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Gadgets that Change the World
Matt Jones of the Future Interaction Technology Lab at Swansea University and co-author of the book, 'Mobile interaction design' tells us of his vision for the future of mobile phones in the third world.
How important is your mobile phone to you? If you had to complete the sentence - "My mobile is..." - what would you say? Some people are enthusiastic: "it's my remote-control for the real world!"; "it's a way for me to keep in touch with those I love". Others are less positive: "Oh, it's a ball and chain!'; "it's an addiction - I'm always texting even when there are better things to do".
While we in the UK might take the mobile phone for granted, just another shiny gadget in our stuff-stuffed lives, for many billions of people, this small bit of technology is already having a big impact on their health, wealth and well being. These people live in developing countries like those found in Africa or India. In such places, if you live in a rural village, miles from a big city, it is hard to get a wired-in telephone line - running hundreds of miles of telephone wire through the bush or jungle isn't really an option. Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more feasible to use a wireless, mobile one.
So what? Why do they need to use the phone anyway? Imagine yourself in one of these villages or shantytowns, who would you want to call or text? Maybe a relative who has moved to the big city to earn money; perhaps a rural nurse posted in the next village in times of an emergency; or, what-if you are a farmer and want to ring round your friends in the region to find out the going-rate for the crops you sell. Who would want to contact you? Health workers might send a young mother text messages to reassure her and help her look after her newborn child; or an employer in the city might ring up to see if you can help out on an urgent job. In many ways, the mobile is positively changing these people's living and working patterns.
But, a mobile phone is much more than telephone, of course. It's a computer. The one in your pocket or bag probably has more computer power in it than the one that took the first people to the moon! Most likely it plays music, videos and can browse the Web. As these more sophisticated devices make their way to developing countries the benefits could be enormous.
Governments talk of there being a 'digital divide' - that means that while we have vast computer resources (most UK homes, for example, have fast access to the internet, now) the majority of the world's population have never even seen a PC. Getting a personal computer into every house in the poorest places in the world might not be possible but a more realistic hope is that a significant proportion of the people in these situations will be able to get hold of a mobile. These tiny technologies will be able to serve as a window onto the vast world wide web of information, education and entertainment.
At the Future Interaction Technology Lab in Swansea University, along with partners at Queen Mary, Loughborough and Surrey Universities, we are starting a big research project to understand what such advanced mobile phones might do for these places. We'll be working with communities in rural India to see how they might use the video and audio capabilities of such 'smartphones' to produce mini-documentaries for other people in their town or village. We're just beginning and you will be able to find out more from our website, www.fitlab.eu.
While we're thinking about future mobile phones and how they might help people, you can do something with your old phone to make a direct difference to people in the developing world. When you next upgrade your mobile, don't throw it away or leave it to gather dust in your room, send it to a recycler who will donate a proportion to a charity like Oxfam. Mobile phones really can make the world a better place.