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Phone Data

Literacy is one of the most significant contributing factors to eradicating poverty. Telenor, a Norwegian research group, believes it has found a way to measure literacy rates in developing countries using mobile phone data.

Currently, an estimated 750 million people around the world are unable to read and write. Two-thirds of these people are women, according to MIT Technology Review. UNESCO studied the effects of illiteracy in South American communities and found that illiteracy correlates to higher unemployment rates, poor health, exploitation and human rights abuse.

In order to address the growing concern of widespread illiteracy in developing countries, Telenor, led by Pål Sundsøy, developed a machine-learning algorithm to figure out which communities have the highest rates of illiteracy.

Using mobile phone data, Telenor’s algorithm evaluates a variety of factors to predict literacy rates in developing countries including the location of calls, number of incoming versus outgoing text messages and the diversity of social contacts.

When evaluating the probability of illiteracy, geographic location is one of the most deciding factors. Sundsøy believes that the algorithm is able to identify slum areas where economic development is low and illiteracy is high by analyzing where calls are placed.

Additionally, a higher quantity of outgoing messages and a lower number of incoming messages may also hint at illiteracy. Telenor’s model takes this information into consideration since people do not typically send texts to contacts who they know can’t read.

The diversity of an individual’s social network is also a helpful indicator of literacy since those who are illiterate are more likely to concentrate their efforts on communicating with a few people. The relationship between the diversity of social contacts and illiteracy is also supported by a strong three-way correlation between economic well-being, illiteracy and diversity of social contacts.

By identifying which communities are at risk for low literacy rates, Telenor’s mobile phone data algorithm can make literacy programs more effective in developing countries.

The National Literacy Programme in Namibia (NLPN) states that their main challenge to boosting literacy rates is limited funding for the program. Implementing Telenor’s algorithm would make a significant impact on programs like NLPN that have finite resources by helping organizations to identify and allocate resources to communities that have a higher concentration of illiterate people.

While regional and gender disparities continue to persist in current illiteracy data, the development of powerful resources like Telenor’s algorithm will help raise literacy rates in developing countries and make it easier for literacy programs to target those who at a greater disadvantage.

Daniela N. Sarabia

Photo: Pixabay

mobile tech
If you were to spend any amount of time in Pakistan, you might think you were in the heart of a very rich country, especially when you saw how many people have mobile phones. Regardless of economic class, nearly everyone has mobile tech; individuals who work as farmers are no exception.

But the farmers live in very isolated areas that are tough to reach and, until recently, were very hard places with which to communicate. Additionally, the farmers are at risk of being struck by major natural disasters or attacked by militants in the area. Although the picture is bleak, there are some silver linings.

The first is the rapidly improved mobile technology and service in the area. USAID noticed this improvement and partnered with the local government as well as Telenor, a mobile network communicator to launch a program to benefit farmers. And now, there’s an app for that.

The pilot program will reach peach and potato farmers as well as individuals who own fisheries. The venture seeks to increase farmer’s incomes, improve market access and bolster knowledge and the ability to fight crop disease. The app will do so through various methods.

The primary function of the app will be to send alerts filled with advice and tips on how to increase efficiency and quality of food production to mobile phones. There is also a service that users can access that has voice files with similar instructions and additional tips. The latter will provide an excellent service, since a large part of the country is illiterate and would therefore be unable to access the data in any other way.

On the business side, farmers will receive data about market prices and consumer trends to ensure that they are increasing profits. There are also more technical bits of advice, such as state-of-the-art farming practices designed to increase yield and help fight crop diseases. Additionally, there are advanced weather programs on the app to help farmers decide when to plant, irrigate and harvest crops.

The pilot has been met with overwhelmingly positive feedback. Over 90 percent of participants said the alerts were “well-timed and useful,” while three quarters of the participants have adopted the farming practices recommended by the app.

The app also has a feedback section that will be incredibly useful, although it might take longer to see results. Users can log activity and practices through the app, which specialists can analyze in order to get a picture of what challenges farmers face. From there, solutions can be made. And, in a country where agriculture employs 44 percent of the population, it might be just what they needed.

– Andrew Rywak

Sources: USAID 1, USAID 2, USAID 3, Nation
Photo: USAID

Bangladesh uses mobiles
“It’s time for the second tetanus toxoid vaccine. Just one more and your baby will be protected against tetanus. Go to your clinic now,” reads one mobile message from Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA).

Bangladesh is hard at work trying to meet Millennium Goals 4 and 5. In partnership with MAMA, the country has implemented a project to reduce mother and child deaths. Over 500,000 women already subscribe to the service. Named Aponjon, meaning “dear one,” the project sends over 350 free text and voice messages to expectant and new parents. The messages contain information about a range of pregnancy and childcare-related subjects, such as nutrition, vaccinations and when to go to the doctor. They can even be selected by topic, so mothers can request messages about preventing HIV transmission to their children, or post-partum family planning, if they require it. The messages are not just for mothers, either. There are some tailored for fathers and mothers-in-law, as well.

The goal of Aponjon is to reach mothers who do not have as much access to medical care. This is particularly relevant in rural areas, where Bangladesh’s dropping maternal mortality rate has made a smaller impact. While Bangladesh has reduced its maternal mortality rate by 66 percent, this change has been strongest in urban areas, under private medical care.

Aponjon allows women who cannot make it to clinic or who are nervous to talk to doctors, to understand how to take care of themselves and their babies. Since the adult female literacy rate is only 57.7 percent, messages are sent vocally as well as through SMS text.

The mobile company Telenor is also trying to expand health services, now that Bangladesh uses mobiles, to other countries as well. It currently offers a service where physicians answer health questions by phone at any time of day. It is also working on using video conferencing for doctor-patient interactions.

Bangladesh is also working to increase mothers’ health in other ways. Female education is increasing in the country, and currently more girls are educated than boys. Increased education leads people to seek more healthcare, as well as to have fewer children. There is also more education in medical-related fields. Also, the Bangladesh government, WHO, and the UN Population Fund introduced a program to train 3,000 midwives by 2015. Since only a third of Bangladeshi women have a skilled physician with them as they give birth, the program is designed to increase maternal health. Over 1,000 people have already completed the first stage of training.

All of these goals put Bangladesh well on the way to meeting and exceeding the Millennium Goals, in addition to creating a happier and healthier population for the country.

– Monica Roth

Sources: IRIN, Daily Star, MAMA, WHO, The Hindu, Htxt
Photo: MAMA