Future of mobiles for change

On Wednesday I sent out a tweet asking “What can Nokia do to support & empower people around the world.” I was at an event put on by Nokia, Abundancy Partners and Lovely Day, to discuss ICT for good. To give the event some additional structure, some of us reinterpreted the question.

Nokia is one of the worlds largest manufacturers of many items we know and hold dear: flashlights, calendars, calculators.. All in a little mobile box. They consider them essential applications. Now that Symbian has gone open source, people are even more free to develop apps, and mobile companies to use its software.

A boy at an orphanage in South Africa with 2 mobiles

What are the new “essential apps” became a focus of  mine throughout the day, as well as  how can marginalized communities best gain access to more valuable aspects of phones that would require a facilitated, yet open exchange.

In Bangladesh, I was confronted with media literacy issues head-on. I was working on a media training with a group of young people when my  translator came up to me with a nicer mobile phone than mine and asked if I “wiki.” He said that he uses it to look at cars. This makes sense. He likes cars and if he was to search “engine,” it pulls up wikipedia as the first source. Being a stateless refugee in a camp, it’s arguably not in his best interest to look up cars, but it unleashes a huge potential. Utilizing the resources within Wikipedia could be enormously powerful for the community, and a little facilitation can go a long way towards developing a new media literacy that adds more than entertainment value.

But how can the phone itself facilitate this kind of literacy? By rethinking essential apps, we can start to brainstorm what kind of infrastructure could be best to facilitate learning. For instance, what if a software development kit (SDK) for the phones were readily available? Rather than a box with pre-installed apps that one can “customize” with ringtones, there was more accessibility into the actual root of the phone. Explicitly showing the map of the phones core can be another easy win. Sort of like a sitemap, present the tool as just that, a tool. This can lead to realizations by individuals that there is an underutilized USSD feature that can be built upon.

Rethinking the mobile as a semantic phone can lead to idealized future functionality. Imagine your phone has a radio function (ie. is not a US mobile). It listens, running in the background, and vibrates on key words that you’ve pre-determined, telling you to tune in. Then it brings up SMS, allowing you to message a response to the DJ. Now THAT would be a smart phone.

What if when the DJ responds, you decide to incur the cost of the SMS instead of them? Most crucial to me is this kind of “collect call” service. If users were empowered to decide who gets charged for the call or SMS, that could mitigate the dissemination costs for news entities, allow families to communicate more easily and for healthcare information awareness.

How about even rethinking app stores. What if getting minutes at the local top up shop also meant an ability to get new apps from the facilitator. In essence, tiered distribution. Wouldn’t that be another stimulant for people to keep going back to the shop and thus encouraging small business. There would also be a conversation around apps where people describe what they’re finding most useful at any given moment.

Part of this is tied to the current lack of individual identities on a mobiles. Despite the fact that a lot of phones are shared or switch owners, there is no unique login with different pre-sets, making it harder to have applications that are tied to individual. An issue with that kind of customization is the need to protect those individuals and their right to privacy.

How can Nokia support people further is central to all of this? Protecting them is a good answer. Part of this is using the power and influence that comes along with their enormous market share to explain to governments in emerging markets that it’s in their best interests to support rather than censor. If a government is acting against the interests of the people, the potential for blowback is arguably larger than ever, such as a coup de text. Spending resources to censor rather than support e-health, education etc breeds a more precarious political situation. Showing that its in a governments and in businesses best interest to have a Nokia that protects people is key.

When I tweeted my question about what Nokia could do and received some interesting examples that speak to this. One being HarassMap, a wonderful project in Egypt preventing violence against women. The other a more shameful response for Nokia with a link to accusations from Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on their helping the Iranian regime suppress protesters. The sword of tech cuts both ways & protectig people in foreign markets can have domestic implications. Secretary Clinton’s Internet Freedom speech also changes the nature of what governments will stand for (I like ot think partially due to Digital Democracy’s congressional testimony).

In a group breakout, we confronted this under the header of “media literacy” as a potential corporate social responsibility campaign header. It’s safe and can be a non-threatening inroad into this conversation. Getting users to understand phones & their role as media. Getting governments to support this. Getting companies to use CSR  to facilitate innovation, support literacy, & redefine “essential” apps. And doing so in an open, transparent, accountable way to benefit all players. Is this the direction that hardware will move towards?

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