digitized markets

Mobile Services Forecast

It seems like every day we hear more about the endless development possibilities offered by mobile technology beyond the basics of connectivity and communication. “The Economist” recently offered a good round-up of some of the most innovative and clever new services being offered. Rather than complicated applications for expensive smartphones, these initiatives focus on offering solutions for everyday problems in poorer countries where cheap mobile phones are becoming increasingly popular.As the article points out, even in poorer countries about two thirds of the population usually have access to a mobile phone. This has sparked a rise in mobile services for cheaper phones that go beyond simple voice calling and texting, similar to the boom in mobile application development with the growing popularity of smartphones in wealthier countries. Though the article is quick to point out that the number of people actually using these services is still relatively small: “even among young people in South-East Asia (a tech-friendly lot) only 8% had used more than “voice-services” according to a poll by LIRNEasia [a think tank in Sri Lanka].”

Still, many of these services are growing their user base and given the convenience—and sometimes lifesaving—services they provide, it’s easy to see why. Here are a few of the mobile services that caught our eye: --mPedigree: Currently offered in Ghana and Nigeria, where the fake-drug trade is a concern, this service allows users to text a serial number on the packaging of their medicine and receive a response in seconds indicating whether or not it’s genuine and safe. Not only does the service have the potential to save lives, it’s also free for users; pharmaceutical companies foot the bill in the interest of stopping counterfeiters. --Dialog Tradenet: Among the many mobile trading platforms being offered, Dialog allows farmers in Sri Lanka to check prices and text in offers. Farmer’s Friend is a similar service being offered in Uganda. Though many of the earliest trading platforms focused on agriculture, newer services are beginning to branch out, some offering job listings or selling tickets to sporting and cultural events over the phone. --M-PESA: Founded in Kenya in 2007, this service allows users to pay for bills or receive their salaries through a mobile phone. In a region—Sub-Saharan Africa—where it’s more common to have a cell phone than a bank account, M-PESA currently has 13 million users. Similar services are already being offered in upwards of 40 countries.

Of course, this kind of mobile service development faces various challenges, a few of which the article highlights—bad regulation, bureaucracy, overreliance on donor money, no path towards growth. But, under the right circumstances, it’s the kind of mobile development that could eventually change lives in poorer countries.

Learning a Language on the Web

A couple newspaper articles over the last six months have featured innovative online language learning websites and platforms. I thought I'd give you a round up of the seemingly best or most intriguing models out there. On the most basic end of services is , an online market for digital recordings. Individuals can post passages that they are interested in hearing spoken aloud and any interested respondent can post a recording of the passage read aloud.

A more formal language learning networking tool is MyLanguageExchange.com. There are other models for this service out there but this site seems to have gained the most traction, making it especially easy to connect with a diverse group of foreigners that speak the language that you would like to learn. The service is extremely straightforward---the site simply maintains a database of people who know certain languages but would like to learn others. The website claims that it has 1.5 million users that speak some 115 languages. Not too shabby.

Probably the most engaging website out there is livemocha.com, a website which facilitates language learning by connecting language learning buddies from around the world and then providing them with a platform to exchange messages, vide-chat and correct each other. A friend of mine has been using the platform to brush up on her russian---she took it for seven years in elementary school and secondary school but hasn't needed to speak it in years. Though her language learning buddy can be a bit hard on her at times, scowling or laughing when she makes a pretty big mistake, she's much preferred the online exercise to book learning or other interactive alternative like Rosetta Stone.

Though some of the services cost money for the gold-standard version of their platform, the price is arguably a bargain when compared to language classes taught in person or high-priced software packages.

I will continue to keep my eyes peeled for any new and innovative services that come my way.

I've found that language professors too are trying to incorporate these platforms into their curriculum.

Mental Health Mobile Applications

Mobile phone applications are being developed at a rapidly to help supplement and or bolster treatment options for mental health patients. Though the idea is not novel, I thought the continued buzz about different options out there and the ever-diversifying marketplace of applications warranted our attention. In May, NPR aired a noteworthy piece on this trend, providing interested listeners with an informed survey on the methodologies and products available to patients. In part, the piece was prompted by a number of nationally sponsored studies which explore how the computing power of mobile phones can help patients monitor moods, follow treatment recommendations and manage stress. According to researchers, the mobile applications can provide new insight into a patient's emotional variability and promote patient participation in therapy sessions. In particular, the applications are being used to target certain conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia. Some researchers hope eventually to expand use of the technology to treat anxiety, phobias, eating disorders and other mental health issues.

To learn more about this push for mental health mobile apps, listen to the full story here.

What is a Mobile Economy? Let's Look to Africa

In May, the research firm Generator Research published a report in which they projected that the worldwide market for mobile payments will grow to 633.4 billion by 2014; the report was picked up by Gigaom and a number of mobile-savvy blogs, getting enough dissemination to make most entrepreneurs drool over the possibilities for growth and implementation. While entrepreneurs may be drooling over this, the question remains, what does a mobile economy really mean for most of us? Later last month, I happened upon an interview with Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In the interview, Ethan suggests that if we want to know what a mobile economy might look like, we should probably look to Africa for a clue. Without an established and easily accessible banking infrastructure, much of Africa has leapfrogged the former infrastructure and, consequently, embraced mobile payments.

Throughout the interview, Zuckerman offers up gems of insights about mobile markets and economies and what's in it for us. He's also careful to point out barriers to entry and other factors which may continue to discourage use; most notably, mobile payment carrier charges which can account for as much as 50% of the original payment.

You can listen to the full interview here.

iPhone Banking

JP Morgan Chase's new Banking application for the iPhone makes managing your personal finances unimaginably convenient. It may be that the days of rushing to the bank during your lunch hour and spending countless minutes waiting for a teller are over. With Chase's new application, you can take a photo of any personal check (with your phone) and deposit it through the applications; it's just a question of selecting the desired checking account, entering the amount you that you wish to deposit and documenting the front and back of the check with the iPhone Camera----just like that, you get to skip the lines and get money in the bank. Moreover, the update released lat week allows you to conduct person-to-person QuickPay transactions with only the payee's e-mail address. And, while you're at it, use the app to check your balance. To my mind, this app is simply an easy, free, convenient fix. If still think this sounds dubious, then just check it out here.

Toxin Sensing Mobile Phones

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have just finished the first phase of an initiative to develop a mobile sensor capable of detecting toxic chemicals in our environment. With a small startup called Rhevision Inc., the chief researcher on the project, Michael Sailor, has devised the sensor, a porous flake of silicon which changes color when it interacts with specific chemicals. By manipulating the shape of the pores, the researchers can tune individual spots on the silicon flake to respond to specific chemical traits.

According to Sailor, the sensor "works a lot like a nose. We have a set of sensory cells that detect specific chemical properties. It’s the pattern of activation across the array of sensors that the brain recognizes as a particular smell. In the same way, the pattern of color changes across the surface of the chip will reveal the identity of the chemical.” At this point in the development phase, the sensors can be used to identify methyl salicylate and a handful of other chemical agents used in chemical weapons. However, it's Sailor's hope that the sensors could be used to distinguish between hundreds of different compounds.

Using a fine-scale detail in the optical array, the team uses a new kind of supermacro lens that works more like an animal’s eye than a camera lens, allowing a them to achieve much more detailed readings.

“The beauty of this technology is that the number of sensors contained in one of our arrays is determined by the pixel resolution of the cell phone camera. With the megapixel resolution found in cell phone cameras today, we can easily probe a million different spots on our silicon sensor simultaneously. So we don’t need to wire up a million individual sensors,” Sailor said. “We only need one. This greatly simplifies the manufacturing process because it allows us to piggyback on all the technology development that has gone into making cell phone cameras lighter, smaller, and cheaper.”

Eventually the research team will push to develop a new network of toxin-sensing mobile phones with their innovative sensors. Much in the way the quake quake-catcher network works, individual mobile phone users equipped with these sensors would form a coordinated network of sensors; and, in the event of a chemical leak or toxic exposure, scientists could use the coordinated network to map toxic exposure as it unfolded.

Toxin Sensing Mobile Phones

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have just finished the first phase of an initiative to develop a mobile sensor capable of detecting toxic chemicals in our environment. With a small startup called Rhevision Inc., the chief researcher on the project, Michael Sailor, has devised the sensor, a porous flake of silicon which changes color when it interacts with specific chemicals. By manipulating the shape of the pores, the researchers can tune individual spots on the silicon flake to respond to specific chemical traits.

According to Sailor, the sensor "works a lot like a nose. We have a set of sensory cells that detect specific chemical properties. It’s the pattern of activation across the array of sensors that the brain recognizes as a particular smell. In the same way, the pattern of color changes across the surface of the chip will reveal the identity of the chemical.” At this point in the development phase, the sensors can be used to identify methyl salicylate and a handful of other chemical agents used in chemical weapons. However, it's Sailor's hope that the sensors could be used to distinguish between hundreds of different compounds.

Using a fine-scale detail in the optical array, the team uses a new kind of supermacro lens that works more like an animal’s eye than a camera lens, allowing a them to achieve much more detailed readings.

“The beauty of this technology is that the number of sensors contained in one of our arrays is determined by the pixel resolution of the cell phone camera. With the megapixel resolution found in cell phone cameras today, we can easily probe a million different spots on our silicon sensor simultaneously. So we don’t need to wire up a million individual sensors,” Sailor said. “We only need one. This greatly simplifies the manufacturing process because it allows us to piggyback on all the technology development that has gone into making cell phone cameras lighter, smaller, and cheaper.”

Eventually the research team will push to develop a new network of toxin-sensing mobile phones with their innovative sensors. Much in the way the quake quake-catcher network works, individual mobile phone users equipped with these sensors would form a coordinated network of sensors; and, in the event of a chemical leak or toxic exposure, scientists could use the coordinated network to map toxic exposure as it unfolded.

Twilio, San Francisco

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4KaV3eiH3s&hl=en_US&fs=1&] According to The Business Insider, the Silicon Valley startup Twilio is the hot silicon valley startup to watch this year. Though I've heard a lot of humming about this company over the last year, I wasn't exactly sure of what they do or what they offer. So I snooped around their website for a while. According to the Twilio team, Twilio is about solving problems; direct from the website, they tell us in their usual casual manner: We're always building web applications, and sometimes we want those apps to be able to interact with phone callers. Maybe we want a customer to be able to call in and get information, or maybe we need to coordinate our employees more efficiently. Before Twilio, you would have had to learn some foreign telecom programming languages, or set up an entire stack of PBX software to do this. At which point, you'd say "aw, forget it!" Twilio lets you use your existing web development skills, existing code, existing servers, existing databases and existing karma to solve these problems quickly and reliably. We provide the infrastructure, you provide the business logic via HTTP, and together we rule the world.

In short, Twilio is like an easy-access outlet mall of solutions for all of your programming problems. I see why Business Insider is keen on them, good problem-solvers are hard to find.

Quake Catcher Network

quake catcher In the wake of the unlucky string of earthquakes around the world, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the Quake-Catcher Network (QCN). QCN is a collaborative initiative for developing the world's largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers.

The premise of the network is pretty simple and the QCN website does a pretty good job of simplifying it for us laymen: Many laptops currently have a Sudden Motion Sensors or Active Protection Systems inside them. While these sensors were originally designed to help protect the computer's hard disk in case they are dropped or shaken, seismologists can use them to detect earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links participating laptops into a single coordinated network that can detect and analyze earthquakes faster and better than ever before. The laptop network and desktop network is the least expensive seismic network in the world. Because volunteers (individuals like you) donate idle CPU time on laptops with these sensors already built in, each additional sensor doesn’t cost a thing!

Volunteers simply download the software and allow it to idle while they use their computer as they usually would. Their computers are connected to the QCN over the internet. Typically, their personal laptop monitors the data locally for new high-energy signals and only sends a single time and a single significance measurement for strong new signals. When the server receives a bunch of these times and significance measurements all at once, then it is likely that an earthquake is happening. If the server receives only a time and significance measurement from one laptop, then the server knows the laptop was shaken by something smaller and more local (did they drop the laptop or did somebody slam the door?).

As with any initiative this ambitious, the concept only works if people participate and join the network.

If you want to join Quake Catcher Network, you can learn more about it here.

All City Art

Semaphore Mobile recently developed a new application, All City Art, essentially a handheld mobile guide to global street art. Addictive and accessible, the application is ripe for graffiti enthusiasts and the average voyeur alike. Easily tag and upload street art spots you find and discover new ones you haven't seen yet. And, connect the dots. With splashes of urban visuals spanning the globe, the application encourages users to make connections and learn about artists via their biographies. Check out Banksy's early work in England and his transatlantic antics in New York. Or, trace Swoon's evolution on the lower east side.

The fact that my nephew first clued me into this application may account for part of its attraction----it makes art accessible and brings global voices into focus, pulling together trends, new ideas and international movements and styles.

All City Art

Semaphore Mobile recently developed a new application, All City Art, essentially a handheld mobile guide to global street art. Addictive and accessible, the application is ripe for graffiti enthusiasts and the average voyeur alike. Easily tag and upload street art spots you find and discover new ones you haven't seen yet. And, connect the dots. With splashes of urban visuals spanning the globe, the application encourages users to make connections and learn about artists via their biographies. Check out Banksy's early work in England and his transatlantic antics in New York. Or, trace Swoon's evolution on the lower east side.

The fact that my nephew first clued me into this application may account for part of its attraction----it makes art accessible and brings global voices into focus, pulling together trends, new ideas and international movements and styles.

Mobile App Developers in Africa

This week John Sutter has an interesting piece on CNN.com which teases out mobile app developers formidable contributions to solving some of Africans biggest problems. Sutter focuses on the problem of opaque markets in information while discussing the common experience facing the average farmer in Africa---farmers rarely reap the benefit of high market prices as they are hedged out by a profiteering middleman. Without access to information about market prices, farmers often find themselves without the tools or the gumption to demand more money for their offering. For mobile developers, however, the fix was easy---just create a simple, straightforward application for exchanging market information via the mobile phone. At the end of April, farmers in Kenya will benefit from just such an innovation. Through, a text message-based system that lets farmers send questions to a computer, a machine will match up farmers' queries with a database of information about local dairy markets -- and then spit answers back in 140 characters or less. Thus, ensuring that farmers get their fair share.

What's brilliant and novel about such applications is that they are simple, accessible and affordable. Most are funcitonal on the average phone and can be downloaded for less than $25 --which is pretty Exciting.

Mobile App Lab in Africa

The World Bank in partnership with Nokia is set to create a mobile application laboratory in Afria in an effort to push innovation in the field, while providing special support to innovative solutions that address the diverse challenges facing Africa. According to Tim Kelly, the lead IT specialist at the World Bank's InfoDev global grant, the world bank hopes to "to increase the competitiveness of innovative enterprises in the mobile content and applications area, and to ensure that locally relevant applications are created to meet growing developing country user demands."

Through the laboratories that will be set up in various host countries, the program will assist local mobile applications entrepreneurs, helping them to start and scale their own business. In particular, the program will feature training and testing laboratories, identification and piloting of potential applications, incubation for startups and potential linkages with operators.

For the time being the laboratories will be situated in select African countries, however, the long term aim of the program is to cover all of sub-saharan africa. We'll update with more about this exciting program in the coming weeks.

OPen Culture

At least once in the last year, I have marveled about i Tunes U or mobile language learning or free music or movie content. All this yelping about free resources, doesn't do you much good if you can't actually find them. When I found myself stuck with the springtime flu this weekend, I decided to do something productive with my 72 hours sniffling, house-bound sentence. I'd try to learn something, listen to a new podcast or brush up on my foreign language skills. It didn't take me long to find OpenCulture.com, a one-stop-shop for free learning content, whether it's a Fellini film or a German Language Learning tutorial from Deutsche Welle Radio. For those of you who are less excited about spending your weekend learning, there are also links to tons of interesting culture aggregators----whether it's a site that streams old films, provides links to free audiobooks, or provides a bunch of easy how-to's for everything from DIY remodeling to cooking. Check it out here. And for those of you with an iPhone, there's an App.

Add a new line to your Smart Phone

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMXlCpcc6RA&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0] A new application, Line2, is shaking up established cell phone user models by allowing an iPhone-user (for now---Android users should get their fill in a few months) to add a second line to their mobile phone, therein enabling them to establish a separate contact list, voicemail, etc.

Toktumi, the company behind the Application, envisions that mobile phone users will use the app to create an easy separation between their personal and professional lives, distributing the line2 number to business contacts and retaining their original number for family and friends.

For those of you pinching minutes at the end of each month, you'll be especially delighted by line2's dual-mode functionality which allows you to make phone calls over your carrier's network or over the internet; in fact, anytime you have access to a hotspot, line2 places calls over wifi.

After the first month, satisfied users will have to pay a reasonable 15 dollar a month subscription fee. To learn more about the service, check out the video above.

Digital Capital Week, Washington DC

The city and the people that brought us the Apps for Democracy Model for service innovation in 2009, will launch the 2010 Digital Capital Week in June of 2010; The Purpose of Digital Capital Week is to strengthen the capital region’s digital economy via a 10 day series of events focused on creativity, technology, entrepreneurship, marketing, content creation, and innovation. In anticipation of the event, DC in partnership with iStrategy Labs has spearheaded its own mini-census in an effort to explore the potential to conduct and complete a mobile and innovative census data collection process; the US in the mean time is gearing up for the costly and labor intensive process of collecting data for the 2010 US census. Thus far, they have collected over 1500 responses. Though they do have a ways to go, it will be interesting to see where technology is at in 2020 for the next census and the role that mobile technologies will play.

Digital Capital Week, Washington DC

The city and the people that brought us the Apps for Democracy Model for service innovation in 2009, will launch the 2010 Digital Capital Week in June of 2010; The Purpose of Digital Capital Week is to strengthen the capital region’s digital economy via a 10 day series of events focused on creativity, technology, entrepreneurship, marketing, content creation, and innovation. In anticipation of the event, DC in partnership with iStrategy Labs has spearheaded its own mini-census in an effort to explore the potential to conduct and complete a mobile and innovative census data collection process; the US in the mean time is gearing up for the costly and labor intensive process of collecting data for the 2010 US census. Thus far, they have collected over 1500 responses. Though they do have a ways to go, it will be interesting to see where technology is at in 2020 for the next census and the role that mobile technologies will play.

Taiwan's Policy to Promote e-Books

The Office to Promote the Digital Content Industry, an agency that helps develop an industry worth tens of billions of US dollars, was unveiled on September 29, 2009. The establishment of this agency is testimony to Taiwan’s intention to develop its e-book industry. Xu Qing-qi, Director of the Office to Promote the Digital Content Industry responsible for the development of the digital content industry, and Vice President of the Institute for Information Industry, notes the government plans to invest NT$2.134 billion over five years to develop Taiwan’s digital content industry, with the aim of establishing 2-3 Chinese-language e-book content exchange centers by 2013. To construct the infrastructure, the Office has decided to adopt the e-PUB international format standard and establish e-PUB planning taskforce. Once a standard format is decided, the digital content in the e-book platform trading centers may be readily exchanged, making it easy for carriers such as e-readers, mobiles and MIDs to read the content as long as files are converted.

Development of the digital publishing industry is also one of the Office’s top priorities. The Office hopes that it can create sufficient value for Taiwan’s digital publishing industry to play a major role in the world by 2013. Other goals include creating a society in which people enjoy reading and leading the world in the publication of Chinese-language materials. In the digital publishing industry chain, Taiwan has a competitive edge in the R&D of e-paper and readers. However, there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of the content of e-books, content trading centers and innovative applications.

by Xu Qing-qi, Vice President, Institute for Information Industry, Taiwan, Compiled by Hu Xiu Zhu

A How to Guide for Mobile Internet Calls

Want to avoid heinous roaming rates and sky-high mobile bills--the type capable of inducing an early-heart attack--when travelling abroad and using your mobile phone? Here's a useful article in the NYTimes giving step by step advice on how to avoid these noisy bills. The guide runs through popular VOIP services such as Skype, Skype Lite and Fring, and extends its review to lesser-known services such as Truphone. Enjoy.

New telehealthcare service in the US

Next year, OptumHealth, will give patients in the U.S. the ability to connect with primary care physicians online through NowClinic, an online platform that uses video chat. For 45 dollars, patients with or without insurance can have a consultation with a primary physician, avoiding the stress and hassle of making appointments. OptumHealth will first offer their service in Texas and will expand the service on a state by state basis; according to OptumHealth “180 counties do not have enough physicians, 70 percent of patients cannot obtain a same-day visit with their primary care doctor, and 79 percent of emergency room visits are for routine problem” so the service may help to extend services to patients seeking care in underserviced areas. That said, the service itself is receiving extensive criticism from professional within the medical field. Professionals feel that by removing the physical component of a medical exam, doctors may miss some health-indicators and nonverbal clues. Read the full New York Times article on the service here.