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The Impact of Mobile Phones Upon Development and Health: Successes and Shortcomings

Mobile phones are increasingly used in diverse and innovative ways in developing countries, including as a tool to help monitor cattle disease in Zanzibar. Their benefits, such as their widespread availability and sophisticated functions, were discussed at a workshop at LIDC on 9 October. The challenges of implementing these technical approaches and the appropriateness of introducing them in widely differing contexts were also raised at the event for academics and representatives from the mobile phone industry. Professor John Traxler, Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton, emphasised the neglected ethical and sustainability dimensions involved in mobile learning  for development. He said there have already been many pilot projects, but progress has not been straightforward and there has been a failure to scale-up and sustain projects. He warned of the limitations of flying in, carrying out research and then leaving. He also called for an end to a disciplinary “turf war” and said more interdisciplinary research is required.
Monitoring cattle disease, Zanzibar
Andrew Hagner, a student at the Royal Veterinary College, explained how he and his Undergraduate Research Team used mobile devices to record the health of cattle in Zanzibar this summer. Using a multiple choice form (developed on the Google Android platform) on their mobile phones, the students entered details about the animals they examined, specifically to track the spread of East Coast Fever. This approach has many advantages: the data can easily be captured, stored, shared between vets and uploaded to a central server. However, the devices are expensive and the form has to be completed in a specific order, a drawback when conducting a physical examination of an unpredictable animal. Nick Short, Head of the Electronic Media Unit at RVC, also spoke of ongoing work to develop instructional podcasts and videocasts in Swahili to enable field workers to access expert information by downloading resources to their mobile devices. Dr Niall Winters, of the London Knowledge Lab, is involved in the veterinary project too and highlighted the opportunities for learning created by mobile phones. He said the mobile phone market is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else, making mobile telephony the dominant technology for knowledge construction in the continent. Hagner, Niall and Winters also presented their findings on 10 October in London at Africa Gathering - a forum to share ideas for positive change, particularly innovative internet and mobile phone technologies.
Mitigating climate change, Ethiopia
Matti Pohjonen, a Teaching Fellow in Digital Culture at the School of Oriental and African Studies, discussed how mobile phones are the technological lynchpin of his recent pilot project to promote reforestation as part of a climate change mitigation project in Ethiopia. The plan is for tree-planting activities to be monitored by local forestry associations using mobile phones and for payments to be transferred to rural farmers for planting trees via mobile phones. He also mentioned how the Ethiopian government’s monopoly of telecommunications is a significant obstacle to the use of mobile telephones in the country; during the 2005 election the text message system was temporarily shut down.
Helping smokers quit, UK
Dr Cari Free, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described a novel smoking cessation intervention which uses text messages to encourage smokers to give up. Results from the randomised controlled trial, called txt2stop, are due in the spring next year and could have huge implications for smoking cessation schemes and health awareness projects globally. Smokers in the intervention group received regular personalised text messages from a database of 1,000 messages, and also received texts on demand if they texted to say they were experiencing cravings or had smoked a cigarette. The control group received fortnightly messages. Results from the pilot trial indicated a doubling of the quit rate in the short term.
By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer, LIDC