In the international development sector, discussions are underway about how mobile phones can provide enhanced and beneficial services to people living in isolated, poor and disadvantaged communities. Other technologies such as laptops and tablets are also being trialed, particularly for data collection.

Development practitioners remain divided about how mobile phones and similar devices can assist economic and social development. Some view technology as a tool which will transform people’s lives in very positive ways, whereas others remain skeptical. Certainly it’s an area requiring further research to determine effectiveness.

In 2012-2013 Coffey managed an Australian Government funded research study on the use of mobile telephony as an innovative development tool. It was conducted in Papua New Guinea (PNG), as part of the Australian Government-funded, Coffey-managed Economic and Public Sector Program (EPSP), across the health, education and justice sectors. Implications from the research are relevant not only for PNG, but also for Pacific island neighbours and other countries with a similar context.

The ‘Utilising Mobile Phones for Development Study’ comprised three concurrent pilot projects funded by the Economic and Public Sector Program into cellular technology and its impact on improving service delivery outcomes in maternal health, early childhood education and law and justice in select regions.

Improving PNG’s poor maternal health is being achieved through the ‘Childbirth Emergency Phone Project’ which is providing rural front-line health workers with a free-call number to access time-critical advice and effectively respond to childbirth complications.

The project led by the Milne Bay Provincial Health Authority has seen marked improvements in communication, coordination and service delivery of maternal health outcomes across the province.

Early childhood education delivered in Madang and Simbu provinces has seen significant advances through the delivery of lesson plans and support material as mobile phone text messages. The control trial, called ‘SMS Story’, was implemented by non-government organisation Voluntary Services Overseas in partnership with the PNG Department of Education.

“The literacy program demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in the reading ability of students whose teachers received short stories and lesson plans via SMS daily for two school terms.”

20150401 Innovative use of mobile phones in rural service delivery and developmentContentThe literacy program demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in the reading ability of students whose teachers received short stories and lesson plans via SMS daily for two school terms. The approach is expected to be implemented in other regions where books and other traditional teaching resources are limited.

In the law and justice sector, improving remote data collection has progressed under the auspices of two key government agencies: Magisterial Services and the Department of Justice and Attorney General. The mobile phone trial implemented text messaging as a mainstream data collection method for enhanced service delivery. The trial generated valuable information, which had been very difficult to collect previously via paper forms.

Lead Mobile Communications Research Consultant Dr Amanda Watson said the guiding principles arising from the research findings could apply to a variety of development contexts, with the overarching message that cellular technology can be used as a low-cost and effective medium to improve service delivery, principally in rural areas.

There were 12 lessons learnt from the three pilot projects. The overarching lesson was that mobile phone service can be used to improve service delivery, particularly for rural areas. It found service providers based in rural areas, such as teachers and health workers, do own and use mobile phones and that voice calls and text messages are effective in addressing communication needs in PNG.

“While the design and uptake of modern technologies continues to advance around the world, the reality is that many marginal communities have ongoing challenges with access to electricity, transport, income generation opportunities and stores.”

Recharging of handset batteries remains a challenge in localities where electricity supply is unavailable or intermittent. In substantial parts of PNG, as in many other rural regions of developing countries, reliable electricity supply is limited. In the health project implemented, solar mobile phone chargers were provided to rural health centres, so that health workers could keep their mobile phone batteries charged.

As a result of the studies, guiding principles about how to best use mobile phones in development efforts have been created. They would be useful for any organisation or individual considering the introduction of mobile phones in service delivery in PNG or in a similar context.

The guiding principles confirm simple is best, or where existing technology is available, it is best to use this, rather than introducing new, more complex technologies. The design of the project should also be appropriate to the PNG context. While rural-based workers do have access to or own mobile phones, costly services are unlikely to be affordable for these people and therefore will not be utilised. It is possible to establish free-call phone lines or free text messaging services, both of which have proven to be suitable to the current situation in the country.

While the design and uptake of modern technologies continues to advance around the world, the reality is that many marginal communities have ongoing challenges with access to electricity, transport, income generation opportunities and stores. Health, education, justice and banking services can also be difficult to access. In many situations, it may be that new technologies could provide much-needed assistance to people in such places. Nonetheless, local challenges of battery re-charging and other potential impediments need to be carefully considered in the design of any project.

Around the globe, the development community is grappling with questions about the appropriate use of new technology in its efforts. Rigorous research is crucial to help practitioners understand the opportunities and also the limitations of incorporating portable, digital technologies into program design and delivery. The outcomes of the Coffey-managed cross-sectoral study undertaken in PNG provide useful insights, lessons learnt and guiding principles for government agencies, non-government organisations and donors in PNG and further afield.

The Economic and Public Sector Program is managed by Coffey on behalf of the Australian Government.

To view a PDF version of this insight, click here.

The PDF version of Dr Amanda Watson’s report Utilising Mobile Phones for Development in PNG is available at www.pngepsp.org.