October 2010 launch of the mWomen Program, which is designed to expand the use of cell phones among women in the developing world to promote education and equal access.

Beyond their benefits to individuals in developing countries, cell phones have also been used to collect data and information for NGOs seeking to improve human rights. For example, the Asian Pacific Network for Sex Workers collects anonymous information from sex workers via text message that they use to identify and prevent violent trends. The “Open Data Kit,” software allows nonprofits to collect data in remote areas through cell phones, and has been used by the University of California’s Human Rights Center to collect information on war crimes and human rights violations. Cell phones have thus expanded the ability of NGOs to understand and address human rights abuses in the developing world by allowing researchers access to even the remotest areas.

Mobile phones are also being used to monitor environmental issues such as deforestation, as well as to help subsistence farmers stay on top of weather and market information in order to improve their ability to sell their products and increase their incomes.

The spread of cell phones has provided unprecedented opportunities to reach people in even the most rural areas. Policymakers, professionals and academics have only just begun to explore the potential of these devices to improve services in fields such as health and education, yet it seems clear that how this technology is harnessed will play a profound role in addressing key development issues across the world.

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