Mobile Applications of the Future

A while ago Google’s Android Developer’s Challenge announced the first round of winners for creating cool mobile applications. The competition elicited 1,788 submissions, of which a panel of judges picked 50 winners who each won a $25,000 award.

Reviewing the Top 50 mobile applications slideshow (pdf) gives us a good sense of the reach of mobile applications in the future and how the NGO sector has and can continue to benefit from these developments.

Along with many of the usual suspects – location-based social networking, mapping with photos, and contextual games – there are quite a few applications that cover completely new territory and have a huge potential for the NGO sector.

  • Weather and public safety related emergency alert systems seem quite pervasive, with 5 applications (Em-Radar, Lready Emergency Manager, Safety Net, Free Family Watch, and Weather Channel) covering a spectrum of needs.
  • Alert applications can be extended to assist in large scale emergency response and humanitarian relief efforts, especially since some of them include two-way communication. Device-independence and universal carrier support are prerequisites, as is the need for the text-message based communication channels being available after major disasters. However, there are definite possibilities for humanitarian relief agencies in these applications.
  • Despite the Developer’s Challenge mentioning humanitarian benefit as a focus area, carbon footprint is the only social action covered in this challenge round with applications like eco2go and PiggyBack helping to track and reduce our carbon footprints.
  • A notable absentee is any payment related application, which is probably more due to legal and financial complexity than technical capability. Payments, money transfers, and donations through mobile phones are already an old story in the international development world (Google Tsunami SMS Donations or Microfinance & Cell phone for proof).
  • Developer’s Challenge has two applications that use a cell phone’s built-in camera as a scanner – AndroidScanner uses barcode scans for a comparison shopping application while BioWallet is an authentication system based on iris scanning.
  • Barcode scanning using mobile phones is an area laden with opportunities, some of which have already been tapped into in the field of microfinance. For instance, ekgaon’s CAM framework is used to scan paper-forms using cell phone cameras and is currently being used by small self-help groups in Tamilnadu, India.
  • And finally a nomination for the never-intended-for-that-use category. MyCloset is a mobile inventory management application to log, register, and coordinate items in your closet. At first blush, one does wonder who in this world has the time and inclination to snap pictures of every item in their closet AND keep track of what they wore every day. But after the initial bewilderment passes, one can also see the need for inventory management in many areas of the NGO world. How about using this application for tracking donated goods at a local thrift store? Or using photos to keep track of recipients and the relief supplies they received during natural or man-made disasters?

In many ways, cell phones have become the sole communication and connectivity device for millions in the developing world. Therefore, it is imperative that we move away from thinking of a cell phone as another connected computer and treat it as a totally new device with its own specificities and peculiarities. Reviewing these applications provided that expanded think-space, which is actually my excuse for spending so much time thinking about MyCloset.

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