Coverage of Secretary Clinton’€™s speech at the Newseum on Internet Freedom has focused on its repudiation of censorship and its rebuke to China, but I was most interested in the section that discussed the role of technology in promoting the freedom from want (a.k.a. reducing poverty).  The speech included an intriguing example of how technology could close the feedback loop between beneficiaries and donor agencies and increase accountability:

Let me give you one example. Let’s say I want to create a mobile phone application that would allow people to rate government ministries, including ours, on their responsiveness and efficiency and also to ferret out and report corruption. The hardware required to make this idea work is already in the hands of billions of potential users. And the software involved would be relatively inexpensive to develop and deploy.

If people took advantage of this tool, it would help us target our foreign assistance spending, improve lives, and encourage foreign investment in countries with responsible governments. However, right now, mobile application developers have no financial assistance to pursue that project on their own, and the State Department currently lacks a mechanism to make it happen.   But this initiative should help resolve that problem and provide long-term dividends from modest investments in innovation.

The speech did not contain details about the shape of this initiative, but I hope that the Department of State goes beyond the typical response of providing funding and training.   Unlocking the potential of mobile developers in emerging markets and spurring economic growth requires two additional steps beyond more money and more capacity:

Create and Promote Tools for Developers. The open source community has been leading the way in mobile application development for emerging markets with tools like FrontlineSMS , which enables mass communication through text messages, and Ushahidi , which creates maps based on information submitted by SMS.   Both these tools require developers to install and maintain servers, which isn’t always feasible, and are only available to NGOs, which excludes local entrepreneurs.  The United States could help accelerate the creation of new mobile tools by provided hosted versions of these tools similar to Google App Engine or the instance of the wordpress.orgblogging software.   In addition, it should support innovative, open-source tools, by requiring implementing partners to use them.

Advocate for Governments to Improve Regulation of SMS. In the 2008 report ICT Access and Usage in Africaby , researchers found that Kenyans in the bottom 75% in terms of disposable income spent 63% of their disposable income on monthly mobile fees.     The cost of sending text messages, which cost nothing to transmit on GSM networks, eats up a significant amount of that expenditure.   Certain premium services, such as Google’s Trader, which allows people in Uganda to buy and sell goods via SMS, cost even more.  The State Department should encourage countries that receive development assistance to pressure mobile networks to drop the price of sending text messages.   This would be help poor people throughout Africa by reducing their mobile costs and would help spur innovation in the mobile application development market.

It was exciting to see the Secretary of State speaking enthusiastically about the role of technology in achieving the US Government’s foreign policy objectives.  I hope that they think about more than just pouring in money.