The Gates Foundation and others describe them as the bottom billion, the people living in extreme poverty at around $1.25 per day, barely able to afford food and sometimes shoes. Another billion live on a few dollars a day, for whom a bicycle is a major step up in personal productivity. For both groups, running water is rare except from group water wells, electricity erratic if at all available and plumping pretty much non-existent.
It is for these two billion who live in the direst poverty that IT can offer the most dramatic improvements in productivity.
Hans Rosling’s documentary “Overpopulated” describes how a bicycle lets a man get to market in a day what took a day of walking. And how it allows his children to now get to school after chores, instead of being unable to achieve both.
How does IT make a difference? Regardless of the stereotype of India’s massive phone banks of tech support and developers, these people come from the middle class and are highly educated.
Mobile banking via cell phones is already a big deal in Africa. The ability to handle payments as transfers between cell phones eliminates much of the risk of handling large amounts of cash. Those who receive remittances from relatives abroad or in the city now receive it immediately via a cell phone instead of walking hours to a Western Union location and paying a transfer fee.
Mobile banking via cell phones is already well established in Africa and taking off in Asia. IT projects in that area will focus on better IT security and preventing theft of someone’s life savings when a phone is swiped.
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Studies have shown that simply having access to market information improves the productivity of a nation one percent faster than those areas without such information. For example, the farmer checks market prices and takes his products to where prices are higher. There’s no guess work, there’s no wasted trip, and product goes where there is greatest demand. Apps that bring useful and timely information to these individuals for minimal cost (and battery usage) provides an invaluable tool to those for whom it makes the difference between paying the bills and having a little extra for savings or investment in a new roof.
Raytheon is developing a real-time translation application for use by the military. A commercial version of this application or another like it would foster commerce and communication, breaking down language barriers. Whether explaining to guards why you are in a location or allowing a doctor to understand a patient who doesn’t speak the dominant language, translation apps are life-changing and even life-saving.
The poorest areas of the world have the greatest disease burden and high ratios of doctors to patients. Then add in the transportation challenges, such as someone taking all day to get to the hospital in town to get a diagnosis.
One of the most fascinating areas of innovation in IT is turning the standard cell phone or smart phone into a Star Trek tricorder. Apps are already under development to turn a cell phone into an optometry tool, a mini-lab by taking pictures of paper tests and sending it to a server for analysis or using it as a microscope to determine what parasites or diseases lurk in someone’s blood.
New IT apps that offer expert advice via a detailed analysis of the provided symptoms could reduce the need to travel hours for a doctor’s advice. This is best done if in conjunction with lab tests or blood tests. In combination, this will allow “barefoot doctors” and nursing assistants in rural areas to perform tests and give better advice on the diagnosis and treatment of various conditions. People wait less time to get care and receive an answer more quickly. This technology will be combined with a “Matternet”, a term coined by Andreas Raptopoulos to describe a network where people in remote or isolated areas request matter (supplies, medicine) from a cell phone and it is delivered via drone. What the nursing station doesn’t have on hand can be delivered in a matter of hours or days, allowing patients to stay at home or in the nurse’s care and avoiding long trips to get supplies for a small group. Software applications of the future will focus on honing this concept to a workable, large scale application.
The demand for software that turns cell phones into diagnostic labs isn’t just for the bottom two billion; such IT projects would lower medical test costs for almost everyone while providing better condition management for many with ongoing health challenges.