In its 2009 paper, Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020, Microsoft dubbed the nascent developments in ubiquitous computing the dawn of the "Ubiquity Era." This new era is driven by the proliferation of versatile mobile devices, and is marked by radical changes in how we geolocate, learn, and connect.
The First Ubiquity Era
This is not the first time humanity has experienced a profound transition catalyzed by versatile and mobile technology; early stone tool technologies spurred a similar transformation. Knapping, the practice of precisely shaping stones into a variety of tools, began in the Upper Paleolithic area and allowed our early ancestors to achieve sociocultural patterns that are still signifiers of our species. The widespread appearance of this technology is associated with an era of massive human migrations, the advent of art, and the rise of large geographic trade networks.
Can we learn from this First Ubiquity Era—can insights gained from occurrences 14,000 years ago guide us today in knapping the "glowing rectangle" in the New Ubiquity Era? Yes.
The New Ubiquity Era
The First Ubiquity Era's efficacy hinged on the wide global distribution of new, versatile, stone tool technologies. Similarly, our handy glowing rectangles—from the Nokia 1100 to OLPC's XO tablet to Apple's iPad—are approaching significant levels of global distribution. In fact, this distribution is wide enough that designers, developers, and people with actionable ideas can use these devices to substantially transform the human experience on a global scale.
This trend has already begun. New mobile technologies (and their concomitant ubiquity) represent a "leapfrog event" in which citizens of less economically developed countries (LEDCs) and hitherto technologically isolated members of developed nations are benefiting from direct access to mobile technology, cloud computing, and the Internet.
Heartening examples exist in the realms of finance, health care, and education:
M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows people in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Afghanistan to deposit and withdraw money, transfer money to other users and non-users, and pay bills using their cell phones. Users conduct their transactions and conduct the cash transactions via a network of local shopkeepers who act as banking agents. The M-Pesa system provides access to money-managing activities that previously difficult or impossible. Now, saving and managing one's funds—a path out of poverty—is possible for people who have never had reliable access to banking.
Click Diagnostics is a global mHealth enterprise founded to address the "lack of medical specialists in under-served regions [and the] lack of real-time health data needed for strategic interventions by the government and NGOs." In a partnership with NGOs, phone companies, and medical associations, Click Diagnostics hires local staff members, equipped with a mobile phone, to travel rural regions of Africa, South Asia, and the Americas. Using the phone's camera and texting functions, these staffers and their phones serve as a "mobile tele-consultation platform;" they send real-time diagnostic information to waiting health care professionals who then offer immediate diagnoses. People who were once a few days travel from a doctor are now just a click away from professional health services.
The Grameen Foundation's tagline is "Transforming Lives through Innovation in Information Access," and they provide Ugandan farmers with access to essential agricultural information using their AppLab product. A network of "Community Knowledge Workers" travels from farm to farm with mobile phones. Farmers can use these phones to gather information from AppLab's SMS-searchable database of agriculture tips and advice, learn about market prices, and receive weather forecasts. Here's a great video of AppLab in action:
These three examples (and there are many more) illuminate the contours of this New Ubiquity Era. The functional flexibility and wide distribution of mobile devices can be leveraged for the education and empowerment of populations that heretofore have been isolated from the types of information and services made available by the glowing rectangles in their midst.
A iPad Case Study: Exprima Media and Sustainable Harvest
Exprima Media partnered with Sustainable Harvest, Sustainable Harvest, a B Corporation coffee importing business based in Portland, Oregon. Sustainable Harvest brings together all the members of the coffee supply chain, from the farmer to the final consumer, to create a sustainable economic model that serves everyone involved. Part of the Sustainable Harvest mission is to provide education for coffee farmers; their educational programs aim to improve quality of life as well as the quality (and marketability) of their coffee.
To this end, Sustainable Harvest worked with Exprima Media to create an iPad app that staff can use to deliver educational videos to remote coffee farmers in Mexico, Peru, and Tanzania. The app delivers educational content in three languages: English, Spanish, and Swahili. Currently, the app features videos and information about coffee agronomy, food security, and coffee business. Future plans for the app include health-related content and social media features to connect coffee farmers from around the globe.
At the time of this article's publication, staff from Sustainable Harvest and Exprima Media will be on-site for the app's launch at a coffee coop in San Ignacio, Peru. In addition to launching the product, Sustainable Harvest will be studying user behavior first-hand and learning how to make our product more useful.
This iPad app represents, in our opinion, the best of what the iPad has to offer: easy access to well-designed educational content. Few things are more empowering than information, and few things more alarming than the asymmetrical access to information evident on a global scale. Mobile technology has the potential to modulate the situation by creating previously impossible opportunities to distribute knowledge.
Allied with user-centered design, these technologies represent a new era of global information diffusion. The activities of organizations like M-Pesa, The Grameen Foundation, Click Diagnostics, and Sustainable Harvest (just to name a few) are clear indications of what can be accomplished with the powerful alloy of good technology, good business, and good design.