The Grill: David Edelstein

David Edelstein is using technology to battle poverty, and his weapon of choice is the mobile phone. Edelstein is director of the Grameen Technology Center and vice president of technology programs at Grameen Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports microfinance practitioners worldwide. Edelstein holds the top technology job, guiding the foundation's efforts to create innovative and sustainable technology approaches to benefit the world's poor.

Before joining Grameen in 2007, Edelstein worked at Microsoft Corp. designing business models to provide affordable technology products for people in emerging markets. He also worked with consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in Brazil, where he developed business strategies tailored to the needs of consumers and businesses in developing countries.

What's the primary focus of your job? I lead the Grameen Technology Center and am responsible for the success of all technology programs at Grameen Foundation. This work is anchored in the use of mobile phones to improve lives and livelihoods -- enabling the poor to bring themselves out of poverty using technology that is increasingly within their reach. We also have a strong focus on how technology can benefit microfinance institutions and have developed management software called Mifos tailored to the specific needs of these institutions. I work closely with teams based in Seattle, Uganda, Ghana, Kenya and Indonesia to direct these efforts.

How do you define or measure success for you and your team? At the end of the day, success is about having a measurable improvement on people's lives. That's a long-term outcome we look for. The intermediate stages are identifying where there are market gaps, where information services could have a meaningful impact on people's lives but for one reason or another they're not being provided. And it's identifying potential solutions to address those gaps using basic mobile phones, understanding what content could be delivered, and developing models that are self-sustaining from an economic perspective.

What are the biggest obstacles in getting working technology into the poor regions you serve? The beauty of it is that there are over 5 billion mobile phones in the world today, and almost 80% are in emerging markets. And what's impressive about that number besides the magnitude is that unlike in the U.S., there's a lot of sharing [of mobile phones] in emerging markets. So the challenges aren't around putting technology in their hands. The challenges are more around developing services that can be easily used and [are] affordable. There are high illiteracy rates and multiple languages, so addressing those are also challenges. And cost can be a challenge. In Uganda, for example, government-imposed taxes on minutes and handsets are very high.

What are your strategies for overcoming such barriers? The first is the trusted intermediary model. We realized early on that information alone is not sufficient to change people's behavior, which is how we achieve impact. What's required is having a trusted member of the community serve in an intermediary role where they know how to discover the information, how to use the information and how to contextualize that information. We've developed networks of trusted intermediaries, such as community [agricultural] knowledge workers in Uganda, community health nurses in Ghana or a network of entrepreneurs who use their mobile phones in Indonesia.

And then the second is to use the phone for voice services as well, which is sort of obvious, but not always. What we found, especially to overcome some of the challenges with illiteracy, is that many people prefer to receive voice messages. They have the option of receiving text messages or voice messages in their native language, and 90% of the time they prefer to have voice messages.

You've used the term "information poverty." What do you mean by that? It's that inability to have information at your fingertips that will help you improve your life or livelihood. The phone really changes that dynamic to the extent that information services can be delivered over the phone. It makes it so that poverty and information flows can be addressed.

You once said that the mobile phone has the potential to level the playing field in terms of access to information. Are we there yet? We're just skimming the surface. I think a lot of progress has been made in the last two to three years, but when you look at the number of concepts that have scaled, there are really very few. There are more than 5 billion phones in the world, and such a huge percentage are in the hands of people in emerging markets, so the potential is there, but it has not yet been realized.

What can traditional IT shops and tech companies learn from your work? That there's the opportunity to develop for what's commonly called the base of the socioeconomic pyramid. There's a very large market if you can tailor products to meet the market needs.

Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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