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"mobility is a collaborative project which brings together some of the leading academics, technicians, educators and practitioners in the IT and mobile fields with the common goal of developing an exciting and empowering range of tools and resources to unlock  the power of mobile applications development for users in the developing world"


Introduction

Over the past few years, interest in mobile technology has exploded. In developing countries most of this excitement has centred around their proliferation into poorer rural, communication-starved areas, and their new-found potential in helping close the digital divide. Handset giants such as Nokia and Motorola believe that mobile devices will "close the digital divide in a way the PC never could", industry bodies such as the GSM Association run their own “Bridging the Digital Divide” initiative, and international development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives based around mobiles and mobile technology.

Much of the spotlight on the development of social and environmental services is focussed on developing countries, yet at the same time little if any of this development takes place there. Although great strides are being made, the current model often replicates traditional ‘top-down’ approaches to development and, although the services may meet an important social need, they do little to help capacity-build the countries concerned.

Despite the dominance of western models, the entrepreneurial spirit present in many developing nations has given rise to numerous small-scale local solutions to local problems and needs. In countries such as Kenya businessmen, farmers and labourers are coming up with their own original methods for solving their own problems. Contract labourers, for example, can now provide their phone numbers to potential employers and move on, instead of having to wait for hours at a workplace in case a job arises. Access to market information through mobile phones also provides rural communities with invaluable information about centres of business. The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE) provides crop growers with up-to-date commodity information - farmers can access daily fruit and vegetable prices from a dozen markets through SMS. Many rural farmers have quadrupled their monthly incomes as a result of direct access to this type of relevant information.

At the same time, Village Phones have helped bring mobile communications to some of the poorest areas. These are easy to operate in isolated areas far from the nearest traditional telephone landline, and can be used even where there is no electricity, as they can be powered by either solar or car batteries (solutions, incidentally, which are also often developed locally). Other ‘supporting’ businesses spring up selling items such as airtime vouchers, car chargers and phone covers, and repair shops help users squeeze every last drop of life out of their phones. The economic benefits of mobile technology are far and wide, and are now beginning to be appreciated.


The African environment

The adoption and widespread innovative use of mobile phone technology makes Africa an ideal candidate for the development of localised mobile phone applications. These applications could have profound implications for the economic development of some of the poorest African communities, not to mention in improvements in areas such as education and health. Despite the unprecedented growth of mobile phones in countries such as Kenya, custom applications (such as KACE) are quite rare. Some IT-related businesses are beginning to emerge, concentrating on mainly SMS-based applications, but these are also in the minority. Underlying this, most computer science curricula within universities throughout the continent still concentrate on traditional desktop computer programming. As a result, African computer science graduates are not equipped to deal with the computing needs of African people, particularly in the mobile space. Initiatives such as EPROM are already blazing a trail in this area.

Today’s phones are programmable, powerful, and capable of accessing the internet. Lacking a traditional PC, many Africans are turning to their mobile phones to connect with people, information and services. Empowering African mobile owners with the skills necessary to program these increasingly ubiquitous devices is the first step towards nurturing an African mobile phone application developer community. This new community of programmers will be focused on building entrepreneurial applications, designed specifically to meet the unique needs of the African people in a range of social, economic and environmental contexts.


The project

The mobility project will focus on two key areas: the development of mobile-based programming tools, and the development of an online mobile phone programming curriculum.

Programming tools

Today, the bulk of mobile applications development takes place in a desktop PC environment, with mobile devices used (if at all) for end-user testing or compatibility checking. Desktop PC’s are used for a number of reasons – they are readily available in the developed world (where most development currently takes place), their keyboard and full screen makes them ideal development environments, device emulators are available to allow developers to ‘mimic’ mobile target devices, and the majority of programming tools are written to run on desktop computers. However, access to personal computers is a challenge to many people in many developing countries, making the current methods of mobile applications development inappropriate.

In collaboration with industry partners, the project will examine the developer landscape and determine a roadmap outlining the creation of native developer tools for mobile phones, removing the need for PC’s. Taking mobile applications development away from the limited reach of desktop computers and onto the ubiquitous mobile phone carries huge potential.

Curriculum

Expanding on the work of Nathan Eagle at EPROM, the project will determine the needs and structure of an online mobile programming curriculum, one which will quite likely be based on MIT’s Courseware model. The key objective will be to develop easily accessible and implementable teaching aids, allowing educational establishments throughout the developing world to integrate mobile phone programming courses into their core curriculum. These learning tools will cover existing PC-based environments, such as Java and Python, but more crucially include the new tools that mobility hopes to develop for use on the phones themselves.


Team

The mobility concept has been developed over a six-month period, and engaged a dozen experts in the mobile, education and technical fields, each of whom has signed-up to the project. Partners will be announced over the coming weeks - for the latest visit the Partners section of this site. A one year scoping proposal has been sent to a leading US Foundation, who have been collaboratively working on its development with the mobility team. Project management will be carried out by kiwanja.net until funding is secured, by which time a full team will be put in place. It is hoped that the project will commence by early autumn 2008.
 

Contact

During these preliminary stages, general enquiries can be directed to Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net, at