The New Media Taskforce here at SIPA is holding an “Innovating Mobile Tech for Development Competition,” where students are given the chance to pitch their idea for innovative mobile applications that seek to address specific political, economic, or social needs in international development to a panel of industry judges. Here is the idea that I may submit:
One of the major failures of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a lack of timeliness and completeness of data measuring progress towards achieving the goals. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs wrote in the Lancet:
One of the biggest drawbacks of the MDGs is that the data are often years out of date. Accurate published information from the past 12 months is still not available for most low-income countries. This timelag was inevitable when data were obtained by hand in household surveys, but in the age of the mobile phone, wireless broadband, and remote sensing, data collection should be vastly quicker.
Dr. Sachs is spot-on in suggesting that mobile technology will make data collection more rapid, but I would also contend that mobile-technology-enabled crowdsourcing will increasingly make traditional statistical surveys irrelevant. This is already happening in the arena of American politics. President Obama’s canvassing app enables citizens to volunteer their time to help register voters, build a massive database of registered voters, and ultimately organize voters out to the polls on election day. The app uses information about your location to suggest nearby households that you should visit and questions you should ask when you get there. I believe same model can be applied to the realm of international development.
Let’s say you have a database of 1,000 water projects spread across Malawi. You know the location of the water projects but do not have the resources to send an employee to monitor them on a regular basis. Water For People has built a platform called FLOW that enables field workers monitor water projects using a mobile app. While replacing pen and paper with a smartphone and Internet connection is a significant step forward, I believe that FLOW still doesn’t take the concept far enough because its capacity limited by its reliance on paid professionals to conduct the surveys.
The next-best thing to a trained monitoring professional would be a citizen armed with a smartphone. Bringing up the app, the citizen would be given a map of water projects in their immediate vicinity. They would then “check-in” at the water project and complete a simple survey about the state of the project. If the idea is expanded even further, this app could potentially supplement or replace the statistical surveys currently used to track progress toward achieving the MDG. And because the data would have no time lag it could be used to identify regions that require intervention in real-time, such as a village with an abnormally high maternal mortality rate.
Effectively, crowdsourced development data could turn the MDGs from an out-of-date snapshot of past development status into a tool for development practitioners and governments to detect issues with development while they are still relevant and actionable.