Global Washington Continues Series on the Role of Tech in Development

Hope or Hype? Mobile Phones & Development

In South Africa, human milk banks are a critical component to combatting HIV transmission from mother to child. At these milk banks, staff heat a mother’s milk to a specific temperature, removing HIV from the milk without destroying antibodies critical for babies. While many urban milk banks have sophisticated systems to ensure milk is consistently heated to this critical temperature, rural milk banks often don’t have the resources to be so exact. This is the sort of problem that Gaetano Borriello, a faculty member of the computer science and technology department at the University of Washington, tackles with technology. Using temperature monitors in rural milk banks, Borriello and his team build censors that connect to cell phones. The censors send temperature information to a central quality assurance manager who monitors the heating graph and sends an “approval” back to the rural milk bank – again via cell phone – that the milk is safe for infant consumption.
Borriello was one of three panel members at a recent event, the second  in Global Washington’s series on the role of technology in global development.  This panel consisted of three experts in technology from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: Kentaro Toyama from UC Berkeley and formerly with Microsoft’s India program; David Edelstein from Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center; and Gaetano Borriello from UW. Each panel member discussed his experience in using technology in global development as well as his thoughts on the successes and failures of those attempting to use technology in this way.

Technology can deliver information to a wider audience and allow organizations to track and revise programs in real time but must be adapted to the needs of developing countries

Borriello began by discussing the role of mobile devices in “provid[ing] an opportunity to deliver educational information and decision support to a wider circle of more lightly trained workers.” However, he cautions, “consumer devices need to be adapted to the needs of lower income countries…usage models and business models may differ greatly from one context to another.” For example, with the increased availability of smart phones in developing countries, desktops – particularly in rural areas – are not desirable.
Edelstein discussed the role of technology in disseminating and collecting information via a trusted intermediary with an illustration of a Grameen Foundation program in Uganda. In this program, community knowledge workers – the trusted intermediary in this context – are able to provide information on agriculture to rural farmers. In one visit to a rural farmer whose chickens were diseased, a community knowledge worker was able to input the chicken’s symptoms into a database on her smart phone, diagnose the disease and get information on local, low-cost mechanisms to cure the chickens.
Community health workers, armed with this smart phone technology, are also able to provide the Grameen Foundation with real time data, which allows Foundation staff to track and revise their project as they go.

“Technology only amplifies human intent and capacity”

Kentaro Toyama stressed his conclusion that “technology only amplifies human intent and capacity.”  For more on Toyama’s thoughts on the pros and cons of technology, see an earlier post on a previous presentation Toyama gave to Global Washington members. Toyama asked Global Washington audience members a question to illustrate this point: If Bill Gates and a rural Indian farmer were both given the same smart phone and 24 hours to raise as much money as possible for vaccines, who would raise the most money? The audience agreed with Toyama that Gates would far surpass the farmer. Why? Because smart phones are only a tool which amplify Gates’ wealthier contacts and his experience in fundraising.

How one program can be an example of both good and bad technology use in global development

Following the presentation, Global Washington Executive Director Bookda Gheiser opened the audience discussion with a request that each speaker highlight a good and bad example of mobile technology use in global development work. Among other examples given, Toyama discussed an example that showed both the good and bad sides of technology. A Catholic Relief Services project in Niger, aimed at improving adult literacy via a two year program with eight months of adult literacy education, showed that those in the program who used SMS service progressed further. This was an example of technology as a tool to positively impact global development. But, Toyama cautioned, this can quickly be flipped to a negative example of technology if other global development programs take away the message that “mobile phones help with adult literacy.” This, in fact, was not the case. Toyama argues that without the critical services of Catholic Relief Services and its entire literacy program, one could not replicate the literacy results, regardless of the technology used.

“Key ingredients” for successful technology use in global development

The event closed with each panel member addressing a Global Washington member’s question on the “recipe” for successful use of technology in global development.  “Key ingredients” include:

  • – Consider the long-term business model and sustainability plan for the technology’s use
  • – Understand the target user and their needs
  • – Ensure the ability to continually tweak projects based upon real time results
  • – Always be in the field or closely connected to those working in the field
  • – Understand the effect of the program with the technology as compared to the program without the technology
  • – Align with programs and organizations that have end goals focused on development, versus technology

Global Washington’s mission is to convene, advocate, and strengthen the international development sector in Washington State, with an emphasis on the sectors of Global Health, Global Education, Environmental Sustainability, and Poverty Alleviation.  In this role, Global Washington brings together its members and the community to discuss critical global topics.. Consider attending the next event in Global Washington’s technology series with Kentaro Toyama, “The Dark Side of ICT” on August 9th. You can sign up at


Written by Bridgette Greenhaw