Inaugural Session 2014

South Asian International Exchange 

FOCUS: MOBILES FOR EMPOWERMENT

Seymour Papert once famously said, “You can’t give people everything they would ever want. The closest you could give them is a mobile phone.”

To label the mobile phone as revolutionary would be an understatement. It has transformed lives like never before, especially for the people at the Bottom of the Pyramid for whom information was a scarce commodity. Never more is this transformation more evident than in South East Asia, where the mobile has allowed services to be delivered to the 1.5 billion people in the region, many of whom couldn’t be reached through traditional means.

mBillionth Award is a unique event that celebrates & honours excellence in mobile communications which try to bridge social & developmental gaps in communities. It aims to create a conducive exchange platform for developers, content creators, telecom companies and device manufacturers and to provide a platform for entrepreneurs who have developed wonderful ideas to take the benefits of mobile to the last ‘billionth’ individual in the region- hence the name.

Launched in 2010, mBillionth has had a highly encouraging journey so far with over 1500 innovative entries from 8 countries. Many of the previous award winners have gone on to enjoy considerable success and their creations have had significant positive effects. In its 5th year, mBillionth turned into a pool of m-knowledge, m-innovations as well as m-strategies and m-thinking proving that mobile is next m-powering tool. With <323> entries from <8> countries in 11 categories, mBillionth 2014 had acquired altogether new dimensions and the gala award night lived up to all the expectations.

The event was kick-started by Mr. Osama ManzarPresident, Digital Empowerment Foundation who proudly talked about the history of mBillionth and what it had come to signify with the aid of an introductory video. He reiterated that mBillionth had been spurred off from Manthan Awards with the belief that mobile usage would take off and become extremely influential. This belief had been truly vindicated by the participation in the same and two separate mobile ventures spurring off to become separate entities altogether (Mobile for Good in association with Vodafone and Mobile for Social & Behavioural Change in association with UNICEF).

Instead of individual monologues, the session was conducted in the form of a panel discussion. Mr. Marten Pieters, MD & CEO of Vodafone India, opened the session with the observation that ‘when an event reaches 5 years, it would usually go a long way and hence mBillionth is here to stay’. He remarked that technology drives development and is in turn driven by innovation & research. Whereas research is capital & HR intensive, innovation is just the opposite and requires the passion & energy of young entrepreneurs and not the bureaucratic ways of corporations. He described in glowing terms how mobile technology had become the driver of change in society and impacted lives in Asia in many of the award categories: m-governance (by bringing about transparency), m-commerce (by making financial services available where traditional banks cannot operate due to costs), m-education (by making education affordable and eliminating need for infrastructure & qualified teachers and providing employability), m-health (by allowing remote tracking of diseases), m-women & children (by allowing women to lead independent, connected and more productive lives), m-agriculture (by boosting income through reducing supply chain losses and providing real time prices & weather info) and m-culture (by allowing right content to be delivered at the right place to the right audience through vernacular medium). He predicted that mobile data and broadband usage would increase by 6 times in coming years, which would usher in the era of equitable growth. He also remarked that with RBI allowing telecoms to become banks, they could provide financial services to millions as they are used to doing large transactions of small value profitably.

Mr. Sanjeev Gupta (IAS) | Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture
offered a refreshing perspective in this regard by stating that though smart phone purchases have been growing in leaps & bounds, its penetration was only 16.8%. He insisted that the mantra to reach farmers and the marginalized is still through SMS/USSD/IVRS/voice broadcast/text-to-speech portals. He stressed on the importance of keeping the user in mind while designing the services and cited the example of the farmer service initiated by the government reaching out and empowering through, leveraging the power of USSD.

Another success story was narrated by Ms. Shawn Covell | Vice President of the Wireless Reach Initiative of Qualcomm
in which they had created a strategic programme called Wireless which put together projects that use wireless technologies for social benefits. The most successful in these projects was an app for fishermen which provided them with real-time weather (wind & tide) and price info apart from having a GPS functionality to help them navigate and warn them about international waters.

Dr Mr. R Sukumar, | Editor of The Mint,
then took over the session with his characteristic demeanour and called for some introspection as most of the entries that have been received for mBillionth has focuses on one-way information delivery even though the mobile offers the potential for two-way communication. He suggested how data collection by mobile users could help in more accurate calculation of CPI.

Mr. Mridul Chowdhury, | CEO of mPower Social Enterprises
who was himself a winner of the mBillionth Award in 2011 answered succinctly by citing the lack of emphasis on intermediary service providers as the chief reason for this. He remarked that activity of specialists could be decentralized up to the last mile solution providers, who could then be involved in collecting the data facilitating two-way communication and policy making. He called for the creation of a new model in a new ecosystem built around these solution-providers, however cautioning that trust-building for such a model would take time.

Numerous suggestions then popped up, including how SHGs could effectively play the role of intermediaries, how crowd sourcing could become crucial in promoting the model and how incentives are needed in the ecosystem (by making something cheaper/convenient/entertaining) to make people adapt to the model faster as technology usually breaks age-old cultural habits.

The discussion then took another vibrant direction with Mr. Sukumar again posing an interesting question as to why no start-up that had been bestowed with the mBillionth Award has gone on to become truly national. The economist in Dr. Amir Ullah Khan, President, Glocal University was insistent that economist theories dictate that rational people would change their behaviour with a delta reduction in price, hence the adaptation to new technologies should not be an issue. He concluded that the problem hence must lie with the regulatory system and there is a need to differentiate between individual personalized data and collective aggregate data which would spur reverse-data collection. Moreover, use of mobile will increase significantly if more and more public services are offered through the medium.

Upon being sought his expert opinion, Mr. Osama Manzar sought to bring out a consensus on the importance of the design of the solutions. Mobile penetration could be increased further by providing broadband and entertainment services through them. He went on suggest that Bottom of the Pyramid sectors had been completely ignored by private players since government and NGOs exercises significant control over them. Platforms such as mBillionth provide for the convergence of these sectors for dialogue and to evolve the best practices.

Mr. Sanjeev Gupta attributed the success of his solutions to content in vernacular language, which he stressed would be crucial in bridging the information gap. He also talked of the need for extensive use of fiber optic cables and wi-max facilities to bring broadband to the masses.

And Mr. Mridul Chowdhury concluded the very engaging discussion by reflecting that the whole process of inclusion is a cycle. He remarked that telecom companies would not be interested in setting up infrastructure if the usage was primarily for accessing Facebook. Only by pushing more services onto mobile which would help the community in generating income would demand for mobile usage surge, thus attracting telecoms in setting infrastructure. Once this is in place, developers would seize the opportunity and push more services. And so on the cycle would go on…

Just like that of mBillionth would…