5 ways to use innovative technology in the field

King Felipe VI of Spain (center) and Catalan President Artur Mas visit one of the stands during the opening of the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by: Jordi Boixareu / CC BY-NC-ND

Innovative technology plays an ever-growing role in 21st century international development, from data collection to financial services. Last month’s Mobile World Congress — touted as the world’s biggest mobile event — was buzzing with debates on the issues that arise when development and advanced technology converge.

Almost 100,000 tech experts flocked to Barcelona, Spain, to participate in the latest discussions about the world of mobile technology, and international development too was on the agenda.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech discussed the Internet.org initiative — a worldwide partnership that aims to expand access to the Internet in the developing world. He began by praising the companies “building the infrastructure that is actually connecting people in the world” and recognized that providing developing countries with free access to the Internet can be a big driver of business.

“We are looking to create a model that’s profitable for operators … as more people get exposed to Internet,” he said.

Other buzz included an exploration of the appropriate use of innovative technology in development. At the Future of Mobile in Emerging Markets event, distinguished representatives from mobile companies and development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, shared their insights on the growing presence of mobile technology in international development. Several key challenges and risks emerged, and on the sidelines of the conference Devex discussed these perspectives further with several experts in the field.

Here are five key takeaways, including a selection of important tips to bear in mind when using innovative technology in the field.

1. Select the appropriate method.

It is essential to make smart choices. According to Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID, “it is important to first and foremost design with the actual user in mind, pick the right technology for the problem and context, and test in the intended working environment.”

For example, a development worker trying to get health information from people living in rural areas may decide it is more appropriate to use text messages or radio broadcasts instead of developing an iPhone app.

“There can be a tendency in development to gravitate toward ‘flashy’ solutions involving the latest technologies, without always fully considering the realities of the target users and environment,” Chang said, noting that USAID promotes such best practices with its principles for digital development.

2. Ensure information is representative.

Data collection has become a vital component of development but misrepresentation still remains a big challenge. Amy Waterman, a senior manager at Qualcomm, warned that by collecting data from phone records, information is only analyzed from those people with access to mobile phones who are likely to be more affluent, male and literate, and therefore not representative of the population as a whole.

“We have to be careful to not extrapolate that information and generalize, since it represents a certain demographic,” she said.

3. Safeguard privacy.

Nuria Oliver, scientific director at Telefonica, says the potential for using human behavioral data to support international development is huge, but it must be used responsibly. Anonymity can be a big challenge and Oliver said that as long as the data collected is personal, it is a requirement that all data analysis is in compliance with personal data laws.

Although social media data is publicly available today, other types of data are subject to much stricter rules given their sensitive nature.

“Mobile data is considered to be personal data and should only be analyzed after having signed the necessary [nondisclosure agreements] and data access agreements with the provider of the data,” she told Devex.

The data should only be analyzed for whatever specific purpose was agreed, such as public health, to minimize potential unintended consequences on other uses of this data.

4. Keep the end user in mind.

Another key takeaway from the talks is to always bear in mind the end user, the people that development practitioners are working to serve. Discussions at the Future of Mobile debate, for example, explored the risk of an obsession with big data, innovation and technology, that shifts the focus from the end user.

MTech Communications Country Manager Rosaline Ilori said this means keeping literacy levels and language limitations in mind. The company empowers the mobile economy, and Nigeria-based Ilori noted that high levels of illiteracy can mean that many people are left behind.

“Yes, we have mobile phones and data, but mobile apps not going to serve them if 50 percent of people cannot even read and write,” she said. “The end user is the priority and it is important to use local languages.”

5. Reduce inequality, not increase it.

Could the increased use of modern technology widen the inequality gap?

The jury’s out on this one as there are valuable opinions to support both sides. According to Cameron Goldie-Scott, CEO of Musoni Services — a tech company that previously founded a microfinance institution — people living in areas of high poverty levels are already excluded.

“Mobile phones and technology are a means of bridging that divide,” he told Devex, noting that one of the key benefits of innovative technology is that it makes it much easier to expand financial inclusion into rural areas where the majority of the poorest live. “Companies are for the first time able to reduce their outreach costs and so I am confident innovative technologies will expand inclusion, rather than further exclude the poorest.”

Chang, on the other hand, warned that using innovative technology has the potential to cause a wider chasm.

“We need to be extremely conscious of who we may be inadvertently excluding,” she said. “It is often the most vulnerable who are also the least likely to have access to such tools, and relying on them to deliver services risks leaving the disadvantaged further and further behind.”

Have some tips on using innovative technology in the field or #globaldev takeaways from last month’s Mobile World Congress? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Helen Morgan

    Helen Morgan is an Associate Editor at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.