Blog Post

Mobile Philanthrophy and Teledensity: Phoning the Digital Divide

Teledensity. Now there's a word.

According to TechEncyclopedia, teledensity is "the number of telephonesin use for every 100 individuals living within an area." My neighbors, afamily of five, have seven phones between them, not including phones at workand school. Tele-saturation, maybe?

We don't hear about teledensity in the US very often because we're aphone-rich country. Most of us struggle to pull away from the grid, whetherit's email, Facebook, cell phones, Google. In developing countries, however,teledensity is a way for government agencies and international bodies tomeasure the digital divide. While One Laptop per Child was whipping the techsector up with its rather adorable computer, organizations like the UN weretaking a much more serious look at mobile phones, arguably the real workhorses closingthe gap of the digital divide. In fact, in the UN's Millenium DevelopmentGoals, an initiative adopted in 2000, Goal 8f is to "develop a globalpartnership for development that would include making available the benefits ofinformation and communication technologies." And the UN recognizes that many ofthe other goals: to eradicate poverty, achieve universal primary education, andcombat epidemics are inextricably tied to the tools of information technology.

Measuring the number of worldwide cell phone subscribers is wrought withdifficulties, but if the International Telecommunication Union is to bebelieved, we'll reach 4 billion mobile phone users by year's end. That's one intwo people with a phone. All over the planet.  

Anyone who owns a moderately decent cell phone can imagine the possibilitiesfor a rural family with limited economic prospects. Fortunately, some innovategroups are not only imagining the possibilities, they're making them happen.

Two of the 2007 HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learning winners areusing phones as a centerpiece of their projects. Mobile Movement (formerlyAlways with You) is currently in Nairobi todocument a pre-selected group of youth entrepreneurs that will directlyconnect to business mentors through mobile phones in countries like the U.S. and Canada. No more third-party middleperson handling correspondence, no more cash under the mattress - thanks tomobile phones.  

According to Mobile Movement, "Young Kenyans can actually manage smallbusinesses because of new technology that is accessible. And with MobileMovement, you can build a history with a small business owner or youth group,build a relationship over time. And beyond individual giving, we are creating atrust-building system of micro-finance that could really change the waycorporations and agencies like the World Bank and the UN help people incommunities and monitor the progress of their smaller programs. It's going tobe more possible to fund small groups and monitor them in a way that can reallyleverage a new style of funding, and could open up a lot of possibilities."

A similar dynamic is taking place with Mobile Immersive Learning forLiteracy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE). Several months ago, MILLEE traveled toIndiafor a field study. 

As members of MILLEE explain, "The goal of this exploratory study was to identifyopportunities for informal learning that e-learning games and other softwareapplications on cellphones can facilitate. Out-of-school learning is especiallycritical in this context, for at least two reasons. Firstly, out-of-schoollearning can complement a public school system in which teachers are oftenabsent or inadequately prepared to teach the official curriculum. Secondly, asubstantial fraction of children in rural India who are school-going age donot attend school regularly because they need to work for the family in theagricultural fields or homes. As such, we envision that educationalapplications on a mobile device, such as a cellphone, can enhance access toeducation when employed as learning tools in out-of-school settings, such asthe fields or home."

More often than not, I think of my phone as part nuisance, partconvenience. Mobile Movement and MILLEE have changed that. Betweene-learning and micro-finance, cell phones are stepping up to the worldstage in a way that makes real change entirely possible.  


1 comment

Great post! Thanks, Sheryl. What incredible work these two projects are doing in the world. Best, Cathy