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Mobile Government Observatory Visitors

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Stephane Boyera and Jose M. Alonso: W3C - World Wide Web Consortium

Interview conducted by Oleg Petrov, The World Bank

According to the ITU, the total number of mobile users worldwide as of late 2006 was about 2.7 billion and the number of internet users was just above 1.1 billion. Does this provide a strong case for leveraging the mobile   channel to dramatically improve access to public services to those who can  afford to use a personal or shared mobile phone (e.g. as in Village Phone programs)?

Clearly the answer is yes. In rural areas of Developing Countries, or for under-privileged population, while there no computer accessible, mobile phones are already available. For now, it is almost only for voice services and SMS, but the potential of being a platform for deploying eServices is huge. Contrary to most of other initiatives like low-cost laptops, the fact is that mobile networks are already deployed covering almost 90% of the world population, and economic model around phones and subscriptions are already running, which explains the incredible number of people having access today to a mobile phone. There are already statistics demonstrating that the change is actually happening;

Does this create an opportunity to connect in the near future the next two billion people to the benefits of e-government, e-health, e-education, e-banking and e-commerce?

As stated above, mobile phones have the potential to be the way to connect for the next 2 billions to ICT and to provide them eServices that are essential for development. However, while there are lots of successful stories demonstrating this potential, it is essential to concentrate resources on leveraging and building on these successful stories to create the conditions for development and deployment of a large number of services at a worldwide level.

What are the key constraints to making this vision a reality? What are the critical success factors?

Today, while there are lots of successful stories on how mobile applications could improve lives of common people, we are far from having hundreds of services available all over the World. For us, the critical success factor is to enable the next generation of Mobile Applications based on Web technologies.

Today all the success stories have been based on SMS applications.   The reason is that it is very cheap to send SMS, free to receive, and   all mobile phones have SMS capabilities. The principle is that the user sends an SMS to a specific phone number with some specific keywords, and receives back the answer as an SMS. Example of applications using this technology is m-banking in Africa.

However this technology has inherent limitations which prevent a large scale development deployment and availabilities of services:
•    Discoverability of services: People who are not aware of existing services have no way to find them, to find the right phone number to call and the right keywords to enter, and so on.
•    Interoperability between operators: While sending person-to-person SMS is not a problem between operators, sending SMS-data across operators is a clear limitation of this technology.  For example, m- banking systems always require that the users participating in a transaction (e.g. a transfer) are both subscribed to the same operator.
•    Lack of standardization for application development: there are no standardized platforms or programming languages and libraries to develop SMS applications. There are few free/open-source environments and few commercial ones, but the knowledge required to develop those applications is very specific to each platform.
•    Infrastructure requirements for hosting and deployment of SMS services: Each SMS-service needs its own specific infrastructure. Due to the above-mentioned interoperability problem, and also due to the lack of widely available and affordable hosting services, the setup and deployment of a new service requires a significant investment in infrastructure (a computer to host the application within the cover of the targeted operator, a GSM modem, a GSM subscription…) not particularly appropriate for the conditions in many Developing Countries (PC are expensive, electricity problem…).
•    Limited User Interaction: SMS applications are a perfect fit for simple query-based services. People are entering one or two keywords and get the answer. Given that there is no direct interaction, no online-help of any kind, people have to remember the keywords and the format to enter them, and so the list of these keywords has to be limited. Complex multi-cycles interactions in such stateless environment are almost impossible to implement. The availability of only “raw” text (no style or decoration techniques available) could also be a problem to attract user’s attention on important points.

At the opposite, the Web has its strengths in these exact limitations of SMS:

•    Discoverabilities of services: Search engines and portals are the natural existing ways to discover existing and new services.
•    Operator Independency: As far as the operator is providing a data service plan with full Web access, there is no interoperability problem.
•    Easy development of content and services: the success of the Web has been based on the (still growing) availabilities of huge numbers of resources provided by individuals for the community. Given the simplicity of the standardized technologies (HTML, CSS…) and the number of free authoring/development tools, it is very easy to develop content and services.
•    Easy hosting and deployment: Once the application is developed with above-mentioned tools and technologies, there are thousands of very inexpensive / free hosting services over the Web.
•    Good user interface: It is very easy to create complex interaction between the user and the application through multiple cycles.

W3C aim is to capture the needs and requirements of the Developing World and make appropriate adaptation of existing Mobile Web technologies to fit with these needs and requirements. The major questions to answer are of two types:

•    Technological: what is the Device market and what are the average device characteristics existing today in the Developing World? What is the impact of using low-cost devices on the design of Mobile Web applications?
•    Cultural: What are the social, cultural, regional factors to take into account when developing eServices to make them relevant and useful for the targeted non-technology aware communities? This can be defined as specific usability aspects to take into account in the service development cycle.

To be successful, this approach has also to integrate two other steps:
•    Community building: Understanding the required adaptations to make on the existing Mobile Web technologies will require the involvement of both experts in technologies and, above all, those at a local level who have field expertise. One of the first steps of W3C has been to outreach to these communities to involve them in this work by developing its offices network in India, China, Southern Africa, and Latin America (read about W3C World Offices at [4]). W3C also started a series of workshops on the topic of Mobile Web for Development. The first one was in Bangalore, India in December 2006 [5]. The next ones, in 2008, will be in Africa and Latin America.
•    Capacity Building: For large-scale development, deployment and wide adoption of eServices, it is fundamental to empower local people with the appropriate expertise to make them technologically self- sustainable. This will be done by training and certificating the existing IT sector, and by setting up appropriate curriculum in Universities or Engineering Schools.

How exactly can Mobile Government transform the lives of common people in developing and transition countries? What are best examples of such impact?

As mentioned before, there are lots of stories on how eServices on mobile phones have transformed the lives of people in Developing countries. The most well known examples are m-banking (providing banking services in areas where there is no bank [2]) and business services (e.g. fishermen in India [3]). So clearly Mobile services are changing people lives when they are leveraging their activities or filling a need. That said, those services are not government services. The reasons are mostly because it is still very rare that eGovernment projects consider the mobile channel, particularly in Developing Countries. However, the potential is clearly here. If any mandatory interactions between citizens and the state could be managed via mobile phones, it will save people time and money (no need to go to the closest state office) and offer them services, which do not exist today in rural areas.

What are the types of services which can be easily provided on mobile   phones/devices ("quick wins") and what the more strategic high-impact services ("killer applications")?

It is very difficult to answer such a question. Depending on each country situation, on the level of development, on the infrastructure, on the culture, on the needs and requirements of 
people, and the existing laws and the obligation of interaction  between citizens and the state, the killer apps and quick wins will  not be the same.

Should the government agencies and the development community take this opportunity to drastically improve access to information and services much more seriously?

Yes. Again, it is very rare that governments consider the mobile channel when delivering services while in many countries this is the only way to reach all their citizens. The development community starts to understand the potential of mobile phones, but is still facing the problem of the limitation of the SMS technology to easily develop and provide services.

How should governments and donors change the way they do business to take full advantage of mobile technologies?

Governments have to create the conditions of the emergence of new services that would both improve people lives, and create a business for the service developer. Actions have to be taken at different levels; here are a few examples:

  • Education and training: IT sectors should be trained and certified on Mobile Web technologies. High-level Students should have curriculum on Mobile Web technologies, and mobile applications in general instead of offering them PC-based education.
  • eGovernment framework have to integrate the mobile channel at the  requirements phases.
  • Government should require major service providers to be able to deliver their content also to mobile phones, in a similar way as accessibility is now mandatory in many countries.

What is the role of the private sector? Are there successful business models (e.g. PPP) for private sector companies to support value-added m-government services?

In order to enable Web access from mobile phones, a joint effort has to take place between mobile operators and government. Only operators could work on appropriate data service plan that would be affordable by all, and only governments can define the appropriate environment for mobile operator to work (regulation, frequency availabilities...). So a joint action between them is the key to success.

What has been the role of W3C in this area?

W3C has been working since more than 3 years with major mobile players (operators, handset manufacturers, browser makers,...) in the  W3C Mobile Web Initiative [6] to leverage Web access from mobile  phones. This concerted industry initiative has led to the ongoing take-off of mobile browsing in the Developed World. Since about a year, W3C has been exploring the specificities of the Mobile Web in Developing Countries: how to enable the next generation of Mobile applications, based on Web technologies to build on existing success stories and leverage large scale low-cost development, deployment and availabilities of eServices. We are focusing on acquiring knowledge and querying the relevant communities to understand what should be launched. A draft work program is under discussion [7] and may lead to the creation of a new activity soon.

Since about also a year, W3C has been investigating its potential role in eGovernment. W3C is working to understand specific government and citizens' needs related to eGovernment services and to identify eGovernment aspects that put Web interoperability at risk, to suggest  how governments can deliver better and more efficient services  through computer technologies, and to coordinate discussions and  actions for possible future efforts of the Consortium on eGovernment.

After two workshops, meetings and discussions with many stakeholders, we're considering to initiate an Interest Group (kind of discussion forum) at W3C in a few months time, to discuss specially about:

•    Best Practices and Guidelines on how to use existing W3C standards to produce better Government Web sites
•    How to achieve more Government Openness and Transparency using Open Web Standards and Semantic Web

We think that standards compliant web sites are quality web sites and Government should aim to produce those and deliver the best possible services for their citizens. We also think governments have some unique requirements and we want those requirements to be reflected in the standards we produce. As said before, a joint effort between the industry and governments is needed to succeed. We expect both to participate of this idea.

Work conducted in the eGovernment and Mobile fields at W3C shows that synergies come up very often, especially when talking about Developing Countries so we also expect to continue cooperative efforts in this front.
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