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Mobiles are key to self empowerment

Carol Bothwell Director, Technology Innovation for Development Catholic Relief Services, and Executive Editor Sustainable Development Goals  ICT Playbook  suggests while mobile can be the most transformative technology of our time.. with some telling  examples from India.  
The power of mobile devices is still to be fully realised when it comes to creating solutions for development challenges. Mobiles can end isolation, amplify the voices of the disadvantaged, and connect the poor to information and advice to improve their livelihoods. But there are still challenges, which organisations across India are working on to solve through innovative use of technology and partnerships.

April 14 2017: Globally, all the trends point to increased ownership and utility of mobile devices as mobile broadband costs decrease, mobile-first strategies increase, and as smartphone costs approach those of today’s lower-cost ‘feature’ phones. Mobile experience, already taking strides forward with new smartphone and tablet products being launched annually by well-known manufacturers, will be greatly enhanced by seamless sharing of information across an owners’ devices, by evolving human-computer interfaces which open new avenues of language-agnostic communication for all levels of literacy, and by the advent of virtual reality and cognitive computing.
Mobile devices may seem to be assets that are accessible only to those with the purchasing power in the developed world. However, the reality is that the most exciting potential of mobile is in the developing world. In India, more than one billion mobile phones are in use today and by 2019 it is projected that there will be close to 180 million smartphones in use. Access to mobile devices has outpaced that of other technologies over the past decade and now the penetration of smartphones into rural areas is also on the rise: between 2011 and 2015 alone penetration increased from 22 percent to 38 percent. Similarly, while coverage of second generation mobile networks has grown at unprecedented rates, now governments and technology and telecommunications providers are partnering to increase affordable Internet access. There are some great and well-known examples of this already underway in India, including Internet Saathi.
While the challenges of handset affordability and affordable access to the Internet still must be met over the next several years, particularly in Indian society, three additional barriers must be overcome to leverage the full potential that mobile technology to solve development challenges:  scarcity of locally-relevant content, lack of digital literacy, and cultural barriers that create gender gaps in technology access.
People need content, in their own language, relevant to their locality and the issues they are facing, if smart devices and Internet access are to provide them with compelling benefits.  And they need opportunities to increase their digital skills. This is where developers and content providers need to work with the civil society organizations such as NGOs and governmental agencies that serve these communities to provide digital services that deliver value.
Even with the advances in low-cost digital services that improve livelihoods in low-resource settings, these interventions are not always reaching the people who would benefit most. In low and middle-income countries, 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone. Women in rural India are often not empowered with a decision-making role in the home or indeed do not have their own income to enable them to access technology like mobile phones due to socio-cultural practices. Again, governmental agencies, civil society organizations and private sector companies can work together to influence these norms through education and incentives.
For example, NGOs and their technology partners are now working with local governments across India to scale up simple mobile technology that empowers community health workers known as accredited social health activists (ASHAs) with tools that help improve their services for pregnant women. Crucially, these tech interventions recognise the unique situation of many rural and urban women from lower socio-economic communities and their lack of access to this technology. By empowering ASHAs with information, these interventions directly benefit both the ASHAs and mothers in the community.
In Uttar Pradesh, this programme improved community health workers’ medical knowledge, enabling them to better advise patients and resulted in doubling the number of home visits to expectant mothers over a 2 year period.  It also improved expectant mothers’ knowledge of pregnancy danger signs by 43%, and increased their attendance at antenatal check-ups to three or more by 58%.
Another programme launched last year in Bangalore -- the mHealth app – enables government health professionals to better monitor and boost the health and nutritional status of underprivileged women, thereby reducing possible health risks to the mother and baby during pregnancy. Mothers receive counselling messages with multimedia features through the app, operated by healthcare workers, as well as other vital healthcare information including around immunisation for children under the age of two.
These are only two examples of digital services that are providing value to those living in low-resource settings.  Use of the Cloud has enabled affordable low cost services to be developed and proliferated in time frames that can be measured in days rather than years.  The potential of such services to impact development challenges is best realised when we come together across sectors to share our insights, best practices and latest innovations in the mission to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Governments can work to incentivize mobile penetration and advance policies that promote equitable access to and use of mobile services. Technology providers can continue to develop innovations that increase the usefulness and affordability of their services, while at the same time reducing their negative impacts on the environment. And in turn, development organisations can work to embed ICT solutions into their programming, focus efforts on developing digital skills, particularly among the women in communities, and educate men on the transformative effect that mobile technology can have on family life and prosperity once women have that access.   

Carol Bothwell,  was supported with contributions from the 2017 ICT4D Conference Organizing Team in preparing this article 
The SDG ICT playbook was created to help organizations inform their strategy for investing in information and communication technology (ICT) in ways that support achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Playbook was produced by Catholic Relief Services and NetHope with support from Microsoft, Intel and CDW.
The 2017 ICT4D Conference will be held in Hyderabad, India 15-18 May 2017. It is focused on the ways in which technology solutions are allowing us to harness the power of data in accelerating the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.