Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Car Talk

First came machines, then came machines that talk. Up next, machines that talk to each other. Consider the automobile, which started out as a fairly simple machine, then acquired more computer components and systems, and will soon be equipped with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sensors integrating with drivers and passengers, the environment, and other cars.

The next wave of car technology is coming just as millions of new drivers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America get their first cars, and the role and function of cars is expanding beyond a simple people mover. More and more, cars are being seen as data generators, and the data they yield can populate an ever-wider range of databases (mapping, traffic, civil services, planning, insurance, consumer trends, health, and more). Given the amount of time people spend in their cars, there is already jockeying for position among data-hungry tech companies to integrate portable handheld devices with car systems - or better yet, to build sensors, chips, antennae, and software right into the cars. Tech industry giants, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Intel, have been making sizeable investments in car-based technologies for several years.

These companies are sensing opportunities, and rightly so. Global sales of passenger cars will top 70 million in 2014, led by China (at 18 million units, or more than double the sales in the US). Among drivers - even in lower-income countries - there is a clear interest in avoiding traffic and collisions, and optimizing the driving environment with safety, comfort, entertainment, and information. The companies behind these technologies also understand that driving somewhere is evidence of consumer habits and intent. In emerging markets, having capable and reliable broadband networks, the right business models, the ability to connect multiple device types, and tailored solutions for different demographic segments are some of the more obvious challenges. As these challenges are better understood, there will be openings for hardware and software companies, mobile operators, service providers, programmers, and many others. One day soon, you may have to squeeze your Google Roadster between an Apple iCar and an AlibabaVan on the crowded streets of Bangkok.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sustainable Crises

The US National Climate Assessment and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both recently signaled a heightened sense of urgency for dealing with global warming. The general message was: climate change is having very real, observable effects on the weather, agricultural production, and important ecosystems, and we're already paying a heavy price to fight it.

A particular focus in both reports was the high cost of severe weather events, which are increasing in number and intensity as the world warms. And many in the development community, governments, academia, and the private sector are turning their attention to strategies for mitigating the costs and improving resource management after these events. Past disasters have shown that quickly re-establishing phone and Internet connectivity is critical to the efficient deployment of food, water, medicine, and shelter. While some governments have increased their investments in disaster preparedness, the ability to coordinate a response after large-scale events is often dependent on a diverse set of public and private service providers. Network operators are in the best position to work with governments and aid organizations to restore communications, locate the missing, and track relief efforts. But the ownership and use of private data, the responsibility for rebuilding infrastructure, and the profit motive are thorny issues that can put operators at odds with governments and aid organizations.

The development community can serve as facilitator, influencer, funder, and lead builder of a sustainable (or at least more efficient) model for coordinated, multi-sector disaster relief. Each of these roles demands more resource-efficient programs, better integration, robust technology platforms, and implementing organizations that can successfully complete multi-dimensional projects in the field. The case for taking these measures is heating up along with the rest of the world.