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A mobile fast-track for the developing world

Mobile phones have seen a surge in popularity in Africa during the last few years, with around 500 million – around half the population - mobile phone subscribers.  Yet broadband access lags far behind. In fact, Africa might bypass fixed Internet lines altogether, according to former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, to become the ‘un-wired continent’.

Gordon Brown allied with Tim Berners-Lee during his time as UK prime minister to open up the Government's public data sets. He believed as tax payers' money funded this data, the public have a right to see it. He also hoped to encourage the public and commercial industry to use the data in innovative ways. Main story and above image courtesy J.Erard/UNIGE.

“Africa could leapfrog previous stages of communication development and come onto the internet,” said Brown. “The fact that the mobile phone has become so prevalent so quickly, gives you hope that it could fill the gap where healthcare and agricultural information does not exist.” This could not only benefit peoples’ daily lives, but help scientific research as well.

The Web-pioneering duo was at the University of Geneva in April to discuss their vision to enable more worldwide web access, especially in developing countries. Those that think Brown’s web credibility is dubious should remember his time as UK Prime Minister. He played a key role in making the UK Government’s public data freely available online, by recruiting Berners-Lee in 2009 and enabling 2,000 developers to manage the data. He is also a board member of the World Wide Web Foundation.

According to Berners-Lee, the reason for growth in mobile phone usage in African nations is that despite increasing Internet penetration, fixed Internet lines are still exorbitantly expensive – hundreds of dollars per month. Mobile phones, however, are much cheaper and can access the web through Wi-Fi.

The Web provides poor rural and urban communities with access to vast educational and economic opportunities. “Web access should be a universal human right,” was Brown and Berners-Lee’s slogan during their discussion. If 20% of the world is connected via the web, Berners-Lee said, how can the web serve the other 80% of humanity?

Already, African consumers are increasingly using mobile phones for their every-day activities. One example is ‘M-Pesa’ (M for mobile and Pesa is Swahili for money), the world’s first mobile phone-based money transfer system. It is a virtual banking system that facilitates millions of transactions per day.

Jump on the bandwagon

Gordon Brown and Tim Berners-Lee speaking at the University of Geneva press conference on providing web access to more of the world's population. Image courtesy Adrian Giordani.

As mobile phone usage increases, web-based scientific applications are also following suit, particularly in the life sciences. ISGTW previously reported on the EpiCollect project, a smartphone application for collecting field research from biological surveys to health studies. This mobile-application is simple enough to use, that training for rural people is easy. Biodiversity project ViBRANT is also developing a mobile phone app. Therefore, web-enabled mobile phones could not only improve daily life for people, but provide science with a wealth of research opportunities in developing countries. Berners-Lee predicted that web and phone apps will become more interoperable in the future.

Illiteracy problems still need to be addressed; however, if consumers are to use a web browser at all. Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation is working on promoting educational projects to overcome this. Berners-Lee suggested another possible approach:  to develop a voice-to-text service to enable better web access on mobiles.

The mobile-phone-turned-computer is not just increasing in Africa. In Indonesia, the number of mobile phone numbers in use tripled within five years, while the population fails to take up other communication technology. And in China, more than half their population now access the mobile web, as urban Chinese become wealthier. They have surpassed US consumers, even though they have less advanced networks and fewer smartphones.

Building a sustainable mobile-internet infrastructure, alongside investment in power, roads, fair trade and water, may be the best way to bring the developing world’s rural and urban communities up to speed with the developed world.

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