The cellphone has become more of a tool and less of a toy, especially among the poor, and those trying to help them, in emerging markets. It helps deliver, via text message, water, energy, financial services, health care and even education.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 700 million people do not have access to clean drinking water and over 2.5 billion have no access to toilets. Yet according to the International Telecommunications Union, 96 percent of the world is connected via cellphone — which is why it has become a means of doing good.
Many of the aid services that employ mobile phones are Western-inspired but designed for people making $2 a day. For example, graduate students at Stanford University developed software, M-Maji, to map clean water stations in Kibera, Kenya, a dense urban slum in Nairobi. Think of the Gas Buddy app, but instead of searching for the cheapest and closest gas station, M-Maji helps Kibera residents find clean water within walking distance. A text offers three options: find water, sell water or file a complaint.
Shivani Siroya, an advocate and entrepreneur who splits her time between Los Angeles and Mumbai, is using mobiles to create “credit scores” for the poor. Ms. Siroya took inspiration from the free personal finance management site Mint.com to create a tool for customers in southern India without bank accounts or financial histories.
After logging in daily expenses and earnings via text, users get a monthly “statement,” creating a financial record. The statement becomes the basis for extending credit through microfinance loans and other services.
Ms. Siroya sells her service, InSight, to banks, microfinance institutions and nonprofit groups that want to engage the 400 million so-called unbanked people in India. Since starting the enterprise in 2010, she has collected 614,426 financial records and expanded to South Africa and Kenya. Her “company” is a hybrid model: a mix of private capital and grants, including $100,000 each from the Vodafone Americas Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the telecom giant Vodafone, and the United States Agency for International Development.
The number of such initiatives seems likely to increase. “The development community is eager to learn more about how to use mobiles effectively,” said Nick Martin, a founder of Tech Change, a social enterprise based in Washington that educates development practitioners via online courses.
Mr. Martin said his most popular course has been Mobiles for Development. In the last three years, TechChange has taught the course eight times to nearly 400 participants from over 60 countries.
MHealth, or mobiles used for health services, is the most “evolved” of the mobile sectors, Mr. Martin said. Large-scale campaigns in mHealth have focused primarily on maternal health and vaccination campaigns. Three companies — Dimagi, ZMQ and Medic Mobile — have turned cellphones into mHealth tools through open-source software that can be used by rural health workers.
Krishna Swamy, Dimagi’s director of operations, recently demonstrated the technology at the organization’s New Delhi office in the basement of a fashionable residential neighborhood. He pulled out a Java-based Nokia cellphone, long antiquated in developed markets but still handy in India. A series of avatars resembling female health workers ask users questions in Hindi about prenatal care. The avatars can also speak regional languages and dialects, Mr. Swamy noted.
Dimagi is part of a maternal health project, along with the international charity CARE, in Bihar, India, where infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in India, according to Unicef. In partnership with the Washington-based Grameen Foundation, a microfinance organization, Dimagi is putting cellphones in the hands of health workers to monitor pregnancies and educate them about prenatal and neonatal care.
Not all mHealth campaigns center on maternal care. ZMQ developed a mobile program for India’s campaign against polio. Deployed in 13 high-risk districts throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the mobile software is intended for use by 1,300 community health workers to track vaccination rounds, register vaccinated families and collect data on missing children.
What has been a paper-and-pencil operation for over 20 years will be digitized. Hilmi Quraishi, a ZMQ founder, said mHealth took a Gandhian approach: “Local technology to be self-reliant” is how he puts it.
To avoid dependence on donor funding, some initiatives have taken a more businesslike approach. While these may be called companies, their bottom line extends beyond profit, putting them in the category of so-called social enterprises.
Nandu Madhava, founder of the mHealth service mDhil, is skeptical of governmental and nonprofit projects, dismissing them as “bureaucratic” and lacking strong technical talent.
MDhil operates on a subscriber model: for one rupee, or 5 cents, a user gets three health-related messages via mobile text. In 2012, mDhil had over 250,00 monthly subscribers. In the last year, Mr. Madhava has branched out to focus on health videos. He says that “Android handsets have become very affordable for the poor” and that customers can be reached through more sophisticated means than simply text messaging. Rajesh Sawhney agrees. He set up the Global Superangels Forum, a venture capital fund, to invest in mobile technologies that have social impact. DhilCare, one of its start-ups, performs electrocardiogram testing remotely and transfers the results through 2G networks to cardiologists for diagnosis.
Numbers tell the story: India has 6,200 cardiologists but needs around 60,000 to serve all of its citizens. To reach more people, cellphones connect urban doctors with rural patients.
Arun Gore, managing director of Gray Ghost Ventures, an impact investing fund in Atlanta, said he decided to support mDhil because mobiles “remain among the fastest-growing sectors globally.” Still, Mr. Gore cautioned, the cellphone should be viewed as a “facilitator,” not a foolproof solution.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the New York Times on November 8, 2013, with the title “Ubiquitous Across Globe, Cellphones Have Become Tool for Doing Good.”