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Can Mobile Tech Bridge the Digital Divide?

How to bridge the gap between the technology haves and have-nots is a major consideration when trying to maximize the benefit of using mobile technology for public good. The digital divide in the US is huge with tens of millions of Americans not currently connected to broadband. However, around 85% of US citizens own a cell phone with one recent Nielsen report indicating that the highest smartphone adoption rates in society are low income and ethnic minorities. So maybe mobile may offer the first opportunity to close the digital divide…

For more information on my mobile research visit my site www.howappt.com

One non-profit organization that works directly in this area is One Economy. Their goal is to use Internet technologies to bring every citizen into the economic mainstream. While in Washington DC I met with David Saunier, Senior Vice President, Media, to hear his thoughts on their recently sponsored apps contest, Applications for Good.

Applications for Good Competition

This contest challenged software developers, game designers, students, and other innovators to develop fun and engaging mobile applications and games that help families in the following areas:

  1. Trim the fat
  2. Connect learners
  3. Bank the unbanked
  4. Find jobs

The competition was presented as a superhero theme to inspire civic venture within the developer community. David explained to me that they that the ‘main aim of this process was to bring app developers together with the wants of the low-income population.’ Mobile apps have the flexibility to give people the right tool for the right job. ‘For instance you probably wouldn’t want to write your family budget on your feature phone’ David stated, ‘but something like tracking your expenses would be a good use of mobile.

Last month the winners of the competition were announced and I’ve included videos at the end of the blog.

Lessons Learnt

This was One Economy’s first foray into the area of apps contests and David gave some lessons they’d learnt:

  • Money was not necessarily the best incentive for developers. David described how One Economy hosted three ‘hackathons’ at the same time as their apps contest. These ‘hackathons’ brought developers together for a weekend to build apps for fun with no monetary incentive. As David explained ‘what came out of the hackathon was as valuable if not more valuable that what came out of the contest.’
  • A major focus should be on how best to co-produce solutions with citizens and involve in every stage of design in order produce apps that assist with specific problems. So any future apps contests will focus on more specialized issues.
  • The ultimate goal would be to help foster a robust self-sustaining collaborative community between developers and citizens.

International Mobile Developments

One Economy’s focus has geographically widened in recent years with initiatives now in 13 different countries. As with all of One Economy’s endeavours they try to make their international content bilingual and localized in focus.

In India for instance they are using predominantly SMS texts to push out material. One unexpected issue that they ran up against was that the people they targeted in India for their campaigns received so many text messages that many began to treat them like spam. What they soon realized was those campaigns need to be have more personal messages and meaningful conversation. For instance they are thinking of developing some form of menu so that the user can decide what they want rather than information just being pushed at them.

Conclusion – One app at a time

Apps and mobile technology are not a panacea. Nevertheless what becomes clear is that it doesn’t matter if the mobile service is in India or Indiana it is important to make sure that these programs are personal and tailored to a specific need. If these guiding principles are followed then the true potential of this technology can be fulfilled…changing the world slowly one app at a time.

Application for Good Winners Videos

Grand Prize & People Choice Awards: Remás

Banking Prize: MobileSaver

Gaming Prize: NutritionMission

Health Prize: Snapfresh

All Income Foods from Arthur Grau on Vimeo.

Image: www.one-economy.com

Graph: Kozuch

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Profile Photo Kristy Dalton

I typically hear the 85% number (PEW Internet says 83%) quoted as though that’s the percentage of US citizens that we’re going to reach with government mobile efforts. Truth is, only 35% own smart phones (can download apps) and only 58% send and receive text messages. I’m not suggesting that mobile efforts aren’t important, but we should be more realistic about the population numbers it will affect. Initiatives supporting broadband in the home still have a place.

Profile Photo Sonny Hashmi

The trends are interesting when you put them in the global context. Countries with traditionally poor landline infrastructure, or high density populations, including middle, south and east asian countries have far higher penetration and reliance on mobile infrastructure than the US. The growth of mobile is impressive in the last 3-5 years, and there is no doubt that is where the future is headed, but as Kristy mentioned, we still have a ways to go before we can reliably focus on mobile as a primary channel, especially since, even within smartphone users, usage trends vary (number and types of apps used, etc.).

The good news is that within the last two years, application development platforms have matured very quickly to take the complexity out of mobile development. cross-platform environments such as Adobe Air, and standards such as HTML5 are, and will continue to make it easier for government, private sector and citizen developers to “build once and deploy many times”. We are getting to the point where mobile platforms on the one hand, and application platforms on the other hand are close to convergence. This will result in deploying traditional web based applications, dashboards and feeds/data onto mobile platforms seamlessly and inexpensively, which should help scale solutions as a larger population shifts to mobile platforms over the next ten years.