The second keynote at the DLF Spring Forum was Dr. Joel Selanikio from DataDyne. Joel's presentation, "The Invisible Computer Revolution: Information Opportunities in the Developing World", was a marvelous contrast to David Rumsey's.
Dr. Selanikio spent the first half of his time speaking about the growth of the use of the mobile telephone in Africa and other developing countries. This growth is well documented, but Dr. Selanikio argued that we should think of these phones as computers. He made the very useful distinction between the internet and the web. The developed world has grown to equate the World Wide Web with the Internet and has mostly forgotten the early days of the Internet (he asked us how many of us remembered Gopher and working from command line, for example) when we were mostly text focused rather than graphics focused. The mobile phone offers a 'keyhole' to the internet that can be used to make content and services available via SMS which is the protocol behind text messaging on phones. The SIM card is essentially a hard drive. African access to the internet is not the same as the developed world's access to internet, and there is little indication that this will change anytime in the near future.
Dr. Selanikio then went on to talk about the way public health work happens in the field in developing countries. Most of this work is "shoe leather epidemiology" - that is, it takes place door to door out in the field and it happens on paper. It can take two to three years to get the data analyzed and available. He paralleled this with the president of Toyota not having ready access to current sales figures; it's a real problem that public health organizations don't have ready access to the information currently happening in the field. But we could use be using cell phones to collect that information; DataDyne has developed EpiSurveyor as a "open source tool enabling anyone to very easily create a handheld data entry form, collect data on a mobile device, and then transfer the data back to a desktop or laptop for analysis." (from the website). Dr. Selanikio also pointed out that using a cell phone with SMS we can search the internet, we can give doctors and public health workers access to reference materials, patients could manage and store their medical records, and we can remind parents of vaccinations.
This was a quite inspiring presentation and made me think a lot about what libraries could be doing to help get this kind of content available for use in the field. A colleague in a hallway conversation mentioned that the challenge is similar to making our applications and content accessible - which often means not including the fancy graphics and client side technology (such as AJAX). Highly recommended speaker! - Sarah Shreeves
Appended to add: The UN Foundation has just released Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use which has a case study of DataDyne's work in Kenya and Zambia.