During a recent scoping visit to Papua New Guinea by Regional Director Asia Oren Murphy and I, we met Dr Amanda Watson, who has been pioneering the use of mobile phones in the development space.
Mobile coverage and use has been on the rise since 2007, driven primarily by the arrival of a new mobile telecommunications company Digicel. Today, there's good coverage across PNG, and investment by the mobile companies is focused on data. This is reinforced by recent comments made by the head of Digicel: "…if you really look at it, it’s all about data, it’s all about smartphones, tablets, how people remain connected, so that’s really where all the investment’s going".
However, right now, feature phones dominate the market, and while we were told that October 2013 had been the first month when smartphones outsold feature phones in PNG - it'll take atleast two or three years more for smartphones to become dominant. One of the primarily barriers to smartphone ownership is not necessarily cost, but the level of power they consume. Even people who can afford a entry level smartphone (around $60) prefer feature phones because they use less power and can often for for a few days without needing to be charged.
In a country where electricity is still not available as a regular service, and in vast areas of the country, there simply is no access to electricity, the charging of mobile phones is a very practical barrier to their use. People often travel to towns to charge their phones, and some of the mobile towers also provide charge points. Smartphone usage will be dependent on access to electricity or a more convenient and cost-effective battery charging solution that what exists today.
While there are still challenges and barriers to more comprehensive adoption, there have been couple of interesting pilots of mobile use, lead by research consultant Dr Watson that demonstrate the impact of simple strategies.
Childbirth Emergency Phone Project
In Papua New Guinea, 5 women die every day giving birth. Many of the deaths may be preventable especially if women can access the right advice, or frontline health care workers can tap in to maternal expertise that can only be found in major towns.
A trial was conducted in Milne Bay Province where a free mobile phone number provided access to trained maternal nurses at the main hospital in the province's capital. Health workers were encouraged to call in if they required information or expert advice.
The trial was very successful, but there were a number of prank calls to the hotline number that created challenges. There could be ways around this, where an IVR system answers the call first and a pin is entered before it rings through to the maternity ward - however, the barrier this would create may hamper the service.
The project has been adopted as a regular service. While there's nothing revolutionary about the project, it's simplicity is innovative, and promotes the use of mobile phones as a means to share information and access knowledge.
Collecting Data from District Court Clerks
A majority of the population live outside of the major towns. The moutaineous terrain and lack of roads result in serious challenges to collecting data or conducting research. With the increasing penetration of mobile coverage, SMS was piloted as a way to have clerks in the district courts across PNG send back details about specific cases. Prior to the pilot, there had been an attempt to have the clerks complete paper-based forms, however, this had been unsuccessful.
A locally-based value-added service provider was contracted to create a survey using SMS. Essentially, questions were sent out, prompting the clerk to respond. And depending on the response, additional questions were sent out. The system was designed to check for errors, so if the clerk responded outside certain parameters, the system would SMS again indicating the error and ask them to resend the appropriate response. Once again, there is nothing unique about the technology behind this strategy, however, in the context of PNG and data collection, it proved effective, especially compared to the attempt to collect paper-based responses.
One of the key takeaways for me regarding the above strategies is that they are practical and modest in design. There are many tools and platforms that could have been used such as FrontlineSMS or Magpi - but issues with interfacing to local mobile companies and the lack of local technical support increases the probability of something going wrong, resulting in frustration and a negative attitude towards using mobile strategies. In emerging markets especially, it's important to go with solutions that have a high probability of working as intended, especially from a technical perspective.
The other key takeaway is the importance of readying the user. Often, as designers of ICT4D solutions, we take the use of technology, and especially mobile phones, for granted. Even in markets where there have been a long history of using mobiles, familiarity with and the ability to use some of the mobile based strategies can be challenging. And in communities where these technologies are new, there is a real need for a dedicated familiarisation and training program, and a constant reviewing, to ensure that the actual solution is used as intended.
While telecommunications companies will be wanting to push data applications, it's important to continue to consider SMS and voice as possible strategies of engagement and information exchange.
Image Credit : from Australian Aid funded 'Childbirth Emergency Phone' brochure.