Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Development is Dead, Long Live Development

Flowminder, a non-profit based in Sweden, was lauded last month when they partnered with Orange Telecoms to release illustrated data - gleaned from anonymized and aggregated cell phone signals - on population movements in West Africa. The data helped health officials predict the possible spread of Ebola and decide where to focus medical resources and information campaigns. Meanwhile, in India, a start-up called Biosense is adding to its growing collection of mobile-based diagnostic tools by building an online platform for the country's poorest people to share ideas (particularly health solutions), create a business plan, and raise capital through crowdfunding.

On the surface, these two organizations have little in common. One is non-profit, the other a private company. One focuses on data, the other on devices. But they also share a few very important characteristics: 1.) their work is only possible in a world where billions of people are using mobile phones, and 2.) they represent the future of development. That's a big claim, but it's getting harder and harder to argue against the transformative impact of mobile technology on traditional development models. In the old days, an aid group or a company swept into a developing country, identified a problem, and announced a grand plan (preceded by a pilot project) to address the issue. Today, mobile phones have turned every project beneficiary into a stakeholder (or a potential customer). And the growing importance of data is transforming measurement and evaluation, product design, and partnership equations.

The transition to mobile-based, data-driven development creates myriad opportunities for both public and private organizations - something Flowminder and Biosense understood before the rest of us. A faster-paced, better-connected development landscape will require greater agility, an on-the-ground presence, and a comprehensive approach. Funders and companies that can deliver this agility and work well in a broad, diverse collection of public and private partners will set the directional needle for development in the years and decades to come.