MIT’s NextLab: Designing Technology for the Next Billion Mobile Phone Owners

Fighting illiteracy in Indian villages; facilitating local health reporting in Mexico; creating a mobile logistics app for truck drivers in Colombia. These may sound like projects run by a big non-governmental organization like the United Nations Development Program, but in fact they are three examples of MIT NextLab projects run mainly by MIT students and local organizations in the respective countries.

“Traditional aid does little for the very poor,” says Jhonatan Rotberg, founder and director of the NextLab program. “Only a fraction of the donated money trickles down to those who need it most. But with a mobile phone, poor people can get ahead. For countries in the Third World, a smart phone is the perfect tool for creating local progress in a society.”

Jhonatan RotbergRotberg’s vision is that one day we could all have an open-source smart phone, running an operating system such as Google’s Android that can easily be adapted to the need of different user groups. These phones will be able to do basically anything a computer can do today, but anytime, anywhere, and much more cheaply. They will bring content, applications and services to the people of the developing world, reducing friction in economic transactions and helping people to be more effective in their everyday lives.

Already, over 4 billion mobile phones are in use in the world today. Markets in the Western world are near saturation. The next billion new users, Rotberg says, will be spread out in the developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. Many of them are poorly educated and live in rural areas. That means builders of mobile devices and mobile applications need to bring a different mindset to their work, he says.

“The big challenge is not technical, it is about usability,” Rotberg says. “Getting people to use and understand the applications is a daunting task.”

Mobile phone userRotberg, who gave the opening address at Xconomy’s recent Mobile Madness forum, is a lecturer in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division. Before coming to MIT four years ago, he spent years developing new business models for Telmex, the largest Latin American telecom company. At MIT, he has studied how technology, especially mobile communications, can be used to enhance quality of life in the developing world, and has worked with students and local partners to create joint MIT-industry programs that spin off promising mobile technologies for use in developing countries.

“The idea was to get access to MIT’s large intellectual capital and use it for the benefit of emerging markets,” explains Rotberg. “Together with MIT Media Lab, we worked out the concept for the MIT Next Billion network”.

After that project was completed in 2009, Rotberg says, he felt no wish to go back to his old job. On the contrary, he wanted to … Next Page »

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Eva Regårdh is a tech journalist from Sweden. She is an Innovation Journalism Fellow 2010 at Stanford University and is working for Xconomy during her fellowship. Follow @

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