Tag Archives: Service Design

Mobiles vs Laptops: regulatory, technological and development issues

olpc-articleCory Doctorow has managed to spur a debate with a recent Guardian article (One Laptop Per Child – what went wrong?, 13 Jan 2009). That is a debate regarding the appropriateness (for development goals) of mobile technologies and associated GSM networks), versus the appropriateness of laptops (and associated mesh networks) for furthering socio-economic development goals in less developed parts of the world.

The issues impinging on the debate are regulatory (intellectual property, wave spectrum property, etc.), technological (functionality, usability, etc.), as well as issues relating to the precise level of socio-economic development (network infrastructure, literacy) within the country in question and the availability of  access to information and communication, alternative to mobile technologies and laptops.

many-possIn Many Possibilities… Steve Song emphasizes the faulse dichotomy within the technological debate. The technological convergence appears to be self-evident. Mobile phones are increasingly better able at tackling Internet applications. Additionally, mobile operators are increasingly savvy in their offerings of mobile Internet access, whereby computers (laptop, or otherwise) are enabled to access the Internet through a wireless “cloud”.

The regulatory issues are much  more prominent within the area of mobile communication, and thereby a disadvatage to that technology. Having paid some exorbitant sums of money at 3G spectrum auctions, mobile operators are understandably looking at recovering those expenditures. Mesh networks are obviously not subject to regulatory interferance. But should they ever become pervasive and significant in daily life, I think that the need for regulation will make itself apparent. The Internet, to say the least, is becoming increasingly a controlled and monitored space.

Last but not least, there are the development issues surrounding the adoption of either mesh-networked laptops or Internet enabled mobile technologies. The adoption of technology and the readiness for adoption clearly differ in different countries. Bulking so many places into the convenient “developing countries” heading seems counterproductive. Negroponte proposes a laptop for every child while I am prepared to see children in different countries using latops or mobile phones, as appropriate, in order to learn and grow. Laptops are still uncommon in classroom setting, even in places where people can readily afford them, while mobile phones have been successfully used within classrooms across the developing world e.g. (Meraka Institute – ICT in Education, South Africa). We need to be able to acknowledge that various ICTs would suit the needs and fit the constraints present at different places.

So what are the implications for mobile marketplaces? Internet marketplaces have existed for a long time now, and have changed significantly the trading landscape throughout the world. They have mobilised the “long tail” by providing trading opportunities which did not exist previously, thereby giving value to items which previously had none. The junk in your garage is no longer junk. Someone would invariably point out its value to you by quoting how much you can sell it for. A quote easily determined by a quick search among recent eBay auctions. Internet marketplaces have enabled dynamic price negotiations (auctions). They have also made obvious the contracting problems and the fraudulent activities which are unfortunately an inextricable part of remote, technology-based exchange transactions.  Consequently, adequate regulation and control are a much needed prerequisite for Internet or mobile trade.

I have named the current blog “Mobile Market Design for Development” because in my observation trader in developing countries are very flexible, mobile and on-the-go. It is difficult for me to envisage their use of desktop computer technology and associated ITCs (telephone landlines, LAN cable connections, etc.). That being said, I can see how web technologies can be used as an additional channel for access to the collected market information (See CellBazaar.).

The possible reality

The benefits of market improvements can seem abstract and intangible. Although I have the mobile market dream and I dabble in abstraction, I also appreciate the real and very concrete way in which technology could change market transactions. Below I present my vision of what these improvements could amount to. The photos used were taken in rural Mozambique. The associated names and stories are products of my own imagination.

Individuals: Mafuane, 15

She is young and keen user of her mobile. She uses it to send text messages to friends who have moved away from the village and to record the contact details of new people she meets. She enjoys listening to the ring tones that came with her model and hopes one day to be able to buy a mobile on which she can listen to music, take photos and videos. Mafuane used to spend long hours waiting at the road which passes through her village, trying to sell tangerines from her mother’s farm to people travelling on chapas and buses. Now she is able to help her mother find buyers for the tangerines using her mobile. She sends information about the quantity of available tangerines, the price per kilo they are willing to accept and the deadline by which they need to make the transaction. Sending the information is free so Mafuane’s mom does not mind. Usually within hours she receives a call from buyers driving down the road who are willing to buy her oranges at a price higher than her stated minimum. This allows Mafuane to spend more time on schoolwork, helping her mother and taking care of her younger brother.

Rural Communities: Ramakeele, 27 and Phumzile, 34

Ramakeele and Phumzile are a family who own a small farm away from main roads. They grow bananas and cassava. Since they could not afford to take their produce to market they used to sell it to intermediaries or transport it to the roadside where they spent a few days trying to find willing buyers. Since they have been able to use their mobile to sell their produce they have been spending a lot more time working on their crops and caring for their children. They have received better prices because they do not have to compete with all
the farmers at the roadside. They are much more aware of the current prices of agricultural produce and what the market wants. Consequently, they have noticed the demand for soy and sugar cane because they are used for the production of biofuels. Ramakeele and Phumzile are considering planting some sugar cane next year and gradually switching to the production of higher value cash crops.

Regional Markets

Buyers at regional markets have noticed changes since the network operator introduced a mobile market system. They find that the produce on offer is fresher and the variety is greater than what they were used to, while the prices they pay have not changed. Some restaurant and hawker stall owners have been able to establish direct links with producers in the countryside, thereby ensuring the quality of their supplies. Individuals have been using the trading system while travelling through the countryside or when they have had to cater for big events such as weddings or holidays.

What is the MMD4D blog?

Welcome to the MMD4D blog!

This initiative is aimed at highlighting market design issues occurring in the context of efforts targeted at the introduction of ICTs to the benefit of people living in less developed countries.

I hope that academics, NGO activists and technology practitioners will find the material in this blog worthwhile reading. I intend to include sections focusing on academic findings in the area of market design, sections detailing the technology needs and opportunities established in the course of NGO projects, and sections featuring technological developments likely to enable mobile trading.

I am sure that my efforts would not be exhaustive, so please comment, contribute references and resources.