With an SMS message on a mobile phone, a Kenyan school teacher is able to deposit money into her account. A Syrian refugee looks into an electronic box that scans his eye so he can pay for food items. A health worker monitors new alerts on her dashboard to find out where a diphtheria outbreak is coming from. All around the globe, people in developing countries are interacting with technologies in new and innovative ways.
Technology has become a crucial ally in international development. It has proven to add value in efforts to improve disaster and humanitarian response in challenging contexts. It has also been useful in increasing access to financial services and reducing bank transfer costs. There are many other applications of technology in international development and we’ll discuss a few noteworthy use cases in this roundup.
DISASTER RISK MANAGEMENT
Crowdsourcing has shown incredible potential in disaster and crisis response. Its power comes from having a large amount of real-time data that allows for a more effective and accurate context analysis. Harnessing crowdsourcing is also low-cost but high-impact. The ubiquitousness of mobile phones and social media, even in lower-middle income countries, allows people in the affected area to fill in the information gap direly needed during a crisis.
One best practice for the application of this idea is Indonesia’s PetaJakarta. It is an open source crowd-based application for real-time reporting and tracking of floods in the city. In the event of flooding, the Indonesian government encourages citizens to tweet the situation in their local area, and the information is fed into a community flood map, mapping out critical areas of the city. This then allows the affected population and the government to respond to the crisis.
The use of Picture Pile app in Haiti in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 is another example of the great potential of crowdsourcing for disaster response. This application allowed volunteers to assess structural damage by using the ‘before’ and ‘after’ satellite imagery of the affected area. This in turn produced rapid post-disaster mapping of the infrastructural damage in Haiti.
When the Ebola virus began spreading in West Africa early 2014 the need for timely and accurate data was vital. But as the disease spread there was a critical lack of information brought about by gaps in effective data collection, weak infrastructure and connectivity, and lack of comprehensive maps and baseline data.
Mobile phones were key for information sharing during the epidemic. Mhero was popularly used as a digital platform by health workers in rapid data collection, monitoring, and communication in Liberia in 2014. This gave frontline health workers a mobile platform to coordinate with the government, co-workers, and other stakeholders using direct message, interactive voice response, and calls.
A similar tool is now being used to stem the outbreak of diphtheria, a highly contagious disease, among the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar. This is WHO’s Early Warning, Alert and Response System (EWARS) which compiles disease alerts from 170 health facilities spread throughout Rohingya refugee camps. The alerts are reviewed and verified by a team who are deployed to the area of incident. This system detected the outbreak of diphtheria early on and it allowed them to find out where the disease is spreading.
The poorest communities around the globe experience significant hurdles to access banking and financial services. This means they have no formal mechanisms for saving or transfering money. This in turn bars them from having access to credit and loan.
M-Pesa disrupted traditional banking by launching mobile banking for the poor in Kenya. This innovation has spread rapidly to other developing countries such as Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Romania, and Albania. The mobile phone-based service allows users to deposit money into their accounts and transfer money for a small transaction fee. By 2019, M-Pesa was processing payments roughly the equivalent of 31% of its GDP. In a continent where 70% of the population are unbanked, M-Pesa has made a mark in providing the poor easy access to financial services.
Remittance costs for diaspora is also a problem ICT is seeking to alleviate. In Serbia, the cost of remittance transfers average at 8% of the amount transferred. Reducing the cost is in the best interest of Serbia’s large diaspora of 800,000. UNDP Serbia is currently piloting a blockchain-based remittances project which will allow users to pay for utilities and groceries purchase using the funds they receive and hopefully reducing the transfer cost to 3%.
The power of blockchain has also found use in the fast-paced and ever changing context of a humanitarian situation. Building Blocks is a project led by WFP that aims to do that by using blockchain technology to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid. Currently, Syrian refugees in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan need not pay with cash or paper vouchers but by gazing into a black box that scans their eye and immediately recognizes who is making the transaction through iris recognition technology.
The use of blockchain in this context is to increase transparency of aid flow, not only reducing the cost but also the delay of transfers, and creating a permissioned but secure database of refugees. The same technology is being employed in storing vital personal information for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who often flee their homes leaving behind any means of identification.
WFP has also leveraged the use of satellite imagery and aerial images taken by drones to rapidly create accurate maps. This information is crucial in how they estimate refugee population size, assess the accessibility of roads, and how they design their response to the crisis which is important for a population reliant on aid like the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazaar.
FUTURE OF TECH IN DEVELOPMENT
Technology is steadily providing effective and rapid solutions to social problems. Mobile phone usage in the developing world is a strength that is being leveraged to address health crisis, respond to disasters, and provide access to banking. This has also been used to collect much needed data from the field.
Crowdsourcing through social media is also a powerful tool to collect data in dynamic environments. The widespread popularity of social media in developing countries makes it possible to collect information and engage the local population in a short period of time.
Ensuring data transparency and fast deployment are the biggest upsides of blockchain technologies and we can see them now being adopted in humanitarian response around the globe. These technologies cut transfer costs and ensures data cannot be easily manipulated.
These use cases show that technological solutions will continue improving people’s lives and enable policymakers and humanitarian workers to find innovative ways to address important social problems.