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Mobile Web for Development in India

Stéphane Boyera · April 10, 2010

Lunch Break
Lunch Break

Last week, I attended the National Forum on Mobile Applications for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development organized by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). I gave the opening talk at this interesting event (slides). Apart from disseminating information about the Web Foundation, I was particularly interested in attending this event because, to the best of my knowledge, this was a first time a regulatory body was taking the lead on mobile applications for social development. The process is very interesting.

TRAI is aware of the potential of mobile phones to deliver public services to underprivileged communities in India, and wanted to gather all stakeholders to ensure that the conditions are set for the number of social-oriented mobile applications to take off. I wish it is opening a new era where telecom regulation authorities are more drivers then followers !

The event was well attended. Between 100 and 150 people were there, and most of the sessions were quite interesting. First of all, it is important to note that in most of presentations, particularly on case studies, the usual barriers were mentioned: languages, illiteracy, and ICT experience. Obviously, the language issue is particularly important in India (23 official languages, 12 scripts), and the lack of support of e.g. Hindi is critical, particularly for Web access.  Hindi is the fifth most spoken language (see the language ranking from in the world with 182 millions of people, 182 millions of people that are not able yet to fully enjoy the Web, and particularly the mobile Web.

In terms of illiteracy, as I mentioned a in previous post, it is important that many speakers mentioned the potential of IVR systems (voice-based services). I particularly liked the presentation of life line India, a project driven by OneWorld-India, providing education and agriculture support through a voice-based system. It is a mix of an IVR system, and human interaction (recording answer in specific languages), due to the lack of language support in speech technologies too.

Among the difference sessions, one was particularly interesting for me about e- and m-governance. Here again, for the first time, I was surprised to hear people in charge of India eGovernment framework saying that they have been working since few years on their program with was computer-based only, and now they are realizing that the mobile revolution is here, and they have to adapt to it, and integrate the mobile dimension. In all the conferences I have attended during the last two years, I was always surprised to see people working in such projects, yet overlooking the mobile channel. So things are moving forward slowly, because there is still work to do to demonstrate the full potential of mobile technologies. For now, it strikes me to see people in the e-government session focusing almost only on SMS applications, and mobile banking, even if this is excluding all those who cannot read and write, or those who can read and write languages not supported by SMS/current mobile banking systems.

Unrelated to mobile, it was interesting to see the timeframe of e-government framework, going over multiple years before any services are provided to people.

Local Tour Operator
Local Tour Operator

I have the impression that we are in a middle of paradigm shift moving from such framework to a more dynamic and quick concept which is open government data, where government focus more on releasing data, than developing services, which can be done by third parties. Releasing data can be far quicker, and create far more innovative services, that a more formal closed e-government framework. but this is not the topic of this post !

There were also very good talks and use-cases on m-health systems. One particularly impressive was from the India Institute of Public Health. It is about setting up an infectious disease surveillance system using mobile phones to replace paper transmission from field workers to public authorities. What is impressive about the system is that not only it demonstrated that the time between detection of an infectious disease outbreak and reaction of public health authorities is reduced a lot, limiting the impact of the outbreak on population, but it also demonstrated that the time saved on paper reports, plus the money saved on different costs (transport, postages, etc.) makes the system globally sustainable. For those interested, i put online the proceedings and some of the talks.

Another point, I was impressed by the explosion of mobile penetration in India. in March 2004, there were 33.7 millions of subcriber. 6 years later, 565 Millions ! over 50% of the population of India ! The forecast are even more impressive: 1 billion of subscriber by 2014 ! other interesting info: the forecast are that 50% of the subscribers will have a smartphone by 2015 ! These numbers are the reason why TRAI is willing to move wuickly on enabling a mobile ecosystem, and ensuring that lots of applications will be delivered on the mobile channel.

All in one, this forum was a nice initiative, and it was also a very interesting conference. Talks and speakers, in a vast majority, were very interesting, and i learnt about lots of initiatives in health, agriculture, and government, which all were very inspiring. I hope this will give ideas to other regulatory authorities to take a proactive role in promoting the development of mobile application for social development.

What I took away from the event in terms of greatest interest to the Web Foundation:

  1. It is critical to promote the use of more advanced technologies such as mobile web and voice compared to traditional SMS
  2. It is critical to promote the use of open standards, particularly on voice technologies, accessibility, and mobile web content and mobile web applications development
  3. It is critical to investigate language issues, particularly on mobile browser, as this is a major barrier now
  4. On a different topic, it would be interesting to conduct comparison and analysis between initiatives on open government data, and e-government framework: pro and cons, complementarity and so on


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  1. M4D in India

    May 17, 2011

    [...] thinking about mobile in India, the first caveats to mention are language, illiteracy, and ICT experience. There are innumerable regional languages in India. Only 63 percent of the population is literate, [...]


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