MWI Team Blog

Dispatches from members of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative Team

Categories: Current state (32) | Developing Countries (15) | Events (20) | Looking forward (13) | News (42) | Technical (33) |

ICT for Development, Millenium Development goals and People — 31 January 2008

I was this week at a very interesting conference: Development and Cooperation 2.0 (finishing today). Despite the fact that it was mostly in spanish and that was quite hard for me given my very low level in this language, there were a lot of very good talks and discussion around the concept of ICT4D or how to use Information and Communication Technology in Social/Human Development. It is probably the first time for me to participate in a conference focusing on Development and not technology. I was moderating part of a session about ICT and the UN Millenium Development Goals. I heard many times already the mention of these goals which are very respectable by themselves, but typically, in the past, most of people i met were thinking that ICTs are solutions that will help reaching these goals. Here, it was rewarding to talk to people who are considering ICTs only as an opportunity and not a solution. This is an idea i've been pushing for quite a long time. It is not because you are bringing the Web to rural areas that it will solve people problems.

When i was at Africacom 2007 last november, i heard a speaker saying that indeed if a crop producer could use e.g. Google to look for solutions for the disease of his plants, then his life will improve, because he would get more food. I always thought that this was a very simplistic view that will never happen, and eventually i found here that around 200 people are sharing my opinion ! we spent half a day debating exactly these points, identifying the key challenges to transform the potential of ICTs into a tool that would really solve problems, and improve people lives.

Clearly, the major ideas coming out of the discussion are in some ways obvious: making usable and intuitive tools for those who never used a computer before, taking into account the specific needs and requirements at the targeted population, enabling and empowering people for them to develop their own content in their local language, integrating technology in daily lives, and not training people to change their lives to integrate ICTs, focusing on sustainability... So quite a huge task to start tackling these points, and developing expertise on how to take advantage of the power of ICTs to improve people lives in rural areas of Developing Countries.

This conference also underlines for me the importance of having those experts in social Development working and exchanging with those developing technologies. I hope that the future new interest group we may launch on this topic will be a first step in this direction.

by Stephane Boyera in Developing Countries 2 comments Permalink

Talk on Mobile Web for Development — 27 January 2008

Writing posts and papers is good, but from time to time, people are prefering to watch and listen. so for those interested to learn about what is our current view on the topic of Mobile Web for Development, you can watch the latest talk i made during the W3C Spain Office Seminar gathering different universities from Europe and Latin America NB: the format of the video is OGV for OGG Video. It is not a native format for some platforms (like windows media player), but it's a free format, and free players or codec are available for all OS. Stephane
by Stephane Boyera in Developing Countries Permalink

Making The Mobile Web relevant for rural communities of the Developing World — 18 December 2007

I recently came across two posts from two people i trust questionning the potential for the Mobile Web to be a solution to help rural communities of the Developing World in their development.

Both Nathan Eagle (read Nathan's post) and Ken Banks (read Ken's post), using different words, don't believe that the Mobile Web is a potential answer. At the opposite, I've been pushing this idea of Mobile Web for Developing Countries since more than a year now.

So is someone right and someone wrong? I'm not sure. In the Developed World, "Mobile Web" means providing the same user experience as on your desktop machine. The iPhone browser for example is, for me, an illustration of the ultimate achievement: the complete full Web on your handset. But would this model work in the Developing World? Are people in the Sahara going to get an Iphone soon, and a 3g network connection? Is a crop producer in Fidji going to use google or yahoo to see how to make bigger papayas?

I don't think so and completly agree here with Ken and Nathan. I think we are sharing the same goal: using mobile phones to provide access to relevant and useful informations and services to rural communities to improve their daily lives.

Today, if one wants to deploy a usable service on mobile phones, how should he proceed ? Again here, I agree that SMS and Voice applications are the only choices. But while these technologies have their own strengths (read a comparative study I wrote for IST-Africa 2007), they are lacking an essential feature: the scalability.

Having a specific NGO, or a project developing a specific application for a specific community is one thing - it is what we've been observing since few years now, with an incredible ratio of successes. All these experiments have ben using SMS and/or Voice applications. Great. But building on these islands of success to reach a state where thousands of services will be available is quite another story. It is hard and expensive to develop an SMS or a voice application. It is hard and expensive to advertise it to potential users. So I really doubt that we would ever have thousands of such applications available.

My view is coming from my background in Web and Mobile. When operators explored the idea of mobile applications in late 90's, they originally thought about WAP. A total failure, and very few content available. Why ? Mostly because it was hard and expensive for individual to create content, associated with a wrong pricing scheme compared to the value. At the opposite the success of the Web from 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and HTTP to now, is mostly due to the easiness for anybody to create content, and make it available and accessible to the whole World. So I strongly believe that Web technology is the only one which would scale well, and allow the development, deployment and availability of a big number of services.

However, as I said above, I don't believe that the problems to solve are in the infrastructure and the handsets. There is no minimal Web capabilities on low-end phones today, not because it is impossible, but because there is no demand and no use for now. As soon as people will start requesting this feature, all phones, even the very low-end ones, will have minimal browsing capabilities. This demand will come only if there is a value for people, i.e. if they find services that are helping them in their daily life.

In order to make usable and useful services, we have to adapt Web technologies to the need and requirements of the Developing World. Here the "Mobile Web" should not be aiming at reproducing a desktop experience, because people don't have desktop experience. Is the zooming interface ala iPhone browser natural for those who never used a computer before ? I really doubt it. So we should redefine browser and content interfaces to make them "natural" for those without previous computer experience. We should also understand what "natural" means for those without technological background, e.g.: if you've never ever been to an office, does the concept of files and folders have any meaning to you? So understanding which HCI paradigm to use is a key point.

Understanding also which applications could be particularly useful for a community is another point. Here again, I really doubt that we would be able to define a list of services that could improve people lifes everywhere in the World from Algeria to South Africa or from Bolivia to India. Each community has its own needs, way of working, living and so on. I think it should be possible to develop expertise on how to capture these needs and to understand where ICT could improve the situation, so that anybody interested to help a community could use such guidelines to see which service to develop first.

So the Mobile Web as it is defined in Europe, Japan or US today is clearly not appropriate to offer useful and usable services to rural areas and underprivileged population in Developing Countries. But I believe that the potential is huge compared to other technological options to deliver ICT services, and thus it is critical to make appropriate work to make the Mobile Web relevant in Developing Countries.


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Contacts: Dominique Hazael-Massieux