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Mobile Technology Helps Every Person Count

Using basic mobile phones and text messages, “invisible” poor or homeless people in India and Africa can be counted as individuals with needs and rights — and receive their share of social resources.

 

 

In this installment of Digital Diversity, Matt Berg, a technology practitioner and researcher in the Modi Research Group at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, discusses how mobile technology may help make everyone count.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Matt Berg

From the abacus to early computers, technology has long provided mechanisms that help to better account for things — finances, transactions, diseases, people. In so doing, it has conferred value on those things, making them count.

Today, the mobile phone promises to fundamentally increase accountability by connecting people, even the world’s poor, to modern communication networks that facilitate the collection and sharing of information.

The value of increased accountability can be seen in everything from systematic counting of children receiving vaccines or attending school to tracking how funds allocated to a public works project are spent.

Making the Invisible Visible

As a technologist working in development, I’ve been privileged to experience firsthand several ways in which technology is being used to make the invisible visible, and therefore — hopefully — a bit harder for society to overlook.

Recently, I had the chance to visit the offices of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which has the unprecedented task of uniquely identifying (using biometrics) each of India’s 1.2 billion people, then assigning them a 12-digit ID. Known as Aadhar or “foundation” in many Indian languages, this ID holds the key to what Nandan Nilekani, the head of the initiative, describes as India’s “inclusive growth”.

 


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Shripati Acharya of UIDAI shows a suitcase identification kit.

Photo by Garrett Mehl

In India, being “paperless” without land or an address to prove one’s identity usually equates to exclusion from all public services. What the Aadhar, therefore, really represents for millions of Indians is the first chance at a legal identity.

Core to the national unique ID program is a central web-based service used to verify the identity of people. It works by providing the Aadhar along with either a person’s biometric data, name or person pin. The system then verifies it against the stored data and returns a yes or a no — a powerful, yet simple way of verifying a person’s identity.

For the delivery of important social-service programs like conditional-cash-transfers — such as payments made to mothers whose children stay in school — the system could have a huge impact by guaranteeing the money reaches its intended recipients and is not lost to graft.

Also in India, under the Right to Information Act, many states are now posting a detailed online accounting for all public works spending (roads, schools, water projects, etc) for citizens to review and verify. Besides promoting transparency, it represents an important acknowledgement by government that indeed it is the people’s money.

The People’s Money

Across the Millennium Villages in Africa, a program called ChildCount+ empowers community health care workers (CHWs) to register pregnant women and children under five using basic mobile phones and text messages. ChildCount+ enables CHWs and local health teams to generate up-to-date patient lists and print them on paper they can carry with them.

Using these patient registries, CHWs can make sure that all their children are routinely screened for malnutrition and receive their immunizations on time.

 


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A group of community health care workers in Senegal at a nutrition screen day.

Photo by Matt Berg

 

 

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A community health care worker checks a child’s mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) — a simple, yet effective way to check for malnutrition.

Photo by Matt Berg

 

 

For pregnant women, recording their due dates makes the reminding of mothers about their antenatal visits more systematic and helps ensure the CHW can encourage the mother to go to a health facility for her delivery.

The importance of recording vital events (e.g., births and deaths) at the community level has long been recognized. Historically, these have been logged in aggregate, with total recorded births and deaths represented by a single number, not a list of names. With mobile phones capable of feeding data into central computer systems, it is now possible to track individual people, powerfully validating each human’s worth, and providing accountability that hopefully leads to improvements in their care.

Education would also benefit from a more individualized approach. Education reporting systems are based primarily on counting the children in school, so it’s a struggle to capture the extent of the marginalized not-in-school.

In 2007 it was estimated that nearly 72 million primary school age children, including 25 percent of all children living in sub-Saharan Africa, were not in school. According to UNESCO’s 2010 Education for All Report, these estimates of children in school might be as much as 30 percent overestimated! This is due to the difficulty of demographic profiling of early age groups and incentives to over-report (more students equals more money).

‘Without a systematic way of uniquely identifying and tracking a child from birth through primary school, it’s just really hard to tell how many children fall through the cracks.’

Without a systematic way of uniquely identifying and tracking a child from birth through primary school, it’s just really hard to tell how many children fall through the cracks.

Technology is making it increasingly possible to count things, and thereby to make things count.

Counting fosters accountability which, in turn, enables looking at issues of development from the perspective of individuals and not just aggregate numbers. This is not only more deeply human, but I’d argue more systematic, accurate and effective.

Programs like ChildCount+ that empower communities with the information required to participate in their own development represent an important step. Platforms that allow beneficiaries to verify or contest benefits received bring an important new level of transparency to aid as well.

For the women and children registered in ChildCount+ or for the Indian citizen registering with an Aadhar ID, being counted will only matter if it translates to a guarantee of better rights and services.

That is a much bigger challenge that technology alone won’t be able to solve. However, for the individual to know that they are in the system — one that should be accountable to them — it represents a catalytic mind shift in terms of personal rights. A change that will hopefully encourage individuals to become part of their own solution.

 


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Born in Cameroon and raised in Senegal, West Africa, Matt Berg is a technology practitioner and researcher in the Modi Research Group at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and serves as the ICT Director for the Millennium Villages Project. He is a respected thinker in the mobile-for-development space and helped created ChildCount+, a child and maternal mobile health platform. Previously, Matt was the director of the Geekcorps’ Mali Program and Chief of Party for USAID’s Last Mile Initiative aimed at improving access to information via innovative ICT services in rural Mali.

Matt was a Pop!Tech 2010 Social Innovation Fellow, the 2010 Knox College Young Alumni Achievement Award Winner, and was named to the 2010 Time 100 List of Most Influential People for his technology work in Africa. You can follow Matt on Twitter.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Read all the posts in this series.

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