Follow Us:

WSIS online debate: More research on impact of mobile phones for development needed

© Cliff Parnell

UNESCO’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Platform hosted an online debate from 11 April to 2 May and attracted over 2000 experts around the world. This debate was concerned with the impact of mobile telephony on social and economic development. Moderator David Souter emphasized the needs of more research on this topic.

The debate as a whole illustrated the difficulties of distinguishing between social and economic impacts. Three main areas of use and impact were observed. The first of these was social networking - the use of mobile phones to extend and make more effective use of relationships between individuals and within communities. The second area was economic value - the use of phones to enhance business opportunities, to expedite purchases and remittances, and to obtain funds at times of need and so reduce vulnerability. The third one concerned the implementation of interventions by governments and donors that made explicit use of mobile phones to enhance social welfare.

The impact of mobile phones clearly varies between individuals, and it also varies over time. As more and more people acquire mobiles, network factors, such as critical mass, come into play, enabling more services to become cost-effective. As technology develops, too, the mobile phone has evolved from a device for voice telephony to a multipurpose handset that includes mobile Internet and social networking amongst its functions. It is clear from the debate that more research is needed into the impact of mobile phones. The pace of adoption and of change in technology and services is so fast that we cannot rely on evidence from as recent as three years ago to give us reliable indicators of what is happening today. More research is needed in many different contexts and communities, including longitudinal studies that observe changes in mobile phone behaviour and impact over time within particular social groups. UNESCO and other agencies can contribute to that work.