MORE than half of the people in the country have one. Whether it’s the latest smartphone or a simple flip phone, more and more people in Nepal are using them to stay connected to family, send text messages to friends, even check the latest updates on their Facebook newsfeeds. Mobile phones today have pushed the limits of personal communication, time management and productivity. But how can this technology be expanded beyond personal use as a tool to address societal and developmental challenges as well?
Combined with the simplicity, utility, and availability of mobile phones, the versatility of mobile applications makes it possible to design any service that developers can imagine. Indeed mobile applications could have an even bigger impact on society than computer or web applications. Many countries in the greater Himalayan region have recognised this and are beginning to make use of mobile applications for development. With the mobile telecommunications sector in Nepal seeing large year-to-year growth, the potential for this field in Nepal is huge.
This year’s ceremony for the “mBillionth” Award South Asia, which recognizes mobile innovators who are minimising the digital divide and advocating people’s empowerment, showcased the progress in development- minded mobile technology aimed at improving the lives of millions in the region. A browse through the list of new applications being used in the region clearly shows how this technology has matured and is now having positive impact on livelihoods, health, poverty, the environment, governance, tourism, and business and encouraging inclusion. Some mobile applications featured at the event used GPS location maps to collect and aggregate information about the proximity of users to services; others located nearby bus stations and scheduled routes. In haphazardly developed cities in South Asia, GPS applications are extremely valuable for navigating labyrinths of streets and alleys—a function that is not only convenient, but vital in times of emergency.
Mobile crowdsourcing applications can employ user-generated content to monitor the environment, including the status of rural roads or conditions in national parks; empower citizens through public grievance mechanisms; collect agricultural market information such as commodity prices in rural communities; and source news in local languages. One application demonstrated how text messages could be used in post-disaster management to collect accurate updates on ground realities, making responses more targeted and effective. Another application employed an SMS interface to send reports collected by field workers on water quality to villagers in remote areas. Another, the VTAX system, supported governance by allowing users to quickly access their own vehicle tax information via SMS, eliminating long waits at government offices. There are numerous possibilities in each sector, and the technological progress made with each successful initiative feeds into the next.
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has begun developing mobile-based applications to address mountain development issues on several different fronts. A forest fire detection and alert system makes use of the growing SMS infrastructure to communicate real-time information on forest fires throughout Nepal to support forest fire management. The system currently has 200 subscribers, including the district forest officers of 70 districts and focal persons from the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal in all 75 districts. Another project aims to use mobile networks to alert locals and authorities to potential flood threats based on real-time hydro-meteorological data from field stations upstream. Partnering with Practical Action, ICIMOD has also piloted a mobile SMS-based application that allows rural users in western Nepal to query the market price of certain commodities. ICIMOD plans to up-scale this initiative to provide agricultural market information over mobile phones to mountain farming communities over a wider area. These applications exemplify how low-cost mobile technology is enhancing the delivery of services, improving outreach to beneficiaries, and overcoming physical and economic vulnerabilities of mountain people.
With a growing market of mobile users in rural and mountain areas, Nepal is well placed to harness mobile applications for development, particularly for connecting and empowering rural communities. To capitalise on the full potential of emerging mobile development technologies, Nepal needs an extensive network of telecom operators, thematic experts, developers, civil society organisations, the private sector, and different levels of government that are willing to support and adopt mobile-based solutions. The role of thematic experts is especially important in guiding the content and matching technologies with the needs on the ground. Now is the time to build support and trust at the national level to encourage stakeholders and developers to work together to put mobile applications into practice to bring about societal benefits.
Pandey is Information and Communication Technology Specialist at the International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)