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24 October 2006

Mobile phones are small computers whose new uses could transform the developing world.

A COUPLE of weeks ago I wrote that there are more than 2.5 billion mobile phones - nearly one for every two people.

Most phones are in the developing world although the biggest market is China, which has nearly half a billion. And the number of mobile phone subscribers in India increases by 5 million a month.

Mobile phones are changing lives around the world like no other technology. And because each phone is a little computer, there is potential for greater change.

Enter Andy Dong, who teaches new media design at Sydney University. He set his class of final year design students an assignment to design a mobile phone application to solve a problem or improve the quality of life for people in a developing country.

Dr Dong invited me to meet his class of 20- and 21-year-olds and look at some of these applications. What I saw blew me away. Here am I writing about mobile phones and the developing world in an abstract sense and then I see dozens of real-life applications that demonstrate much more clearly than I ever could just exactly how these things can change the world.

The applications designed by Dr Dong's students are not in use - they are design exercises - but they show what is possible. They use a combination of mobile phone-based technologies including Java, Flash Lite, Bluetooth, RFID (radio frequency identification) and GPS (global positioning system) to show possibilities.

Leon Spencer has developed the Blue River Network, a way for users to communicate through a web of Bluetooth links, so that their messages could not be monitored. He thought this might be useful in a repressive state such as Burma, where the Government is likely to monitor conventional messages.

Sheryl Soo designed a system called Cuentito ("little story", in Spanish) so that street kids could build a sense of community by taking photos. A database collected the GPS-tagged images so users could look for each other and collaborate on artworks.

Student Mark Kwanten designed a similar application for street kids in San Salvador, this time a collaborative rap to prompt sung dialogue.

Noelene Fajardo's Project Catch Fish was for her native Philippines. A fisherman reports the best fishing spots by SMS, building a central database that listed fish type, catching method, time and date to be accessed by fishermen in a collective.

A similar application was designed by Dan Davy-Thorburn, who used text messages to connect Sherpas and trekkers in Nepal. Sherpas waste lots of time travelling from their home villages to Kathmandu and hanging around the trekking companies waiting for an assignment. His system matched Sherpas to trekkers, including such functions as an eBay-style recommendation system for individual Sherpas.

The range of applications was truly astounding. One of my favourites was from Amal Abdo, who designed a system to manage checkpoints at Palestinian-Israeli border crossings, telling people which checkpoints were open at which time and for which purpose.

"If we must have checkpoints, at least this system would help us manage them efficiently," Ms Abdo said. At the moment people queue for hours or days to get through. Again, the technology was quite simple - a collaborative database - but it was the way it was implemented that was remarkable.

Other notable projects:

· Joyce Wong's system kept patient records in rural China.

· Chen Huang designed a virtual khada - a khada is a Tibetan greeting scarf.

· Duo Fang Xu designed a collaborative matching system for micro-jobs such as letter writing or child-minding in China.

· Community news systems were popular - Norman Vo conceived one for Bhutan, Sheila Tan's was for street kids in Cebu and Adam Stone crafted one for elders and the community in Cape York.

It lifted my heart to see the idealism, the vision and the sheer talent evident in these applications. All were written by students in their early 20s. I get irritated when I see articles about generation Y and how young people are so different to their parents' generation.

I seem to remember that refrain from earlier times. From what I have seen, tomorrow's leaders will be just as capable of changing the world as those before them were.

Perhaps this time, with the help of technology, they will change it for the better.

For more information please click here (University of Sydney News)