Scitech | Ringing up solutions for the developing world

Innovative uses for cell phones, from diagnosing health to replacing credit cards

We live in a time when technology has become so intrinsic to our everyday lives that even relatively basic devices such as cell phones are gaining new and unexpected capabilities. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to use your phone to play games, surf the internet, or have video conversations with friends. However, the biggest change in the cell phone market comes not from tech meccas like Silicon Valley, but rather is driven by the continuously increasing cell phone usage in the poorest countries in the world. According to a study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, subscribers in developing countries now represent the majority of the 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world.

The cell phone represents, above all, a connection to the world. People who often work away from their families can stay in touch with their loved ones with a simple device the size of a small box that they put in their pocket. It gives people security, ensuring that even if they are in the most remote place, they can still call someone, get help, and connect to the rest of the world. Farmers in Uganda are now using cell phones to exchange information about markets and prices, and where they can get livestock and crops. This mobility offers the possibility of creating infrastructure where it is missing: building cell phone towers is much cheaper than building land lines, which do not exist in many regions in Africa.

In this same vein, a new program for producing animated educational videos that can be watched on most cell phones has been developed by a team from the University of Illinois. The Scientific Animations Without Borders program is a new way to engage the public in developing countries, and spread education to places that lack other channels of communication. In one video, safe insect control methods are demonstrated, while in another farmers are taught how to use neem tree juice to spray as an insecticide on cowpea crops. Such initiatives empower individuals by letting them obtain vital information, no matter where they are.

Mobile payment represents another popular way in which cell phone technology is changing how people around the world are living. Though near-field communication (NFC) – a short-range wireless technology that allows for, among other things, credit card payments, is currently the most ubiquitous way of using cell phones as wallets – a new system that has been gaining ground in Africa, and does not require any kind of additional hardware improvement on phones.

This system does not require credit card numbers, but relies on the simplest concept every phone user shares: the phone number. “Everyone knows their cell phone number. Not everyone knows their credit card number,” Mark Britto, chief executive officer of the start-up Boku, explained to the New York Times in 2009. The company uses a system that receives a customer’s phone number after a purchase and sends it to the buyer to confirm. In South Africa, only half of the adult population has a bank account, and in Thailand only a quarter do, making mobile banking the safer choice for most people.

But one of the most innovative ideas for cell phones is to use them for health diagnostics. Developed by the University of California, Berkeley’s Bioengineering department, CellScope, a mobile microscope attachment can use any regular cell phone camera to analyze samples for diseases such as tuberculosis or sickle cell anaemia. The idea is that medical experts will be able to perform complex high-resolution light microscopy on blood or sputum samples placed on a slide in real time, rather than waiting for days for assistance when in remote areas.

In the near future, cell phones will likely become an even bigger part of our lives, with internet on-the-go and geolocation evolving to create new social norms. We will be much more connected, with the developing world leading the way. The cell phone revolution in developing countries will spark new forms of entrepreneurship, due to the platform’s low cost and its potential to replace the computers that many people don’t have with a device that can perform simpler, but still necessary, tasks.