Mobile Web Initiative


Workshop Executive Summary June 2-3 2008, São Paulo, Brazil

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This is the executive summary of the W3C Workshop on the Role of Mobile technologies in fostering Social Development, held in São Paulo, Brazil on 2 and 3 June 2008. The Workshop, part of the EU FP7 project Digital World Forum, was hosted by,, and Institute Conip, and generously sponsored by CTIC and UNDP (Gold Sponsors) and Opera software and (Silver Sponsors).




After a first workshop in December 2006, W3C continued investigating the role mobile phones and Web technologies could together play in helping bridge the Digital Divide. This led to participation in the EU FP7 project Digital World Forum which triggered the launch of the new W3C Interest Group Mobile Web for Social Development (MW4D IG). This group aims to identify the key issues and promising solutions to deploy Web content, applications and services on Mobile phones to foster the social and economic development of rural communities and under-privileged populations of Developing Countries.

MW4D IG has 3 major objectives:

As a starting point for MW4D IG, W3C organized this new workshop on the role of Mobile Technologies in fostering Social Development in order to gather input from the community at large, and to start identifying relevant stakeholders that might be interested in participating in the newly formed group.

This workshop was also organized to provide input into the new eGovernment activity W3C launched before the event. While the eGovernment activity is looking at the general problem of eGovernment frameworks and the role of open standards, the MW4D IG and eGovernment activities have a common interest around the issue of deploying government services on mobile phones in Developing Countries.


The workshop ran over two days and consisted of 7 sessions (out of the opening and closing sessions). The aim of the event being mostly brainstorming and discussions, each session had just one or two short presentations (15mn each) and then a long discussion time (usually 45 to 60mn) about the topic.

The 7 sessions were:

The last session, the International Global Dialogue, was a video conference between the workshop room, a panel of experts in Washington DC, at the World Bank office, and 2 other World Bank sites in Rwanda and Nicaragua. There were also participants via webcast from Russia, Ghana, India and Tanzania. This session was co-organized by the Peace Corps, W3C and the World Bank, who generously offered the use of their Global Development Learning Network,.

The workshop was co-chaired by Jose Manuel Alonso (W3C/CTIC) and Stephane Boyera (W3C). The Global Dialogue session was co-chaired by Oleg Petrov (The World Bank), Anthony Bloome (Peace Corps) and Stephane Boyera (W3C).


There were a total of 64 participants in São Paulo, Brazil, and around 30 more attendees in the Global Dialogue session around the World. The audience background was very diverse:

Executive Summary

The discussion over the two days led to the identification of some major challenges and key findings that are described below.

The concept and idea of using Mobile phones as a primary delivery channel for ICT-services is growing

The list of attendees, the number of position papers, and the participation of government agencies, and recognized International Organizations involved in bridging the Digital Divide at a worldwide level demonstrated the growing importance of this topic. While 18 months ago, for the first workshop W3C organized in this domain, there were only participants from the mobile industry and NGO sector, it is now clear that international organizations and government are taking into consideration the mobile channel, and the mobile penetration phenomena.

Lots of activity is going on in the field, but it remains disconnected

During the two days, we heard a lot about different projects going on in the field, from all over the World (but mainly Africa and South America), using a very wide range of technologies, and methods. It was clear that every project has built a specific expertise, that could be useful to others. However, for now, the different initiatives are largely disconnected, having people often reinventing the wheels. We also heard many participants were surprised to see others on the other side of the World having similar issues.

From this observation, we can determine that there is a clear need for a concerted effort between all parties, and finding an appropriate way for field practitioners to exchange experiences would increase impact, and quality of proposed services over the World.

Wide range of technical solutions to deploy services exist

There are today many different technological options used to deliver ICT-based services on mobile phones. Participants presented many different methods: SMS services, Voice applications, Web applications,... It is clear that each option has strengths (availability on all phones, replicability, operator independence,...) but also limitations (cost, availability, expertise required, cultural relevance,...). It would be helpful to identify the domain of applicability, the advantages, limitations (discoverability of services, replicability, investment, technical expertise...), and requirements for each solution (SMS vs Voice applications vs Mobile Browsing vs...).

We also heard about limitations that are still affecting all options: how to manage illiteracy? How to deal with local languages for both input and output?

More specifically, concerning mobile browsing, some presentations underlined the pros and cons: operator independence, platform independence, low-level of expertise required for service/content development, discoverability of services through search engines and portals but the absence of browsers on low-cost mobile phones and absence of data connectivity on prepaid access.

There were also discussions about the relationship between the Web and SMS or voice applications. The Web represents the content that is available to all, using hyperlinks, markup languages and HTTP. Mobile phones should be considered as an access mechanism, where mobile browsing is one way to access the content, but using Voice applications (through e.g. voiceXML) is another way, and SMS could be a third option. All of these options should be considered as different delivery channels of Web content. Using the Web as a repository of information could leverage replication and cross-fertilization between different projects by offering visibility. It was also noted that in some cases, this visibility might be an issue, particularly for those using ICT for social activism.

Integrating feedback from the grassroots is critical

Many discussions underlined the importance of integrating feedback from practitioners (NGOs) in the field who have experience and expertise about what works and what doesn't. Those who are running projects close to communities understand the needs of populations, and also understand the factors and methods that can leverage the adoption of ICT-based services. Having a bottom-up approach, and understanding the environment in which NGOs are working is essential for creating the right conditions, as well as the appropriate tools and methodology that could lead to exploiting the full potential of the mobile platform.

In this context, it is essential to consider how to empower NGOs, and to have particular actions targeted at providing them with appropriate materials and solutions. Some characteristics of these solutions have been discussed: easy-to-use toolkit without the need for high-level technical expertise, ease of replicability, the need for it to be easily sustainable with low investment, to have low requirements on the infrastructure, and low requirements on administration (e.g. contractual requirements to use a specific solution). Today, lots of NGOs have interesting on-going projects, but without visibility, and without technical experience, they are often reinventing the wheel. It was noted that it could be helpful to find a way to leverage cooperations, and cross-fertilizations through the sharing of experiences among NGOs.

Considering Business models is critical

During many presentations, the question of business models arose. It is essential when developing specific projects to consider self-sustainability as a critical aspect. Relying on external funding, or charitable funds as a business model carries the danger of failure of a project in the long term. Many NGOs are not interested in setting up beneficial/commercial services despite the fact that sustainability is a key factor. There were no business specialists at the workshop, and many participants underlined the need to engage this community.

Non-technological issues are more or at least equally important than technological ones

While setting up services may be technically challenging, it was noted that there are also lots of other non-technological issues. Some of those issues are global (regulation of telecom market, licensing, access to infrastructure,...) and some are specific to the type of applications. E.g. m-banking applications require specific regulatory context, and specific agreements. It might be useful for each type of application to identify related non-technological issues.

A specific issue was particularly discussed: privacy and security. In a context of heavy use of the shared phone model (one phone used by many people), mobile services and applications providers have to particularly take this factor into account.

Cultural issues also got mentioned multiple times during many talks. For instance, taking into account what's doable and not in specific cultures, or for specific genders is critical for the success of any project.

Governments, Regulators and Policy makers impact deployment

Several government agencies were represented in the workshop. Most of them reported the need to outreach at government level the importance of the mobile channel in delivering ICT-based services. Many governments are still not considering the potential of the mobile platform, and therefore are not providing the appropriate regulatory context that would trigger or facilitate the development of mobile services. It was acknowledged that the regulatory context, and the requirements governments put on mobile operators could be either an enabler or a barrier. It is therefore essential in the future to explore the type of regulation and policies which could serve as an enabler. For that task, it will be essential to involve both Government representatives (federal and local) and specialists in regulation and policies, which were barely represented in the workshop.

Some participants also mentioned that some NGOs were using mobile phones for social activism, and to promote democracy. Therefore, relying only on policies might be a problem, and they need the ability to deploy services independently of operators and policies.

We also heard about many experiences in deploying government services on mobile (mGovernment). Each project is almost developed from scratch, without taking advantages of other's experience. It might be useful for Governments engaged in such projects to have a way to share their expertise and experience in order to establish best practices, and to develop a repository of good practices.

Education/Capacity building is essential

One key barrier to having numerous useful and relevant content and applications available on mobile phones is the lack of local expertise in developing those services. The most appropriate actors to understand the need of a community, or the usefulness of a specific service, are the members of the community themselves. It is therefore essential to spread knowledge on how to develop mobile content and applications among people living in Developing Countries. For that, it is necessary to develop a dedicated curriculum around the mobile platform, in order to empower local actors which will then encourage the development of a new economic sector (mobile service provider) and create employment. This would also provide an opportunity for people to use their own creativity and innovation in the development of new mobile services that rarely come from a corporate process.

A number of educational initiatives already exist in some countries, such as EPROM and Makerere University's MCASD, both in East Africa, and it is important that we learn from these and ensure that the curriculum and course materials developed are made more widely available, and cover all the technologies previously mentioned in order for other universities to implement them easily.

It is also important to note that development of technical knowledge should be paired with development of entrepreneurship and business model knowledge.

Engaging communities from different domains in a global forum is essential

As said previously, the participants of the workshop particularly enjoyed the diversity of the audience coming from different communities and with different backgrounds. Each party has its own view, its own expertise and its own requirements on the most appropriate solutions to develop. However, overlooking some aspects of a project life-cycle may lead to failure, and may prevent the full exploitation of the power of the mobile platform. It is therefore critical to go on involving representatives from all these communities in order to have an exhaustive view of the existing challenges, and to build a general consensus on the most appropriate solutions to tackle them.

Developing a shared vision of the future is essential

One session was dedicated to investigating the need to define a shared vision of the future. It is clear that developing new technologies for the sake of it would not be particularly helpful in improving people's lives. In order to be really effective, and to be sure that a concerted effort will result in engaging the most appropriate actions, it is essential that the vision of the future is shared among the different parties. It is, for instance, essential to consider the impact on targeted populations the adoption of new technologies would have. It is also essential to identify what kind of potentially good and bad situations this work will lead to, in order to be sure that the actions engaged would work towards avoiding the less desirable future, and promote the arise of the most desirable one. There are methods coming from the ethnography field that could be useful towards defining this shared vision of the possible futures (e.g. the EFR method presented during the workshop).

Conclusion and next steps

As explained in the background section, the different findings identified during the workshop will now be transferred to the new W3C group Mobile Web for Social Development, which will investigate them further, and build consensus around the most appropriate actions to engage the relevant stakeholders in order to seed the development and creation of ICT services exploiting the full potential of the mobile platform and the Web. The discussion around this roadmap, and public feedback, will be gathered and documented as the group moves forward, and also through the organization of a new workshop at beginning of 2009, most likely somewhere in sub-saharan Africa.

Stéphane Boyera, Jose Manuel Alonso,Workshop Chairs
Last modified: $Date: 2008/06/30 16:18:53 $ by $Author: boyera $