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

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continue the MIT work and formed NextLab, the next generation of the Next Billion Network. The idea with NextLab is to address global challenges by developing Web-based, open-source mobile platforms and applications that they can be picked up and used more widely.

“Instead of giving money, the traditional way of developing aid, we develop software tools that give users ways to become micro-entrepreneurs within their own environment—to become more efficient, to make business, find sources of income and make their life easier,” Rotberg says. “We collaborate with local partners and organizations, many of them NGOs.”

After discussion with these local partners in countries such as the Philippines, Venezuela, and Vietnam, NextLab members, who include a mix of graduate and undergraduate students at MIT and other universities, develop the software needed for a specific global challenge. Often surrounding technology must be developed too, like near-field communications and sensor systems.

Rotberg says NextLab deals with four areas of human need:

• Income generation—apps for job search, mobile banking and commerce.

• Health—services that automate data collection and updates for health records, or diagnostic systems that send medical pictures, videos, and x-rays for remote interpretation.

• Civic engagement—apps for disaster management and crime reporting, for example.

• Education—enhancing literacy, especially in remote villages.

Woman using mobile phoneIn one project, NextLab developed a mobile app for monitoring and tracking the growth of forests in northern Vietnam, where trees grow fast but can only be harvested after 6 to 7 years. By taking a camera-phone photo, marking the GPS coordinators, entering a reading, downloading the information to a PC, and pinning the information to a Google Map, tree farmers can keep much closer track of their crop.

It’s unclear whether NextLab’s mobile projects are yet producing measurable results in emerging economies. But Rotberg says the program’s goal is simply to get change started.

“Our job is not to engage in large-scale projects,” says Rotberg. “Our job at MIT is to push the envelope of innovation—to show the world what can be done, to open up a toolbox to the developing world, facilitating for them to become their own bosses, their own health care providers, more active citizens, more literate. In short, more entrepreneurial, healthier, better citizens, and better educated. All through this Trojan horse called the cell phone.”

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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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