mobile financial services for low-income persons

Mobile phones have experienced astonishingly rapid take-up in low-income countries. For example, the number of GrameenPhone mobile phone subscribers in Bangladesh grew 105% in 2005 and recently surpassed 10 million subscribers. The telephone coverage rate in Bangladesh, however, is still only 12%. Coverage rates and demographics imply that, globally, almost all mobile subscriber growth in the future will come in low-income countries.

Low-income persons need financial services as well as communication services. Because low-income persons often lack physical security in their living quarters and in person, they particularly need a way to store money safely and to have controlled access to it. Low-income persons also need to monitor their balances regularly and the capability to transfer money among persons and make necessarily payments at the most favorable time.

Mobile phones can be a valuable tool for providing financial services to low-income persons. In South Africa and Botswana, one-third of people who do not have a bank account have access to a mobile phone.[1] Low-income persons often use per-call phone rental and pre-paid services. However, mobile devices typically also support customer authentication and billing technologies. These technologies are valuable for providing financial services.

WIZZIT, a mobile banking service provider that began operations in South Africa in December, 2004, has already acquired more than 50,000 mobile banking customers. WIZZIT has sought to make its service attractive to low-income customers by having no minimum balance requirements, no fixed monthly fees, and lower over-all cost than established banks. In its employment policies and its marketing strategies, it has explicitly reached out to low-income persons.

A recent survey found that low-income WIZZIT customers are enthusiastic about this banking service. The survey results suggest considerable substitution from bank and ATM use to WIZZIT’s mobile banking service (see Report (pdf file), Table 3). The survey also showed that a large share of low-income WIZZIT customers were using advanced services on their mobile phones: 62% keep a diary, 64% play games, and 34% receive multimedia messages (p. 6). Those figures appear to be roughly similar to the use of advanced mobile services in high-income countries around the world.

The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), the United Nations Foundation, and the Vodaphone Group Foundation sponsored the survey and report. A footnote included in the report declares that the project partners “intend to make the full data set publicly available via the Web” (p. 6). That’s an excellent idea that seems to have not yet been implemented. Carefully reading of the report raises some definitional questions about the published statistics. Public access to the raw data would foster better understanding.

While the WIZZIT banking service seems to have been designed with great attention to using appropriately technology to serve its customers, the WIZZIT website seems to have been designed mainly to impress managers and funders. It’s too much like glamorous brochureware and does not provide enough support for user contributions and sharing. Check out the WIZZIT users’ comments and questions posted at the World Resource Institute’s WIZZIT page. Unlike the WIZZIT website, that page readily supports user feedback. Web 2.0 is also valuable for low-income persons!

[1] Based on FinMark Trust surveys (FinScope), as reported in Mobile Phone Banking and Low-Income Customers: Evidence from South Africa (2006) [report (pdf)].

seeing future of video communication and video calls

3G mobile video calls seem to be a flop. What’s the problem?

One view is that 3G video calls are useless except in a small number of circumstances. Luca Filigheddu reports:

I quote what Mauro Sentinelli (former General Manager of Tim and “deputy chairman” at GSM Association) told me a few months ago: the target users for the mobile video call services are grandfathers who want to see their grandsons and married (or not) couples who live far away. This is because it’s one of the services that you don’t really need since it doesn’t really solve a particular need.

Perhaps the problem is poor understanding of critical user needs:

I just need to get the information I’m looking for, nothing more. Yes, the experience of seeing a pretty girl on the other side is nice, but useless.

Useless?!!! Leaf through the pages of popular magazines. Look at the advertisements. Can there be any doubt that a large share of human beings like to see pretty girls and, to a lesser extent, pretty boys?

You might figure that the ultimate evolutionary reason for the demand for images of attractive persons is just a corollary of the demand for porn. Right, and the ultimate evolutionary cause for all human behavior is just a corollary of the demand for porn.

Taking seriously the value of presence in communication provides more insight. A common topic of gossip is how people look. Hot or Not has been a huge success. This is not just about vulgarity, cruelty, and tastelessness. Images of attractive persons more readily attract attention than images of unattractive persons. The value of these images arises in part from sense of presence of someone understood to be a person like oneself. That’s not the same as the value of porn.

What about problems of privacy, user shyness, and lack of suitable opportunities for use of mobile video? A huge number of videos on youtube suggest to me that these issues are greatly overblown.

The gap between the potential and realized value of mobile video seems to me to be an effect of legacy concepts of a phone and well-ingrained behavioral routines of phone calls. Traditional phones physically bridge the ear to the mouth. Persons are used to the idea of holding a device up to the side of their face and listening and speaking through it. To be successful, mobile video calling, or picture-sharing in-stream of a mobile audio call, requires a much different device form and physical routine of use.

A simple muscular model for audio-visual communication is pointing and speaking. With respect to visual communication, changing forms of digital cameras are starting to teach persons relevant gestures. Unlike film cameras, digital cameras have zero marginal cost per image. They also can be made in small, convenient shapes for one-handed use. So rather than holding a camera up in front of your face, hoping for a good shot, point-and-shoot can be a casual hand gesture. The shape of most digital cameras suggests considerable conceptual and behavioral inertia. The most important implication of “camera phones” may be to help to change the concept of camera shape and the gesture of camera use.

Audio communication also shows seeds of more propitious device forms for audio-visual communication. Washington, D.C. now requires drivers to use handless mobile phone headsets. I regularly see persons walking down the street, apparently just talking to themselves. Actually, they’ve got a small headset around one ear, and another part in their hand or pocket. They’re talking on a mobile phone. Getting them to capture and view images with a device in hand still represents a significant design challenge. But mobile headsets are probably helping to open up practical device design possibilities.

Perhaps mobile video calling has flopped because the design of the devices has made them unlikely to be used. These devices do not seem to have provided a “see what I see” experience. As far as I can tell, devices that support mobile video calling are designed to be used like desk-top video conferencing systems. In desk-top video conferencing, the environment is typically irrelevant and rather boring, and the camera is focused just on the user’s face. Mobility allows users to move into novel, interesting, communication-relevant circumstances. Mobile video communication should exploit this central aspect of mobility.

Companies developing mobile video communication need to work closely with communication experts. Smart researchers at IBM Research have garnered some insights on new communication services by studying their colleagues’ use of experimental services. But the learned in this field must confront the painful truth: the foremost communication experts are 16-year-old girls.

Forget about grandfathers and married couples. Any new communication service needs to succeed with girls.  YouTube’s founders understood this truth. Early on, they desperately sought to attract girls to their service. Attracting girls isn’t easy. Great guy humor isn’t good enough. While I cannot offer a lot of empirical support, I strongly believe that succeeding with girls is possible. In any case, that is the fundamental challenge for new communication service providers.

Carnival of the Bureaucrats #4

I am pleased to report that the Carnival of the Bureaucrats continues to expand.

This month’s Bureaucratic Hero is Grigori Perelman. Until recently, Mr. Perelman worked for the Steklov Institute of Mathematics. Mr. Perelman’s insistence on excellence, dedication, an ethical work environment, and no money makes him eminently worthy of being honored with the prize of Bureaucratic Hero of the Month. Unfortunately, Mr. Perelman has recently suffered some career setbacks (see video below). Excellence is often not appropriately honored. I hope that this prize will encourage Mr. Perelman’s institutional supervisors and bureaucratic colleagues to recognize the true merits of Mr. Perelman’s work.

Honorable Mention goes to Anthea Norman-Taylor, a middle manager in the musical entertainment industry. Ms. Norman-Taylor recently shared this keen insight:

it’s important for kids to do boring things too. Because if you can find excitement in something boring, then you’re set up for life. Whereas if you constantly need entertainment, you might have a problem, because life is full of things that aren’t entertaining. [quoted by her husband in Johnson, last paragraph].

Not just kids, but also bureaucrats around the world can draw deep inspiration from this important wisdom.

Additional qualifying and meritorious submissions:

Meetings are a major activity in a bureaucracy. David Maister offers a useful procedure for calculating the IQ of a meeting.

The Engaging Brand offers a 12-step program for promoting organizational elimination.

Tracy Coenen at Sequence Inc. reports that the IRS is using outside debt collectors. One has to wonder whether these debt collectors will be able to maintain the IRS’s standards of bureaucratic action.

Ian Welsh at the Agonist offers insights into measurements for management:

As manager you probably don’t really know what your employees are doing. You probably don’t really understand what is required to do the job well. However unless you’ve beat them down too hard, or you’ve got a crew of reprobates, most people want to do a good job. Most people want to be able to say “damn, we’re good!” Don’t treat them like untrustworthy children, and you may find that they’re on your side and that measuring only the bottom line, on the minimum, is sufficient. When you go to war with your employees and try and measure every specific behaviour, generally both sides lose.

Aleksandr Kavokin at offers a Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Quiz. He notes: “working in an office you becom prone to carpal tunnel problems. SInce majority of bereaucrats do, watch your health.”

Bill Losapio reports that government inefficiency occurs. He explains:

Even if government folk have the absolute best of intentions, (many of whom indeed do), they are stripped of the only real tools – price, profit, and competition for scarce resources — they need to understand where money is best used. Instead, they take money by force and divvy it up according to factors like population, demographics, and financial need, not to mention political uses like bribery and extortion (don’t fool yourself – it happens all the time). Often, the assumption is that people in government mean well, so whatever they do surely should have more of our tax money (“Hey, they won’t cut corners, ya know? They’re not worried about profit.”).

Along with his submission to the Carnival of the Bureaucrats, Mr. Losapio remarked:

[author works for a defense contractor and has received at least one pen/pencil set from his employer ;)] Discussion of bureaucracy and the need for it to be minimized (despite the fact that many folk rely on it for their livelihood)

While some might question Mr. Losapio’s conclusions, his credentials for a qualifying submisson are clearly valid.

Generative Transformation (GT) revisits leadership and concludes:

Become self-aware and impeccable with your word/thoughts/actions and leadership shall become you. Make self-awareness and integrity your life practice and the world is yours.

I can’t offer you a way to win the world here at purple motes, but I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Marine Corps Marathon technology report

runner accessing race results

All the runners were tracked in real-time:

Get split times and finish information instantly on a pager, text messaging number or e-mail. This free service is a great way for spectators to cheer for their runner (or runners) and be there to meet them for the celebration at the finish line. Live split locations will be at the 5mile, 10 mile, 13.1 mile, 15 mile, 20 mile, 23.5 mile and the finish points.

Tents with notebook computers offered race spectators access to the service. The laptop interface presented not just split times, places, and pace, but also a graphical course map with a symbol indicating the runners estimated current position. I would guess that this was a must-have service for many fans who vigorously cheered their special runners.

After the race, RunPix generated runner-specific data graphs off the underlying runner-times database.

att bird

AT&T at&t offered free phone call to anywhere in the world on about 10 portable phones. Spectators didn’t seem to be using the phones much, but runners who had finished the marathon later crowded the phones. I would guess that a lot of persons didn’t want to carry a cell phone while running the marathon. They probably used the at&t phones to contact friends and family lost in the huge crowd at the event.

runners calling

Free photos were offered in surprising ways. Tylenol (pain reliever) would take your picture and print out a small copy for you on a Tylenol ad card. The ad card included instructions for accessing a larger copy of the photo on the web (try batch # TYVA 11, photo # 0115). You could access the photo after filling out a short (six question) survey about your use of pain relievers. Saturn (car company) was also doing free photos. The Saturn photographers handed out a small plastic bar-coded card with a code for accessing your picture online (try photo id# A9HA4 4PRT3). Saturn offered no immediate print-out of the photo. Both the Tylenol and Saturn service asked for name and email address to access the photos on the web. The Tylenol service allowed browsing of other persons’ photos, while the Saturn service did not.

message boards

CNN featured some retro-tech in its CNN=Politics display. They erected a paper-based graffiti board as well as a refrigerator-magnet board. They also provide round paper button templates where you could fill in “I’m Pro (blank)” or “I’m Anti (blank).” You could stick these on the refrigerator board. CNN also had a machine that could make a button for you on the spot. My sense is that the CNN approach was unsuccessful. Perhaps the crowd at “the people’s marathon” was too parochial and lacked the political sophistication that CNN offers.

anti pro

cross-species evidence on presence

Primate neural systems process gaze relatively well. Infant chimpanzees aged 10-32 weeks prefer photographs of human faces with eyes open compared to photographs with eyes shut, and with direct gaze compared to averted gaze. By four months of age, human infants can discriminate between faces with direct and averted gaze. In adult humans, direct gaze enhances the memorability of faces and the speed of person categorization. Moreover, direct gaze seems to be the best explanation for sensational reception of Byzantine icons in an artistically rich sixteenth-century Indo-Muslim culture.

Gaze has considerable value in making sense of presence. According to a recent study, mother-infant chimpanzees pairs gaze into each other’s eyes on average about 17 times per hour. Mutual gazing covaried similarly in chimps and humans:

maternal cradling was found to be inversely related to mutual gazing in chimpanzees, such that when mother and young infant are in constant physical contact, there is little mutual gaze. Reduced face-to-face interactions, including reduced amounts of mutual gaze, are found in human cultures that have increased physical contact with infants compared with Western norms. … We purpose that mutual engagement in primates is supported via an interchangeability of tactile and visual modalities [Bard et. al., 2005, pp. 621, 623].

The value of the visual mode, however, depends on its circumstances. If the features of a face are scrambled, infant chimpanzees are indifferent between eyes with direct and averted gaze. Direct gaze from a painting or photograph of a face may create value of the same type as mutual gaze and physical contact, but perhaps not as efficiently.