Mobile phones to help save lives

There are almost 6 billion mobile phones in the world and almost three quarters of these mobile phones are in developing countries. The mobile phones are probably the best connection people of the world have right now. With costs dropping and mobile penetration closing in to 100% mobile phones might be some of the best ways to tap into human behavior, especially in the developing world.

Digicel, the largest mobile operator in Haiti offered anonymized data regarding the post-earthquake behavior of almost 600 000 people. Results were astonishing. Using the data provided scientists Xin Lu and Linus Bentsson managed to create an algorithm that was able to predict with a 85% accuracy where were people going to go after the disaster.

Mister Xin Lu and Linus Bentsson started FlowMinder.org , a place where they can share their research and mobile operator data for NGOs and relief agencies. They believe that the 30 million people displaced by natural disasters can benefit form this and offer Haiti study as a proof of concept.

What are the opportunities and dangers ?

Several uses can be found in working with such data:

  1. Mobile medical assistance – there are places where the patient to doctor ratio is close to 20.000:1 . Using mobile services and self-help information we can states and private companies can setup healthcare automated services that can deliver helpful information to those in need. Moreover such services can help track the appearance of epidemics and evolution of diseases.
  2. Mobile war relief – on most cases war victims are just estimated statistics and data is gathered rather slow. Real time information is of the utmost importance when dealing with war casualties and refugees. NGO’s and relief agencies can quickly get an outlook on the situation and provide assistance where and when is needed most.
  3. Help fight literacy issues with mobile services – Ghana has an adult literacy level of 64% and an mobile penetration of 80.5% . Using mobile services and in the future rich media streamed through smartphones is a quick and cheap way to fight illiteracy issues.
  4. Help setup the base for barter-based markets in developing countries – using classifieds like services through mobile phones governments in developing countries can fight poverty and hunger while at the same time encouraging micro-entrepreneurial movements.

The dangers of  using mobile data

While many positive ways to use mobile services can be found there are several issues that arise such as privacy, ethical usage of data, security of provided data etc. For example – having data publicly available in a natural disaster such as the Haiti earthquake one might wonder how would this kind of data be used by robbers.

Even worse – in such tragic events such as war, public availability of data can, in the wrong hands, result in many deaths and suffering.

I can only hope that in this connected world we will all feel closer to one another, we will be able to put aside our differences and use technology for good rather than personal interests.

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