Data-driven apps are opening a new era of global development.
That’s one of the big takeaways from the recent Global Philanthropy Forum in Redwood City, Calif.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the inflection point may come — if it hasn’t already — but you know it’s a pretty amazing world when five billion mobile phones and global connectivity are now taken as a given.
That “ambient infrastructure” is “a huge tool that none of us have to pay for,” Andrew Zolli, the curator of PopTech said on the forum’s first day. Mobile devices, base stations, geo-coding, messaging and transaction services — all are essentially cost-free to the new wave of entrepreneurs, he said. “This extraordinary thing becomes the platform for a whole set of other extraordinary things.”
The open questions involve the shape and impact of the applications entrepreneurs will build on top of that platform. The advanced services already growing on top of M-PESA are just one example. The SMS-based mobile-banking service in Africa allows 13.5 million people to conduct $200 million in transactions each day. Now Kilimo Salama (“Safe Agriculture”) allows small farmers in Kenya to use M-PESA to insure themselves against droughts and floods, with payouts determined by a network of weather monitors that also report in via SMS.
Just as mobile communication has leapfrogged landline phones in the developing world (and off-grid solar and other electricity solutions are leapfrogging unreliable power grids), the new apps spring straight from the global computing “cloud.”
“If software becomes commoditized, what becomes valuable? Very large databases,” said Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media. “The subsystems of the global Internet operating system are data.”
That puts a premium on open, transparent, accurate data. Zolli highlighted the work of Ned Breslin and Water for People, which monitors the field-level activity of 60,000 wells and pumps with an Android app and Google Earth, broadcasting instant reports about their water and sanitation projects.
Such real-time data about impact and efficacy is “terrifying many people in the space,” Zolli said to nervous chuckles. But, he added, “The ‘data exhaust’ of whether that thing worked or not is going to be a primary asset that we can open-source, remix, and do all kinds of mashups with. So even when we fail, the precise data about how and why we fail is going to have immense value.”
That kind of accountability can dispel some cherished myths. Howard White of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation described how the Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Project was touted as a model program, based on data showing reduced infant malnutrition in the country. But a closer look showed the program had almost no impact — the mothers who received the education weren’t in charge of their kitchens (their mothers-in-law were) and “supplemental” feedings were replacing, rather than augmenting, regular meals. The reduced malnutrition was a function of lower rice prices and higher incomes across Bangladesh and had nothing to do with the program, he said. “You want to have results, you want to have impact, you want to save lives,” White said. “The only way to do that is to have proper studies about what works and what doesn’t.”
Likewise, Reuben Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions at the Indian School of Business, deconstructed the myth that mobile access to price information had allowed Indian fishermen to shop their daily catch to the highest bidder, shifting power from brokers to producers. Instead, he said, the complex system of loans, leases and other agreements kept fishermen linked to their commission agents, who reaped most of the benefits of higher market prices. Mobile technology has indeed brought enormous productivity gains, he said, but because of constraints in the market, “it is people other those who actually fish who get the benefits.”
The continuous loop of infrastructure, data and innovation is producing some exciting new business models. Leila Chirayath Janah explained how Samasource helps local entrepreneurs set up data-processing “factories” in places like central Haiti and Jharkand, India to harness the power of international trade for the benefit of the poorest of the poor. Traditional micro-credit helps villagers sell to other poor villagers; Samasource helps them sell to the global market. Such “microwork” — the bottom tier of the $1.3 trillion annual business-processing outsourcing industry, is a far bigger market than, say, fair-trade coffee, she says. “This is a whole new channel for wealth-creation,” she said.