This article is part of Can Technology End Poverty?, a forum on the role of information and communication technology in global development.
In 2006 and 2007 I worked in the district hospital of Kilifi, a small village situated between the two largest cities on the Kenyan coast, Mombasa to the south and Malindi to the north. Periodically, a panicked nurse would approach me. There had been another accident involving a matatua packed van driven at breakneck speeds between Kenyan towns. Matatus regularly get into serious accidents between cities, forcing rural hospitals to do emergency blood transfusions, in many instances completely depleting their blood supplies. Hospital staff have to scramble for blood donations. After making several donations myself, I decided to learn more about the regions blood-bank system.
Kenya, like much of the developing world, has centralized blood repositories. Every two to four weeks, an employee of the repository in Mombasa would come by and check the blood levels in Kilifi. If the levels were below a certain threshold, he would return on his next visit with a new supply. More than a month could pass between depletion and replenishment, creating shortages in Kilifi even as the central repository was fully supplied.
In 2007 a group of my students at the University of Nairobi developed an SMS (Short Message Service, or texting) application that enabled nurses in the hospital to send updates on blood supply directly to officials at the Mombasa blood bank. The goal was to alert the blood bank to an upcoming shortage before rural supplies were exhausted. We developed a beautiful interface for the blood-bank officials, which provided them a nearreal time visualization of rural hospitals supplies.
The application initially seemed a great success. Nurses successfully updated the Mombasa blood bank on supply levels, and officials logged in repeatedly to check the numbers. However, within about a week, the number of text messages from rural nurses began to decline. After a month or so, the trickle of messages ceased altogether.
The reason for our early failure was obvious in hindsight. The cost of sending a text message represents a substantial fraction of a rural nurses daily wages. Asking the nurses to use their personal phones to send text messages was neither realistic nor fair.
So we modified the software: upon receiving an SMS message with the days blood supplies, the system would automatically transfer a small amount of airtime back to the nurse who sent the message. A switch flipped; the nurses began enthusiastically sending daily updates.
The experience of fixing a system by incorporating immediate compensation made me wonder, what other types of work can be completed by mobile-phone subscribers in these rural areas of the developing world?
I put my academic career on hold to explore using phones as a mechanism for work and compensation.
Most people hold a fundamentally shortsighted view of the value of mobile phones for development. The discussion focuses on whether surfing the Web, making phone calls, and sending text messages and emails are potentially transformative activities. Mobile phones, however, not only provide a mechanism for global communication, but also for global compensation.
I believe in the potential of massive, distributed mobile compensation to such a degree that Ive put my academic career on hold in order to explore it. To that end, Ive started txteagle inc., a company that enables people in the developing world to earn money or airtime by completing simple work. We have now integrated our compensation platform into the billing systems of over 230 mobile operators, providing nearly 2 billion mobile-phone subscribers with an opportunity for moderate economic empowerment.
Regrettably, not everyone will benefit from this. As Kentaro Toyama correctly points out, technology is a magnifier of human capacity. We cannot put this technology in the hands of an illiterate, isolated woman in rural China and expect that she will gain newfound economic independence. Ultimately our platform is only able to magnify knowledge, as mediated by a given persons education and literacy.
But there are ways in which even the uneducated can benefit, assuming our platform is used to pay people who do socially useful activities.
We originally envisioned using this global-compensation system to enable a new kind of outsourcing, whereby mobile-phone subscribers could earn money by performing transactional outsourcing tasks such as forms-processing. But, while transactional outsourcing represents a market worth tens of billions of dollars, we have recently shifted our focus: we now see the true value of this workforce distributed across 80 developing countries as much more than labor arbitrageit is not simply a source of cheaper workers for the data-entry industry. Rather, the underlying value of this workforce lies in local knowledge. These people have unique understanding of their communities, cultures, neighborhoods, and social networks.
This phone-enabled workforce now performs services that could never be outsourced, services that require on-the- ground knowledge and insight. And the opportunities are rapidly expanding. We have used our platform to conduct a compensated survey for the United Nations in 50 countries, to expand sanitary pad distribution and marketing channels for a large consumer-products company, to localize software for a major search engine, to validate and verify local businesses for credit bureaus, to develop economic indicators for international investment firms, and to conduct market research.
I cannot say with certainty what kinds of work will be done in this manner in the future, but I maintain an absolute conviction that compensation via mobile phones can deliver supplemental income to a significant fraction of people on Earth today. Those who question the potential of the technology may simply not have considered the full extent of it.
Nathan Eagle is CEO of txteagle inc. and coauthor of the forthcoming Engineering Social Systems.