For thousands of people, technology represents the power behind modern toys. Our cars tell us where to go from outer space; laptops remember our favourite actions and mobile phones tell you when you need to visit the bank – but what about a smart phone for monitoring election fraud, or discussing better foreign aid across different continents with Skype?
The fact is that technology is advancing faster than we are - and innovations in computing and online communication have almost infinite possibilities for the fight against extreme poverty.
“The moment we are living through, the moment our historical generation is living through, is the largest increase in expressive capability in Human history” – Clay Shirky. Interactive Telecommunications expert Clay Shirky explains that the promise of this new technology is bottom up. As technology online and in portable media like phones evolves, so the world's poor and some innovative charities are adapting these tools to fight poverty.
The use of modern technology has become decentralised, delineated and easily translatable – key factors in mass participation of an entire generation in the collaborative development of ideas and popular movements, states Shirky. These ‘movements’ can exist entirely outside the physical limitations of governments, institutions or other traditional forms of top-down communication.
The all-access model of online communication allows anyone to search for and distribute data that has often been internally focussed, such as government debates or reports. Increased transparency is one benefit of this trend, as companies and institutions are forced to ‘keep up’ with an assertion that communication in today’s world is global, and can be shared or ‘tweeted’ instantly.
But what about more practical applications? In Hubli, India, NextDrop provides a text message service alerting residents of the city when pipes in their neighbourhood are being turned on by the local authority – avoiding the significant effect of poor water reliability on livelihoods in areas where coverage is unpredictable. The process combines the sms service with google maps to track when each part of the city receives water and is currently in trial.
Mobile phones are being used where development organisations, educational establishments and government clinics are under-funded or over burdened. Bridging this gap, AppLab provides rural communities in Uganda with an online information service that includes tips for farming, health and critical market data to maximise the potential farmers and families can get from their livelihoods - by increasing awareness, being able to track the market and using shared knowledge to increase efficiency.
In Senegal, fishermen and farmers are using a similar scheme - telecommunications group Manobi collate the latest prices for goods at markets around Dakar, providing sellers with the information they need to get the best rates for their products, helping them know when to fish and where to go with the goods.
We have previously posted about M-Pesa - a mobile technology service that allows micro finance borrowers to make and receive payments without the need for visiting a bank. Users can use the service to manage and receive remittances, a vital part of the framework for combating poverty, and M-Pesa now operate in Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan and South Africa. The service is key to fighting poverty as it allows rural families and Microfinance institutions to easily manage finances in a way that minimises cost and promotes efficiency.
In India, health workers can even use a portable digital pad to test for HIV, thanks to pioneering medical technology group Nanobiosym. The possibilities are endless – and endlessly exciting. What is needed is funding to allow these technologies to become reproducible in a more practical sense, before we can realise their full potential and make fighting poverty truly fit the technologically engaged generation.