The mobile phone is a powerful device. We often forget this, especially when surrounded by computers, laptops, iPads, Internet-enabled televisions, and computing technologies embedded into everything from our coffeepots to the subways. But in a place like Africa, where mobile infrastructure and device ownership far outstrip access to roads, electricity, clean water, medical care, or wired telephones, the mobile device holds extraordinary power and potential to transform people’s lives, not just through communications services but through health interventions. Microsoft Research’s Mobile Healthcare for Africa Awards have recognized several initiatives as standouts in this category; surgical guidance through mobile phones, mobile microscopy to detect and diagnose malaria, and the use of SMS to better monitor treatment of tuberculosis and HIV and reduce maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone are just a few examples.
The mobile phone takes the next step in the land of our ancestors
There is good precedence in Africa for the mobile device being embraced in its use beyond a communications device. On a recent visit to Kenya, I found a green logo that read “Mpesa” plastered across almost every other roadside store. This service, which roughly translates from Swahili to “mobile money,” is a mobile banking platform that makes wiring money as simple as sending a text, and cashing wired credit as convenient as walking into the next roadside store. It essentially converts any checkout counter at a store into an ATM.
In countries like Kenya, where banks and ATMs are sparse, and the economy is driven by high-volume/low-value transactions between individuals rather than companies, Mpesa has been a runaway success. It has transformed, if not sidestepped, banking as we know it by connecting it to a telecom service account. But perhaps more importantly, the ubiquity of this experience is bound to shift how people think about interacting with mobile devices.
Evolving from Communications to a Control Center
There are about 5 billion live mobile phone subscriptions on this planet, with around 85% of the population covered by wireless networks. Not only are these figures astounding compared to the adoption of any other technology in human history (say, cars, televisions, computers, even electricity), mobile platforms also have advanced functionality, such as GPS, built into their infrastructure. Add on the ability to integrate with input devices such as microscopes, blood glucose and cholesterol meters, pedometers and sleep monitors, and whatever’s around the bend, and this combination of communications, computing, and convenience makes the mobile device the Swiss Army knife of modern living.
The mobile phone is fast evolving into a control center for interacting with the world around us, whether it be informational, financial, or healthcare driven. I believe the greatest innovation in mobile healthcare is taking place in Africa and other infrastructure-lean regions of the world, and there is much that those of us in technologically advanced regions can support and learn from.