Are Mobile Solutions Overhyped?

This article was originally written by Eric Tyler for CNN.

Yes, if you are predicting that mobile technology will mean the end of the digital divide and that a mobile phone in every hand will solve all problems. No, if you are saying that utilizing mobile phones already in the hands of nearly 6 billion people is profoundly better than dropping tablet computers out of helicopters.

Mobile phones are leading the developing world into the information economy and digital age. Already, we’ve seen the potential of the devices to transform an entire industry, as mobile money did in Kenya. And for a large portion of the developing world’s next generation, it will be through mobile phones that Internet connectivity is gained.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and throw mobile phones at every problem we see. The sustainability and effectiveness of mobile solutions will be closely tied to the human reality and context that surrounds these devices. And important questions still need to be asked around replicability and costs. For example, why has mobile money not yet taken hold outside of Kenya? And how can prices come down for those who cannot afford mobile phones?

A promising sign of mobiles phones’ potential are early randomized evaluations of projects showing a range of positive impacts. One such study of a mobile money transfer project in a drought prone village in Niger showed a huge reduction in distribution costs and greater diversity in crop allocation, purchasing decisions, and diet for mobile transfer beneficiaries.

“Mobile development” is still in its infancy. After all, the first call was made from a mobile less than forty years ago. The inventor Martin Cooper picked up the two and half pound handheld and dialed his rival company’s head researcher to gloat. Martin couldn’t have envisioned the implications of his breakthrough for helping the world’s poorest, and the picture is still coming into focus today. Whatis already clear is that this is just the beginning, and as mobile phones get smarter, cheaper, and more widespread, they will continue to play an integral role in adapting international development to the digital age.