Mobile phones in India have undergone an evolution from simple devices for sending and receiving text messages to being able to replace the workstation. Way back in 1997, my mother’s Motorola phone weighed 700 grams, with a incoming calling rate on of 16 rupees per minute. Two decades later, an outgoing call is practically free since it has to compete with Skype on mobile phones. This is the result of the mobile revolution.

Government interventions for mobile phones in India

Governments have found the mobile phone to be a personal point of connection to its citizens. Push notifications feed messages to its citizens, including customized inputs when physical interface with a government agency or employee is not feasible.

The uptake of mobile phones in India as a public good delivery medium is now in place in the state which was on the forefront of the IT Revolution in India: Karnataka. The M-Governance platform M-One has enabled citizens to pay for electricity bills, book train and bus tickets, recharge their mobile phones, receive traffic updates, track income tax refund status, book cabs, and much more. Recently, the Government of India and Twitter have tied up on the Twitter Samvad initiative where tweets can be sent and retrieved over SMS. Digital information has the power to cultivate an active and engaged citizenry; the channel is the humble mobile phone, one SMS at a time.

India bets on mobiles in the battle on maternal, child deaths

Mobile phones have become powerful health information channels to deliver critical updates to would-be mothers. Since infant mortality rates in India are equivalent to sub-Saharan Africa in some states, information access at the right time could save lives. Read more about it here.

Mobile phones: the entry point to big data for good

1. Growth of mobile phones in India: India will have 213 million mobile internet users by June 2015

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There has been an explosion in mobile phones in India, with price points plummeting of devices. Meanwhile, phones are growing more sophisticated by the day. India is a hyper-connected country with 600 odd districts on the information grid and 500 million mobile phone connections. In fact, Indian smart phone sales doubled from 156 million sold in 2013 to 364 million units sold thus far in 2014.

India might not always have 24-7 energy access or a toilet, but there will always be certainly a mobile phone and a Facebook account. And these figures are growing by the day, transforming the way people communicate, collaborate and create sub-cultures and communities.  The manufacturing of the self through the selfie is being made very milli-second.

2. Low-cost, scalable technology: Did you know mobile phones in India are as cheap as 3,000 INR?

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International development work is all about work on the go and on the ground, and a smart phone with the right apps can make survey data work in real time on the ground.

3. Mobile phones in India: the importance of Whatsapp

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Whatsapp: the free instant messaging platform on smartphones that has revolutionized the way people communicate. Its popularity in India is one of the factors that triggered Facebook to buy the company for a cool 19 billion dollars. Many organizations use Whatsapp groups for informal communication, as it enables real time chat for free. Imagine getting rid of those sms bills in lieu of a monthly INR 99 data pack on the humble pre-paid mobile sim card!

Whatsapp has not yet replaced the official mail, but its place in the corporate setting is sealed as an established platform for push communication.  Project updates, amendments to schedules and late minute meetings can all be set up over a small chat between the NGO field staff and the project managers located in an urban centre. No need for cumbersome emails, which need a laptop and a data card, when the field-based personnel can just whatsapp the daily updates on the project group. This is critical in a developmental context.

 4. Location enabled mobile phones in India: Google Maps to the rescue!

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With location-based capabilities in most phones, you can now move around easily. Gone are the days when auditors had to struggle to find the “school near the banyan tree”. Awareness of your GPS coordinates can get to the most obscure destinations in a breeze. The humble GPS on your mobile phone can be your best companion in rural India, where imprecise addresses are common.

5. Mobile phones in India: a smart data collection tool

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Most organizations still use outdated data collection methods that are inefficient, cost-intensive, and error-prone. A mobile phone or tablet can enable you to completely revolutionize your data collection processes.

A. Higher efficiency and data accuracy

The biggest decisions are taken based on data collected using error-prone methods. Since data is often used to drive crucial decisions in development, data validity is crucial. Studies have shown that mobile-based data collection tools show a 65% increase in accuracy of data.

 B. Real-time analytics

On average, data entry takes up around 250 man hours every month. Real-time data tracking eliminates this process entirely, thereby increasing efficiency significantly. It is easier to crunch the data when it comes in from the field if it the data is already in digital format. Otherwise, converting the data will require another layer of bureaucracy in terms of data entry operators. The focus should be on data insights rather than time-consuming data operations!

C. Multilingual support

Mobile-based data collection can support multiple language questionnaires and responses – both Indian and international. Since a lot of data collection (especially qualitative research) relies on text, multi-lingual digital support is important.

D. Data verification

Add a layer of picture, video, or audio to increase the depth and quality of data. For example, a question requiring a picture of a farm can track crop yields or soil quality over a period of time. Photo logs can be attached to the survey data for better reporting to the donor agency.

E. Voice to text

Google’s voice feature allows you to record answers in your voice and convert it to text automatically.  This feature is a panacea for qualitative researchers since transcribing is elaborate and time consuming.

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 F. Handwriting tool

Accustomed to the old traditional style of writing? Google Handwriting Plug In allows you to hand-write text on your phone or tablet in 82 languages. It supports printed and cursive writing, with or without a stylus. This is a useful complement to touchscreen typing or voice input.

G. Geo-tagging capabilities

Mobile systems keep track of the auditor’s location GPS. This helps the organizations track the auditor’s journey for better data quality.

 H. Offline functionality

Input data in remote locations with no data connectivity, and sync it with the database. This offline functionality is made possible by a pre-loaded survey application on the field personnel’s tablet.

 I. Costs and benefits

Every paper-based household survey consumes thousands of gallons of water and fuel. This waste can be prevented by adapting technology-based solutions. A pilot survey with a consultant and three field survey administrators for 1000 households in a district would cost 5000 rupees. (Stationary and color printing costs 5 rupees per survey, multiplied by 1000 surveys.) That 5000 rupees could buy a tablet with pre-loaded apps.

We do not need to factor into the per diems of the elaborate field team to come to the conclusion that digital surveys are a more cost effective approach. Every paisa matters in the field, since surpassing allotted budgets is are common in development projects.

We’ve helped over 150 partners collect over 100 million data points through our mobile data collection app Collect. Collect all sorts of data, including images and geo-coordinates, under the toughest field conditions with low battery and no internet.

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