Posts / February 2, 2012

The Future Of Mobile

This past week I had the pleasure of speaking with the lovely Alicja Peszkowska from NetSquared, sharing my thoughts on problem-driven innovation and the future of mobile. This is a cross-post from that article on the NetSquared blog

This last blog in the Net2 2012 Look Ahead blog series focuses on the mobile world, and how it is revolutionizing the way we think about social change. I talked it through with Dale Zak, a mobile software developer passionate about helping people in need. 

Over the past three years, Dale has contributed to Ushahidi’s crowdsourced crisis mapping platform (to learn more about Ushahidi in the context of Net2 watch this net2allstar video), helped The Extraordinaries build their micro-volunteer system, as well as developed open source plugins for FrontlineSMS. He also coordinated several social good initiatives including organizing Mobile Tech 4 Social Change conference in Halifax, formed Apps4Good to bring together software developers to build apps for charity, established Repurposed Labs to re-purpose used computers into public internet terminals for low income communities, and deployed I Vote Because map to spark a pro-democracy movement why voting is important in Canada. This past December Dale travelled to Lusaka to teach Zambia’s first mobile development workshop at the BongoHive

Dale’s interests and experience intersect with these of NetSquared on many levels — the technology one, the social change one, as well as the international reach one. Dale has lived and traveled to different countries; he understands the diversity of social problems, and has worked his way through global projects.

Read this short interview with Dale to learn more about how mobiles can change the world, and what they will be changing in the technology world in 2012. I also strongly encourage you to check out Dale’s blog, especially the articles on Building Technology vs. Solving Problems and Harnessing The Power Of Mobile, as well as the blog post from the iHub Nairobi in which he shares his thoughts on mobile design.

Q: What would be your favourite mobile “apps for good” examples?

To understand the true power of mobile, one must appreciate the full spectrum of device capabilities. Even low-end devices with basic SMS, MMS and USSD can be a powerful platform for collaboration. On the high-end side, smartphones with accelerators, touch screens, NFC, GPS capabilities can be an incredibly powerful suite of tools. My favorite mobile apps are the ones that combine these individual device features in an unique way to help solve a problem.

One of my favorites is Safety Siren, an iPhone and Blackberry app developed by YWCA Canada that turns your smartphone into an emergency SOS system. Shaking the device or touching the safety button activates a loud siren which automatically shares your location with an emergency contact. The brilliance behind the app comes by combining the touch-screen, accelerometer, audio, GPS and internet capabilities into an emergency SOS system helping protect the user in an unsafe situation.

M-Farm is another one of my favorites, SMS-based solution that helps empower farmers with accurate market information. The tool utilizes SMS as a platform allowing any SMS-capable phone to obtain accurate market prices. For example, a farmer in Kenya can simply send a text message ‘price tomatoes nairobi’ to 3535 and receive the suggested market price. M-Farm is a great example of using an appropriate technology and that even the low-end devices can be a powerful tool for collaboration.

Another one of my favorites is Good Guide, a mobile app that helps empower consumers to buy safe, healthy, and green products. The app utilizes the devices camera as a barcode scanner to provide ratings and personal recommendations for over 120,000 products. Good Guide is a great example of mobile being used a decision making tool, providing valuable information on the demand.

Q: You have worked in many places and environments — how would you say that social innovation in North American and Europe differ from the one developed Africa?

Last summer I spent four months living in Nairobi and working from the iHub. While there, I noticed a sharp contrast to North America where developers are ‘building technology’ rather than ‘solving problems’. At home, companies are focusing on creating another social network, building another photo sharing app or developing another groupon clone, none of which are solving real problems. In Nairobi, most developers were trying to solve local problems, and in the process finding creative ways to make money. A good example was Pivot25, a mobile development competition in Nairobi where every startup at the event pitched an innovation solution that was aiming at solving a local problem.

There was a great article in The Next Web on The Problem With Silicon Valley Is Itself which really highlighted this issue, “one of the reasons for lack of innovation in the Valley is that entrepreneurs are not exposed to enough real-world problems.” Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines by identifying a real problem, defining a practical solution, finding an appropriate technology and targeting a local market. Software by itself isn’t very interesting, but applying that technology is where real innovation happens. 

A good example is here in Saskatchewan where we have an agriculture based economy, one of the best agriculture colleges in the country and a strong tech community. My question is, why isn’t Saskatchewan a world leader in agriculture software? I believe, one of the reasons is that developers are not having a conversation with farmers about the challenges they are facing. We are missing a huge opportunity because we are focusing on building technology without asking what problem we are trying to solve.

Q: What do you think will 2012 bring into the mobile driven world of social efforts?

We are going to continue to see explosion in mobile driven by the ‘perfect storm’ of connectivity, availability, speed, power, features, and price. The processing power and capabilities of devices and network coverage and data transfer speeds to these devices is continuing to increase, while the overall cost of handsets is decreasing. 

A good example is Huawei’s IDEOS Android phone which sells for 8000KSH (~$80USD), saw massive adoption in Kenya this year. The upcoming release of the Datawind’s $35 tablet and OLPC $100 XO-3 will lead to an explosion of tablet devices for the bottom of the pyramid. The trend of faster devices in the hands of more people with increased connectivity will also drive demand for more mobile apps. This creates new opportunities for developers to build innovative tools for this emerging market. We will also see more initiatives like Orange providing Wikipedia free in the Middle East and Africa. The smartphone and mobile apps will begin to challenge SMS as the appropriate technology for the bottom of the pyramid, many already predicting the decline of SMS as a result.

Q: What are the challenges that mobiles will have to face in order to solve even more social problems?

Accessibility is one challenge often overlooked, how can we develop solutions that are accessible to all groups of society?

In December I had an opportunity to meet with Hendrik Knoche, a professor from EPFL in Lausanne specializing in accessible mobile interface design. Hendrik is developing a mobile application for illiterate farmers in India and also helped create EasySMS which empowers illiterate people to read, compose and send text messages through text-to-speech. The question he posed to me was, how do you design a mobile app for a person who can not read? Our conversation really challenged my notions on mobile design, and exposed a lot of misconceptions on design strategy.

Multilingual is another aspect of accessibly often overlooked. So many mobile applications are English-only, making them useless for non-English speakers. Translating apps to other languages as well as local dialects will need to become the norm, rather than the exception. As mobile expands into more aspects of our lives, it is important that we strive to ensure the tools we develop are accessible to all, especially vulnerable populations whom can often benefit the most.

Thanks again to Alicja Peszkowska for the interview, I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts on all things mobile.