Radios. Batteries. Solar. Implications

Things rarely stand still in the mobile world, but a number of fairly significant announcements have been made in the past few days alone, many of which have significant short- and long-term implications for mobile users in developing countries. Here’s the top three which caught my eye.

#1 Radio

The powerful combination of rural radio and mobile phones – text messaging in particular – continues to attract considerable attention in the ICT4D world, and rightly so. Radio still has the widest reach of any communications medium, and mobile phones present new opportunities to enrich the user experience. It comes as no surprise to see Nokia leading the way once again, yesterday announcing the launch of the new Nokia 5030 handset.

Nokia 5030 kit

According to Nokia’s official Press Release:

The Nokia 5030 is the company’s first phone with an internal FM radio antenna, which eliminates the need for a headset or external speakers. The one touch FM radio and channel selection keys on the side of the device ensure the product lives up to its XpressRadio name. Placed sideways on the table, the Nokia 5030 doubles as a portable FM radio and is ideal for emerging markets, where people rely on a radio as their main source of entertainment and news. The Nokia 5030 has up to a day of listening time and 10 hours of talk time, which comes to life with the powerful loudspeaker. The Nokia 5030 is expected to begin shipping in the second quarter of 2009 with an estimated retail price of less than 40 Euros [about $50]

[For further radio-related information check out White African’s recent post on radio in Liberia, Bill Siemering’s Developing Radio Partners, Farm Radio International and my recent PC World article – “Mobile Phones Join the Rural Radio Mix“]

#2 Batteries

Also yesterday, the BBC reported news of a “new manufacturing method for lithium-ion batteries could lead to smaller, lighter batteries that can be charged in just seconds”.

BBC headline

The implications for fast-charge batteries in parts of the developing world where regular, reliable mains electricity is a challenge are obvious, not to mention the financial savings to the user (and the potential environmental gains). What’s more, connect these to solar or wind chargers and a process which may have previously taken an hour or more might well be reduced to just minutes. Because the changes needed to the manufacturing process to make these ‘super batteries’ are minimal, there are hopes that they could be brought to market as soon as 2011.

#3 Solar

Solar panel - Credit: Peng Wang, Chinese Academy of Sciences And today, MIT’s Technology Review reported on a new kind of dye-sensitised solar cell – one that is more efficient, cheaper and durable than existing cells. According to Chinese Academy of Sciences¬†professor Peng Wang, “at the moment, the use of toxic and volatile solvents in high-efficiency cells is a big hurdle for the large-scale application of dye-sensitized solar cells”. The use of a different type of electrolyte has allowed Wang and his team to produce a more robust solar cell which can prevent evaporation and leaking at high temperatures. And because the liquid can also be used with plastic, it excitingly opens up the possibility of flexible solar panels.

Three separate announcements, each with their own implications for the developing world. Maybe it won’t be long before we see mobiles powered by new kinds of super-batteries charged by more efficient, cheaper and accessible solar cells.

It doesn’t seem far off, not from where I’m standing, at least, and not if the announcements of the past couple of days are anything to go by.

Neighbourhood Watch FrontlineSMS-style

Not only established non-profit organisations can benefit from “long tail” mobile solutions. In this, the fourth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Georgia Popplewell – who manages a community-lead neighbourhood watch scheme in Trinidad and Tobago – talks about the innovative use they found for the software

“Blue Range is an upper middle-class suburb of 280 households located at the northern end of the Diego Martin valley in Trinidad and Tobago. Like many communities in the country, Blue Range has begun to feel the effects of the country’s rising crime rate (543 murders were recorded in 2008), mainly in the form of burglaries.

Security post

The community has a private security patrol and a number of streets are sealed off with barriers at night. Blue Range also maintains a Google Group mailing list which residents and the neighbourhood association use to share information.

Just after midnight on December 4th, 2008, a resident sent a message to the mailing list stating that around 7:45pm he’d seen two men behaving suspiciously in the neighbourhood. Around 8:15pm on the same night, two men broke into the home of another resident. The resident put up a fight and managed to drive the men away, but ended up quite badly injured as a result. That resident and others in the area reported that they had in fact heard dogs barking around that time. It seemed obvious that if the first resident had put his neighbours on the alert at the time he had seen the two men, the incident could have been avoided.

With that in mind, I started looking for ways that security-related information could be shared more quickly and easily among the area’s residents. In my work on the citizen media project Global Voices, I’d come across FrontlineSMS, and decided to try it.

After testing it for several days with a group of my neighbours, I presented FrontlineSMS at a community meeting on December 7th, 2008.  The service now has over 250 subscribers.

Message alert

Blue Range’s FrontlineSMS set-up, currently run from my home on a Macintosh computer, a Motorola PEBL phone and a Clickatell messaging account, is largely automated. Subscribers can add themselves to the service by texting in “addme [name]” (numbers are verified before they’re added to the messaging group). Subscribers can broadcast messages to the entire group of users by adding a specially designated prefix to their text, messages which are then distributed using the message “forwarding” functionality in FrontlineSMS. All security messages sent via the automatic broadcast are also archived on the neighbourhood mailing list using the email forwarding functionality in the software, where residents can discuss them and offer supplementary information.

The FrontlineSMS service has been highly effective in building a greater sense of security and community in Blue Range, and in helping residents feel like they are being kept in the loop with regard to incidents in the area. Recently, for instance, when a security chopper was hovering over the area for about 20 minutes, a message relayed via FrontlineSMS assured residents that the chopper was there not to look for perpetrators but to support a medical evacuation.

In a more recent incident in the area, a burglary on January 12th in which one resident was bound and gagged by the perpetrator – and his wife made to walk through the house and hand over their valuables – has nevertheless revealed gaps in the service and demonstrated that certain parts of the neighbourhood lack the critical mass of subscribers required for it to be really effective.

With each incident, however, more residents are beginning to realise the value of subscribing to the service”.

Georgia Popplewell
Managing Director
Global Voices

Our breathing earth.

Breathing Earth

Breathing Earth is described as a “real-time simulation which displays CO2 emissions from every country in the world, as well as their birth and death rates”. The data used comes from reputable sources, although the site admits that a simulation on this scale can never be 100% accurate. Worryingly, they note that the CO2 emission levels shown are much more likely to be too low than too high.Yikes.

This is a fascinating site, and one which throws up numbers on a scale large enough to scare the best of us. Since I started writing this brief blog post, for example, the world population has risen by over 2,000 and total CO2 emissions have exceeded an incredible 760,000 tons. The United States alone was responsible for approximately 175,000 of that.

If you ever need reminding of the relentless march of global population growth, and the increasing impact that our growing numbers are having on the planet, there can’t be many sites better than this.

Missing the point?

Missing the point?[Appropriate] technology. It’s not the fact that it runs on low-end devices, or the latest Android phone, or is platform independent, or seamlessly connects with the “cloud” or the rest of the solution ecosystem, or that it has the smartest user interface ever designed, or that it meets recognised data compatibility standards. It’s whether or not it’s usable by – and relevant to – people.

That’s what counts, and that’s the part we should be getting excited about. After all, technology alone is not the answer. People are the answer.