Cell-Phone Connectivity Changes Economies, Health Care, Lives Across Globe

Of the 6 billion mobile subscribers across the globe, 5 billion are in the developing world, said Eric Tyler of the New America Foundation on Thursday.

(Related Atlantic Wire Chart: Percentage of World That Doesn't Use Social Media, or the Internet)

While many of the people living in the developing world do not have computers, they access the Web via their cell phones, he said at a Brookings Institution summit on mobile technology. The panel discussed the tantalizing and dizzying array of possibilities this relatively new connectivity affords people living in underdeveloped or otherwise isolated locations, including in the U.S.

Whole swaths of the human population are now reachable through technologies driving change in business, health care, government, philanthropy, and education, according to the panelists. Especially as technology becomes cheaper and more pervasive in all corners of the world--in all social and economic strata--more people are gaining a means of power, from enhanced communication to purchasing.

Mobile money--cell-phone apps that allow users to transfer money using text messages--makes it possible for entrepreneurs to do business with customers who do not have access to bank accounts. Those customers, by virtue of now being a viable part of the economy, benefit from a greater availability and variety of goods and services available to them as more and more business vie for their business, said Lawrence Chandy, a Brookings fellow.

Low-income pregnant women in the U.S. can get texts reminding them to take care of themselves, said Sonal Shah of the Case Foundation. It's not a replacement for a doctor, but the information could prevent more babies from being born underweight.

Mobile technology might make it easier for doctors, particularly in rural areas where medical services are scant, to reach more people, said Shawn Covell of Qualcomm. Treating chronic ailments is an economic issue, she pointed out, citing a World Bank study that showed that reducing cardiovascular diseases in China by 1 percent per year over a 30-year period (2010 to 2040) could generate an economic value equivalent to 68 percent of China's real GDP--or more than $10.7 trillion. Mobile technology can help doctors monitor patients, making a difference on everything from expense to longevity, she said.

This connectivity also allows more people to participate in debates on public policy and governance. Individuals have easier access to their representatives and easier means to hold governments accountable, said Katie Harbath of Facebook. Already sites are popping up to track when people are asked to pay a bribe, who asked for it, and how much they were charged.

While this might not cut down on corruption, at least you know the going rate, quipped Darrell M. West of Brookings.

The poor can also respond directly to funders, philanthropic organizations, and governments about their needs and whether the services they receive are effective. Students across the globe can participate in large learning communities, said Tom Carroll of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. Students studying water quality in the U.S. can connect with students doing the same in Kenya, and with experts via their phones.

In short, change is coming to almost every sector of human engagement. And the agent is probably in your purse or pocket.