Mobile World Congress: Enlightening technology points to age of inclusion

The motto greeting visitors to the world’s largest mobile exhibition in Barcelona is another reminder, if needed, of the central role technology now plays in our lives, writes Peter O’Dwyer

Emblazoned on banners hung along the city’s main thoroughfare La Rambla are the words: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, and technology for all.”

Exalted company for a few phones and gadgets, you might think — except the banners were hinting at something much bigger.

As a product of the Age of Enlightenment and a guiding principle of the French Revolution, the phrase could hardly have been more appropriate as the modern day technology revolution continues apace.

For an industry sometimes seen as insular, inclusion has been very much to the fore at its showpiece event.

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took the stage to address attendees earlier in the week, he had a clear message for the major mobile players: Help those without internet connectivity before improving the lot of the technologically well-off.

“We believe that everyone should have access to the Internet, and it’s kind of crazy that we’re sitting here and 4bn people in the world don’t,” Zuckerberg told the audience.

It was a theme developed by Unicef executive director Anthony Lake in his keynote address yesterday.

A somewhat unlikely guest at a mobile conference, Lake quickly showed the true value of technological advancement.

Mobile, he said, has helped his organisation tackle disease, fight poverty, and even protect children fleeing the ravages of war.

“Mobile technology provides access to information, opportunity, and choice for even the most marginalised children. Give children access to information and they’ll be prepared to shape the world around them,” said the former US diplomat.

When ebola wreaked havoc across swathes of Africa last year, Unicef was able to issue specific, local information to communities via mobile, in a way radio or television couldn’t, which helped stem the spread.

When tackling HIV in Nigeria, the agency was able to determine how much locals knew of the virus and their own HIV status with one simple question sent to hundreds of thousands of Nigerians via its U-Report text messaging platform, through which it communicates with those most in need of its help.

The same system was used in Uganda, said Lake, when a banana-leaf blight struck.

Even when the tide of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria hit Europe’s shores late last year mobile was on hand to help.

Despite often leaving with little more than the clothes on their backs, the Syrian children who Lake encountered clutched, almost without exception, a mobile phone; playing games when they could as an escape from their harrowing experience.

It was somewhat of a lightbulb moment that led to “tech hubs” being introduced to refugee centres. They gave children somewhere to charge their phones and Unicef a vital line of communication to their families which it used to warn of dangers and advise of services along their treacherous journey.

Viewed through that prism, La Rambla’s banners take on a different significance that’s a little harder to smirk at.

Liberty, equality, fraternity, and technology for all, indeed.

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