The future of money is mobile

Paul Raven @ 14-07-2011

Yet another post where I pretty much point you in the direction of a long-form piece elsewhere and say “go read”*; Wired UK is running an article on the imminent boom in mobile technologies in Africa.

Africa seems to be leapfrogging over the cable-infrastructure phase of internet adoption and going straight to the handset-centric model… and given the continent’s economy has continued to grow while the rest of the “developed” world has languished in recession, it’s not daft to imagine that the big developments in handset-as-platform will be happening there first. And given the causes of that afore-mentioned recession, peer-to-peer banking systems backed with a useable commodity (in this case airtime) are something we should surely be keeping a close eye on…

The devices have supplanted not just the country’s fixed-line telephony industry, but also the manner in which money is spent. Companies led by Vodafone’s mobile-payments giant M-PESA have filled the vacuum left by the moribund local banks in a country in which, according to the World Bank, around half the population live under the $1.25 (77p)-per-day poverty line. One such company is PesaPal, a web-and mobile-payment platform set up by Agosta Liko, 35, that integrates with Kenya’s main mobile-payment services.

M-PESA (M for mobile; “pesa” is Swahili for money) emerged from a joint project between the UK’s Department for International Development and local operator Safaricom. Its model was to use the existing network of mobile-credit sellers that had sprung up in petrol stations, general stores and bars across the country. People were already exchanging airtime as a way of transferring money. M-PESA formalised the value exchange, turning thousands of sales agents into micro bank branches and millions of mobile phones into wire-transfer services. Users can store up to 50,000 shillings (£350) in their account, with Safaricom taking a transaction fee of between 30 and 150 shillings whenever a user sends money. In 2010 there were 9.5 million M-PESA accounts, compared to 8 million traditional bank accounts in Kenya.

On a similar note, the Stateside version of Wired reports that PayPal are making their own move into the mobile payments sphere with an Android app that will let you transfer money by tapping two enabled phones together. Exactly what use that will be in countries where person to person transactions have become rare and inherently suspect, I have no idea – perhaps that situation will be reversed somewhat by these developments? – but it’s a sufficiently striking bit of symbolism that I want to buy something off some random phone-toting stranger right now, just so I can try it out.

[ * Oh, you want excuses? Well, I have a fuzzy head from what I suspect will be a festival-season plague caught from one or another of my friends who went to Sonisphere. And, um, I may be reading a lot of stuff about EVE, which is pretty fascinating down-the-rabbithole stuff. So, yeah. There you go. ]


The Cyclenet: Bangladeshi InfoLadies bring web benefits to the unwired

Paul Raven @ 24-05-2010

Here’s another story that’s all over the shop (I got it via both MeFi and Chairman Bruce), that reminded me a fair bit of Geoff Ryman’s Air: a report at The Guardian about “InfoLadies” in Bangladesh, young women who saddle up on a bicycle with a netbook, a mobile phone and a bunch of medical supplies in order to sidestep corrupt infrastructure, deliver useful knowledge to rural citizens, and transform their lives in the process.

“Ask me about the pest that’s infecting your crop, common skin diseases, how to seek help if your husband beats you or even how to stop having children, and I may have a solution,” says a confident Akhter.

“An InfoLady’s netbook is loaded with content especially compiled and translated in local Bangla language,” says Mohammed Forhad Uddin of D.Net, a not-for-profit research organisation that is pioneering access to livelihood information. “It provides answers and solutions to some of the most common problems faced by people in villages.”

[…]

The success of the InfoLadies is making the failure of the state more noticeable. “We have corruption and political interference in every sector,” says Gullal Singha, a state executive officer of Sagatha sub-district. Sagatha is severely affected by soil erosion and is home to the poorest of the poor. “Even the ultra-poor entitled for food relief are segregated as Bangladesh Nationalist Party poor or Awami League poor,” says Aziz Mostafa, an elected representative of a local civic body.

This explains why thousands of Bangladeshis have embraced InfoLadies and their laptops, which are making lives easier and arguably better. “In most cases I’m able to provide an instant solution using my database,” says Luich, who is educated to secondary school level. For skin infections, she sends the patient’s picture to her organisation’s call centre in Dhaka, where experts help with diagnosis and advise hospital referral if required.

“In many places there are no doctors for miles, and fatalities for easily curable diseases are very high. An InfoLady can save lives,” says Shahadat Hossain of NGO Udayan Sabolombi Shangstha. Government statistics show Bangladesh has only three doctors per 10,000 people.

This is certainly a very disruptive thing to be happening, and it looks as if the disruption is largely positive so far, at least for the villagers themselves – I’m not sure the minor functionaries cut out of the baksheesh loops will be so pleased, for instance. But there’s a kind of technological (or maybe informational) colonialism occuring here, too; it’s not inconceivable that the men and clerics so discomforted by the InfoLadies might find that many of the changes taking place are not to their liking… and that could get ugly. The state won’t like being made to look superfluous to people who already consider it to be little more than an apparatus of exploitation, either; I’m not sure which I feel less sorry for.

How long before the InfoLadies get a sense of personal kudos and cultural agency about their transformative outsider status, start wearing a lot of American Apparel threads and riding fixies? Less snarkily, how many rural daughters will want not just to learn new things from the InfoLadies, but to follow in their footsteps? And how many traditionalist fathers will accept that? Change is a double-edged sword; in Bangladesh and other developign nations, the incredible speed with which cultural change will occur (as the world and its wide web encroaches closer) will be individually empowering, but collectively destabilising. Choppy seas ahead, captain.


First mobile phone botnet spotted in the wild?

Paul Raven @ 21-07-2009

mobile phoneEver find yourself wishing your phone could run the same software as your home computer? Well, at least they are now both susceptible to becoming part of a botnet, as the first known centrally-controlled mobile phone virus has been spotted in the wild:

Sexy Space uses text messages reading “A very sexy girl, Try it now!” to jump between phones. The messages contains a link that, when clicked, asks the user to download software which, once installed, sends the same message to contacts stored in the phone.

Similar SMS viruses have been seen before. But Sexy Space is unusual in that it also communicates with a central server and can thus be controlled by the hackers who created it – the feature that gives conventional botnets their power. If the network of infected phones is seen to be responding to remote commands, it can be described as a true botnet.

Brilliant. Given that recent research suggests more than 50% of computer users have clicked on a link in a spam email, we can evidently look forward to our back pockets being the next frontier for badly-spelled importunings from bootleg pharmacies and an inconceivable number of non-existent Nigerian government officials. [image by Bah Humbug]

[The first smug Apple fanboy to post an evangelical comment will incur the wrath of my crack team of Estonian DDOS experts. If the capability to not have to use your common sense to avoid viruses is really worth the hardware premium you pay for the privilege, I suggest basking silently in the glow of your own self-satisfaction.]


Why hasn’t mobile banking spread out from Africa?

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2009

Kenyan woman with mobile phoneIf there’s been one good thing to come out of the global financial shitstorm, it’s that all of a sudden we’re looking afresh at established institutions and questioning whether, actually, there aren’t much better ways we could be doing things.

Point in case: mobile peer-to-peer banking, which is going gangbusters in parts of Africa but has yet to make much of a splash beyond that continent. The Guardian‘s Victor Keegan takes a closer look, and wonders whether it might be the key to saving the UK’s continually beleagured, semi-nationalised and utterly mismanaged postal service:

If you want to see pioneering experiments in banking you will have to go to a surprising place – Africa. And the question is, why can’t we do the same here? If the Post Office is looking for a new role, it need look no farther. In Kenya, customers of M-Pesa can send money to each other from around the country in 14 seconds flat using their mobiles. In the UK it takes three days, thereby endowing the banks with a huge float of money in transit on which they can earn interest. In Kenya, people leave their money at a trusted outlet such as a shop or pharmacy, where it is loaded into their sim cards.

At a Forum Oxford future technologies conference at the weekend we were updated on the startling success of the operation. It is reckoned that 17% of the Kenyan population is on M-Pesa. As a result they don’t need to carry cash any more, as everything from a can of Coke to your funeral can be paid for by phone. It works because the cash is held centrally by the bank, thereby enabling transactions to take place at very fast speeds. The average transaction is $30 (£20) because people trust it to do big ticket items.

Of course, there is always PayPal (which offers a mobile-linked transfer system as well), but finding a business that will accept PayPal that isn’t internet based is a big challenge. So, why hasn’t the idea caught on in more developed nations? [image by whiteafrican]

Maybe it is because we are not used to the idea of technology transfer coming from poorer to richer nations that industrialised nations have been so slow to realise not only that Africa is leading the world in mobile banking, but that it has big lessons for us.

Call me cynical (O RLY?), but I suspect it has a lot more to do with the fact that banks have no need to sell their services to us in a manner that emphasises our convenience, because our lives are so inextricably entangled in their profit generation systems already. Just like a drug dealer, they like to keep you waiting so as to remind you whose bitch you are…


Mobile Massively Multiplayer – Warcraft on the iPhoe

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2009

Here’s some big news for the gamers among you (provided it’s not an elaborate and well-produced hoax) – a World of Warcraft client that runs on the iPhone.

Found via The Guardian, where Greg Howson asks whether the cramped screen real-estate and network lag would make it worth bothering. I figure that’s an academic question, really; I imagine if I (a) played WoW and (b) had an iPhone, I’d be mad keen for a mobile version; I mean, who wouldn’t be, right? If you’re an iPhone and MMO geek, you’re going to go mad for the idea of getting the best of both at once…

But more to the point (and the main reason I called it out), it’s another SF Prophecy Point on the leaderboard for Charlie Stross, who included mobile MMO gaming as a core trope in his 2007 novel Halting State. Two years from science fiction to reality – things move fast, don’t they?


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