The Allure of Mobile Technologies in Development: Reflections on Sustainable Development and #mtech

Imagine a world where a camp officer, trekking on a bicycle and by foot across treacherous streams, wetlands, stretches of sand that would swallow a motorcycle and long washed out footpaths reaches a remote community. There’s little to no infrastructure in sight, fired mud brick houses, thatch roofs, and the occasional relics of past development efforts, where a road was cut, and a bridge was built, without the necessary logistics and capacity for repair, are now disintegrating back into the earth.

Collapsed pit latrines, built without an understanding of the surrounding soil, sit to their right, and the ruins of an old community school, built almost forty years ago sit to the left, pieces of the roof missing, walls crumbling, but still in use. There is a meeting under the grand old tree that serves as the center point of the schoolyard, and sitting before the officer are over 200 women and their young children.

The officer provides a health talk in local language to their captive audience, about the three topics scheduled for this month’s visit: malaria, infectious diseases, and immunizations. Then they’re joined by a local volunteer and they unpack the cooler strapped on the back of the bicycle and begin the immunization campaign these women have come for. As they’re administering the doses, the officer keeps a simple feature phone, attached to a portable battery on the table, and taps in the numbers and data needed for each patient on the T9 keyboard.

The app is designed to register the top two rows as different immunizations, the third row is split into three age demographics and on the bottom row, * and # stand for male/female. In just a few seconds as the child is brought forward for the immunization and check up, the health card is read, and the officer records the data in real time before administering the injection.

Data entry is simple, and clear – as each patient steps forward the data is registered and automatically moves to the next entry – allowing for quick processing.

Our officer charges the battery, from a solar panel at his camp station 40 km away, and the whole setup, including the phone, costs less than 100 dollars, it’s durability is at least two years. Officers are able to record the outcomes of this month long project to mobilize these rural communities, and report the communities participation and numbers, as well as immunization data over 800 kilometers away to the central office, then that data can be taken, used in forecasting and monitoring to provide not only evaluative measures, but also guidance on where to focus and which areas are lagging behind, flagging them for more outreach. This data is then relayed back to the officer by SMS, completing the communication cycle.

Aside from remote service provision, the promise of mobile technologies is increasing communication and data recording across all aspects of service delivery. From inventory management, to SMS reminders for HIV patients to adhere to their treatment schedules. They are a tool in the war chest of government agents, humanitarian workers, and the private sectors in not only reaching ‘idealized’ remote areas, but also improving and increasing data capture and adherence in the densest rural slums.

This dream, doesn’t need to be imagined[1]. It’s been happening on the ground for the last few years in Zambia, with pilot programs and different approaches being implemented across the globe as mobile technologies are being integrated in development programs, and are demonstrating themselves as particularly useful in relation to monitoring and evaluation practices. Although this example highlighted the collection of simple data, with cheaper touch screen smartphones, the opportunities surrounding mobile technologies are staggering. Companies are recognizing these opportunities, and new business models reliant on mobile payment and mobile use are flourishing across the world, with a particular life and vibrance on the African continent[2]. Mobile technologies are integrating not only in education, outreach, and information exchange, but they are also serving to help encourage and support sustainable development initiatives in sectoral projects from health to education. This support comes through increased transparency, data management, and access.  More, they’re working to enhance access to, and transparency of data globally. The results of which help to alleviate some of the political[3] and social[4] constraints to sustainable development issues.

In 2014, I returned from three years of field service with the United States Peace Corps (PC), in Zambia. From 2011 to 2013, I worked under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Zambian Ministry of Health, under the Community Health Improvement Project (CHIP) at a Rural Health Clinic which provided services to over 10,000 people in an area of 616km2. From 2013 to 2014, I took on an extension role, working as a provincial manager and volunteer leader for Southern Province. There, as a member of a team of three I administered support, technical guidance, training, and monitoring activities as well as day to day administrative duties for the province, across an area of approximately 85,000km2 and over thirty communities across four sectoral projects. These four projects were focused on the thematic areas of agriculture and agroforestry,  education, health, and fisheries.

As a result of those experiences I was directly confronted with the reality that in many cases, especially those of larger projects initiated from a national or supranational level, sustainable development was being paid lip service, but was not being sincerely implemented.

Today, with the rising inequalities in access to services and opportunities, the threats of a changing climate and environment, and the rapid expansion of consumptive production capacities and requisite focus on continued, sustained growth, the need for sustainable practices which minimize or mitigate harm, and empower ownership and investment in local resources is unquestionable.

This is not to say that sustainable development programs are not gaining traction, nor that the sustainable development conversation is not advancing. Every year new reporting tools, technologies, data capture systems, and reporting tools are being created, standards are being agreed, and organizations are being held to account for their programs and their outcomes. As a result, insights gained are being converted into initiatives at different levels throughout the political and social structure. But, we are still experimenting with development, and the lack of transparency and communication between organizations means that often we repeat the same experiments, with ill effect. This has been proven time, and time again during my experience in Zambia.

As a result I’ve been continuing to learn and pursue research focused on the role of these technologies and their threats and possibilities. This continuing research is inspired by those experiences visualized and expressed above, and serves as a extension of the desire to share the best practices learned from facing, and overcoming some of the challenges and failures of sustainable development policy within the development assistance field.

In 2016 for the Sixteenth International Conference on Sustainability in Opole, Poland I wrote a brief piece on the nature of sustainability, sustainable development, and community mobilization. I used the paper and my presentation at the conference to share my experiences, lessons learned, and the current state of sustainable development policy implementation in the development assistance field.

In brief, that paper outlined five core principles that I believe are necessary for the successful implementation of sustainable development initiatives. It also focused on the role that a necessary strengthening of methods which focus on contextualization, transparency, and evaluation, play in the success of projects. I wrapped up the paper with a call for a deeper understanding of political motivations, and greater transparency through the use of emerging technologies and communication strategies. It’s from that call to action that I continue to seek greater clarity and to capitalize on that experience, the reflections provided by my previous research, and my expanded understanding of sustainability and the consequences of development.

Today I’m continuing to analyze how to recognize the direct and indirect impacts of actions and tools aimed at sustainable development, the methods and tools which can be used to measure these impacts, and the role of technology in building sustainability. A major focus of that research is also a recognition of the dangers of data and digital tools, including those to privacy, self-determination, and security.

I look forward to presenting on these ideas and sharing future research at the 17th International Conference on Current Issues of Sustainable Development in April of this year.

[1] This example is framed by programs which were being piloted and implemented in 2012 and 2013 while I was working in Luapula and Southern Provinces in Zambia.

[2] Cellular providers are creating new services to use on their networks, and independent companies are also expanding into the market. Using mobile technologies to finance and promote micro-transactions  (eg: M-PESA).

[3] Clearer visualizations and access to aggregated data makes it easier to “sell” projects politically to constituents.

[4] Including increased access to information and advocacy for better governance, and curtailing of illicit financial practices


One response to “The Allure of Mobile Technologies in Development: Reflections on Sustainable Development and #mtech”

  1. […] The Allure of Mobile Technologies in Development: Reflections on Sustainable Development and #mtech Jan 13th, 2017 […]

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