A mobile paradigm for service delivery

The Daily Star

Friday, March 5, 2010

IN a resource-starved country like Bangladesh, where almost forty percent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, providing access via desktop solutions is untenable. On the other hand, the growth in mobile industry in the past decade and the reach of mobile phones in the rural areas have turned cell phones into the most accessible and affordable form of technology for the masses and an obvious choice of service delivery channel for public agencies.

As part of its agenda to build a Digital Bangladesh, the government has identified the mobile phone as a key medium of electronic service delivery to citizens. Although, mobile phones and their many technology options are already being utilised by several agencies of the government, to truly utilise its true potential, an effective and long-term partnership with the private sector is essential.

Over 33 percent of the population in this country currently has a mobile phone. With a government that is eager to give service to the neediest, and with private telecommunication firms that are eager to expand their businesses in rural Bangladesh, an effective national strategy for mobile governance and service expansion can unlock a win-win solution for both parties. Not only will it give people access to the information they truly need and save time and money in the process, by adding additional services like mobile money transaction and mobile commerce, it can also be used as a tool for economic growth. Concurrently, it can unlock a major new avenue for market expansion for mobile companies.

m-Health: Improving the delivery of health services to the majority of the citizens is a key challenge faced by the government. ICT is an enabler that can enhance the ability of the public service to adequately address service delivery backlogs, while providing citizens with a range of creative options for accessing services. Amongst the many ICT options available to the government to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its delivery process, mobile technologies offer some exciting opportunities for a low cost, high reach service.

There is strong evidence that mobile technologies could be instrumental in addressing slow response rates, government to citizen requests and poor access to services — particularly for low-income and marginalised populations in under-serviced rural areas — which are some of the keys areas where opportunities lie. In addition, mobile technologies offer significant opportunities for improving the back-office operations of government by electronically collecting medical data of the citizens, conducting health surveys and offering emergency services. Globally, tele-health is being looked at as a growing area of opportunity for the private sector and entrepreneurs to get involved in. Bangladesh should be no exception.

m-Education: In the education sector, there has been sizable improvement in providing education-related service delivery via mobile technology. Although scattered, m-Education initiatives are currently the highest in number. Telecommunication companies are publishing exam results and an online dictionary. Other services include mobile-based English lessons, GPA 5 holders’ registration, etc. However, most of the initiatives are related to results publishing etc., and lack proper planning and direction.

The focus has recently moved from delivering exam results to sending applications to various universities via mobile phone by connecting the central board’s education database with this service. The application fee is also collected from the mobile account of Teletalk — the government service provider.

The program, currently being piloted in Shahjalal University, has generated good response, triggering government directives being sent out by the ministry of education to implement this for all universities in the country. However, opportunities are endless. Connecting the remote schools to internet via mobile broadband, providing teacher’s training material via IVR, English learning and skills training via a subscription-based model, are just a few examples.

m-Agriculture: Considering the needs and possibilities, there are not enough m-services in the area of agriculture. Major initiatives include IVR based Farmers’ Call Centre by Banglalink, Early Disaster Warning alerts by Teletalk, GP and Banglalink, and agriculture content development for tele-centres by GP etc. Language barrier and the low level of literacy among farmers may be the reasons behind such few initiatives in the area. However, the Banglalink phone line Jiggasha has been quite successful in spite of all these barriers.

Service providers working with content providers must come up with voice-activated and enabled value added services in local language and context to increase the usage of these services even more. Partnership with MoA, MoFL and other relevant ministries and entities is a must for authentic content. Content providers will play a key role in the near future by creating and managing content in Bangla.

Government institutions have the most acceptability among farmers. Yet, their services are not offered via mobile. Existing services at Tk.5 a minute are still too expensive for the farmers. It has to be made more affordable to create a real demand for this service.

m-Transactions: Only five percent of the population currently have access to formal banking. Making financing and banking accessible to as many people as possible remains a key focus for Bangladesh Bank and, as a result, the regulatory barriers are being lifted. On September 1, 2009, Bangladesh Bank approved a form of mobile banking known as digital wallet. Even though it is quite restrictive, with pilot phase set to start soon, further deregulation and clear guidelines can possibly have tremendous impact for remittance, development and SME sectors.

Providing services, both government and the ones related to livelihood, via mobile technology is not yet considered by telecommunication providers as potential profit-making opportunities. Rather it is still an extension of their CSR work. However, one only has to look internationally to see how major telecommunication players are increasingly looking at converting the mobile phone into a tool to access a wide array of services and information and, in effect, creating very profitable and sustainable business models.

We can see M-Pesa, the mobile payment company that has made dramatic changes in money transaction, bill payment, small businesses in Kenya. In agriculture, for service and pricing models, we can see India’s Kisan Sanchar, a successful joint venture between Airtel and IFFCO, that provides specific agricultural information to farmers of India. Singapore now provides more than 150 government services via mobile. With the right balance of government regulation to protect its citizen, and private sector engagement in an encouraging business climate, Bangladesh too can be firmly positioned to achieve the vision 2021 of providing service to the doorsteps of the majority of its citizen.


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