When NYU Abu Dhabi Professor of Economics Yaw Nyarko met Lakshminarayanan Subramanian, assistant professor at NYU New York's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, they quickly realized they were working on different sides of the same puzzle. In addressing significant issues facing the developing world — Nyarko from the perspective of an economist and Subramanian through the lens of a computer scientist — they recognized that their areas of expertise were deeply interlinked.
"Really the problem comes at the interface of economics on one end and technology on the other. Economics dictates the constraints, and we have to determine if we can we build something transformative within those constraints," Subramanian said. "Once a technology starts working, scalability and sustainability is another round when economics comes into play. You have to ask how you can make it work on a really large scale. If you truly want to achieve sustainability, you want to get to the point where the solution is running itself, and you need the right economic models to achieve this."
The Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED) was created in 2010 with the understanding that "it's the culmination of the two fields that can really accomplish things," Nyarko explained. Through CTED, Nyarko and Subramanian lead a team of academics in pioneering innovative solutions and assessing the impact of technological tools in the development of poor and rural communities with a focus on the areas of energy, education, financial services, food security, and health.
Technology, now more so than ever, has the potential to create profound and positive impacts in the lives of the poor. "If you look at the last two decades as an example, the Internet has transformed lives and the way we interact with the world," Subramanian said. "Mobile phones in particular have been transformative because everyone, even the poorest of individuals, has a mobile phone — it's a game changer."
Indeed, it is this prevalence of mobile phone technology in the developing world in particular that creates the opportunity to "leapfrog" over existing technologies and overcome infrastructural barriers. In areas with limited or no network connectivity or computer hardware, mobile phones can behave like mini computers in your hand, as Nyarko explained. With tailor-made applications, basic 2G phones with SMS technology can be used to overcome challenges in information distribution and data management by supporting an expansive range of unconventional functions.
Esoko is one such application that was established in 2005 with the aim to support rural farmers in Africa with making more informed trading, marketing, and farming decisions. The concept is that farmers, who would often sell their products in the nearest village without established knowledge of the market value of their goods, could now benefit from a market information system that provides current and relevant information on the latest market prices through an SMS-based service. In its first few years the service received positive anecdotal reviews; however, there was little research to determine the actual impact of this resource on farmers' decisions. As one of CTED's earliest projects, the research team designed a randomized control trial of Esoko service in Ghana to assess the extent to which it allows farmers to realize higher prices and to identify the mechanisms through which these price increases take place.
"We want to know, do these market information systems really work? That is the fundamental question," Nyarko said. "Users say they do things differently, but do they really do things differently? And what do they do with this information? Do they speculate and wait for a good price, or do they go to the next town over?"
The project officially kicked off in the summer of 2011, when researchers established a baseline survey that asked approximately 1,000 farmers about their agricultural decisions, ranging from the crops they choose to plant and how much they sell and where, to access to and current use of mobile phones and their existing sources for market information. Shortly after, half of these farmers received Esoko's service and began receiving market information on their phones every few days, while the other 500 remained as a control sample. To ensure that the control group was not infiltrated with information through word of mouth by those receiving the Esoko service, CTED researchers first mapped out villages and their connection points, such as roads, to understand existing interaction levels and patterns of communication. Monthly surveys were conducted in addition to a more extensive field survey during the summer of 2012, revisiting both groups to determine any changes in negotiation and bargaining tactics, farming choices, and overall livelihoods. The project is expected to conclude in 2013; however, from initial information, Nyarko noted that usability and training to use the application are important concerns.
If you're able to develop the right types of technologies, it can be transformative. We're looking at how this can transform people's lives on a day-to-day basis, whether it supports better energy, education, or food. For a lot of people that alters the poverty line.
Esoko represents just one of many possible ways mobile phones can be used as a tool for economic development. "The number of people who have tried to create SMS-based applications is enormous because of the potential to be able to cater to large populations where this is the only connectivity medium that people have," Subramanian said.
To support this endeavor, CTED created UjU, a straightforward mobile phone platform that enables users to develop their own SMS-based applications. Taking into account the data limitations of the SMS channel, UjU — the Swahili word for "sent" — provides a tool to design database-structured formats. CTED has configured and tested UjU for a number of real-world SMS-based applications in the areas of mobile microfinance and mobile health care, four of which have been piloted in Ghana and Mexico.
"The goal of UjU was to build something like an app store that would work on SMS, but this was a challenge because each SMS allows only 140 characters and each message costs money. To overcome this, UjU has a compression layer that enables users to compress a lot of information within 140 characters — so, for example, a three-page health form can be compressed into a simple message," Subramanian said.
These types of SMS-based applications can result in practical solutions for some of the infrastructural challenges faced across different industries in the developing world. Take for example another CTED project called Epothocary, which established a cost-effective system using midlevel mobile phones to track and verify the authenticity of pharmaceutical goods. The counterfeiting of pharmaceutical products is a widespread problem that poses a considerable health hazard to third-world countries that lack the resources to implement expensive tracking mechanisms. Under the system, a unique bar code is provided for each pharmaceutical package, which is then scanned using mobile phone cameras at every step of the supply chain distribution process by verified individuals, thus tracking legal goods and preventing the introduction of counterfeited products into the system.
SMSFind is another CTED prototype — one that uses mobile technology to answer search queries, providing similar functionality to that of a search engine, but within the limited space and data constraints of text messaging. Unlike existing services that hire people to answer these requests, CTED has developed an automated process to search for possible results and identify the most appropriate 140-character response. Unstructured and uncommon questions can make this a difficult task; however, the query can often provide a hint as to what the user is looking for. Using a back-end search engine, the SMSFind technology has been designed to extract segments of text around the hint term, and ranks them on relevance across a number of metrics. The technology, which is currently being piloted in conjunction with Nokia in Kenya, was found to be able to answer roughly 57 percent of questions in an automated fashion faced by an existing, manual SMS search provider. This marks a significant achievement in automated technology that can decipher long-form questions.
While mobile phone applications are a principal area of research for CTED, other significant projects are under way in the fields of finance, computer science, and energy. Through an established partnership with the money transfer company UAE Exchange, researchers are studying data to create a better understanding of the remittance market in the UAE. Similarly, an agreement with the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange enables CTED researchers to analyze the impact of the four-year-old exchange and to develop improved systems and information flow. CTED is also developing working computer science prototypes that support greater Internet connectivity or provide related information services in rural areas. In those areas with limited or no access to the Internet, inventive solutions have proven to be effective in creating greater information dissemination for general use, and in particular for educational institutions.
In just a few years, CTED has made significant inroads into investigating, developing, and deploying innovative technologies in rural and developing regions — an endeavor that is expected to have significant results. "If you're able to develop the right types of technologies, it can be transformative," Subramanian said. "We're looking at how this can transform people's lives on a day-to-day basis, whether it supports better energy, education, or food. For a lot of people that alters the poverty line."
For Nyarko, who grew up in Ghana, and Subramanian, who was raised in India, the prospect of making a difference in the lives of those from underdeveloped regions is more than just a research project; it's a passion.
"I grew up in a very rural area and it impacted my research interests in many ways," Nyarko said. "My goal for CTED is to be a center that facilitates innovative research in this vital area of technology and economic development. Being located at NYU Abu Dhabi gives us a unique platform and location to contribute to this burgeoning field of research. At the same time, my hope is to make an impact on the lives of people in underdeveloped regions around the world."