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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 10:35 GMT
The invisible computer revolution
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By Dr Joel Selanikio

If I had told you ten years ago that by the end of 2007 there would be an international network of wirelessly-connected computers throughout the developing world, you might well have said it wasn't possible.

I would probably have said the same, but as it turns out we would have been wrong: it was possible, and it was created, and it continues to expand, not through Non-Governmental Organisations or charity or development grants but through the market, with much of it financed by some of the poorest people on the planet.

I am talking, of course, about the mobile phone network.

Along with the internet, with which it is rapidly merging, this is the most astonishing technology story of our time, and one that has the power to revolutionise access to information across the developing world.

Unfortunately, rich country biases limit understanding of this amazing phenomenon: for those in North America or Western Europe the cell phone is primarily or uniquely a phone designed to make voice calls.

In the rich world, even those who use the mobile for other tasks such as e-mail almost always do so as an adjunct to their "computer" (ie, the desktop or laptop in their home or office): the mobile phone is used for those tasks only when the "computer" isn't accessible.

Revolutionise education

Because those of us based in the developed world are always thinking of computers as things with 15-inch or 17-inch or 24-inch screens, it can be hard to see the potential of something much smaller, even if it's right in our pocket.

I was talking with a software developer friend of mine recently and going on as I do about the potential for cell phone software to revolutionise education, literacy, and public health in the developing world.

And he said to me "but can you really create a valuable user experience on such a small screen and with such a slow processor". So I asked him if he'd heard of the iPhone, or the Gameboy. Neither of those devices seem to have much difficulty in creating a compelling and useful user experience, and how long do you think it will it be before there's a sub-$100 iPhone or equivalent?

The whole history of consumer electronics suggests that we won't have to wait for long.

Palm device
I think it's time that we recognised that for the majority of the world's population, and for the foreseeable future, the cell phone is the computer
Meanwhile, this revolution of personally-financed wirelessly-connected computers largely goes unnoticed by the international development community, and because their paradigm revolves around desktops and laptops they spend millions developing specialised laptops for schoolchildren in developing countries, which will surely only ever reach a small fraction of them, while the network of invisible computers continues its exponential penetration into those same regions, below the radar.

Of course, even in the high-growth areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest growing cell phone market in the world, most people still don't have a cell phone of their own (though many have access to one via a friend or family member).

But important sub-groups in that region have much higher penetration than the general population, including knowledge workers such as teachers or healthcare providers.

The question we should be asking ourselves, then, is not "how can we buy, and support, and supply electricity for, a laptop for every schoolteacher" (much less every schoolchild), but rather "what mobile software can we write that would really add value for a schoolteacher (or student, or health worker, or businessperson) and that could run on the computer they already have in their pocket?"

Consider just one application: continuing education for clinical health workers.

Many developing country health providers get trained once, at the start of their career, and never get any additional training at all.

This is because transporting these workers to a training conference is hugely difficult in countries where roads are inadequate, or don't exist, or fuel is scarce -- and sending paper-based materials to workers is either expensive, or more likely impossible given a poorly-functioning postal mail system.

But imagine a system that lets managers at a national level, who probably do have access to the internet on a desktop computer, coordinate and transmit SMS-based continuing education messages to the computers - sorry, to the cell phones - of those health professionals. What a difference would that make to the level of up-to-date knowledge available to a clinic worker? And how would that impact the quality of care?

And what other groups might benefit from that kind of educational program? What about teachers? What about students?

Unfortunately, as of this morning a Google search for "educational software for Windows" got 41,300 results, while a search for "educational software for cell phones" got exactly 9 hits.

Banking initiatives

That doesn't mean that no one is creating innovative, useful software to run on cell phones.

In South Africa and Nigeria, for example, a variety of mobile banking initiatives have taken off and been embraced by a population that isn't going to be getting "online", in the web sense, anytime soon but who want all the advantages of cashless transactions.

And in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Zambia, with funding from The Vodafone Group Foundation and the UN Foundation, we've successfully completed a pilot of our EpiSurveyor mobile data collection software for public health.

Based on that pilot, which dramatically increased the public health data available in those countries, the World Health Organization has adopted EpiSurveyor as the standard for mobile data collection in Africa - and we're transitioning from unconnected PDAs to wirelessly-connected phones as I write this.

Importantly, the programming staff for that EpiSurveyor software is entirely located in developing countries: India, Kenya, and South Africa.

We've done this not only because it's more cost effective, but also to promote development capacity in those countries.

After all, who is more likely to come up with innovative software based on the centrality of the cell phone, a programmer in Silicon Valley surrounded by beautiful desktops and laptops, or a programmer in Nairobi who lives in a world in which almost all contact with the network is via cellphone?

But regardless of where the developer is located, I think it's time that we recognised that for the majority of the world's population, and for the foreseeable future, the cell phone is the computer, and it will be the portal to the internet, and the communications tool, and the schoolbook, and the vaccination record, and the family album, and many other things, just as soon as someone, somewhere, sits down and writes the software that allows these functions to be performed.

Joel Selanikio is a physician and co-founder of, a non-profit creating open-source software for public health and international development, including the EpiSurveyor mobile public health data collection toolkit.

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