I must admit that I found the Green Paper on mobile government which the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITA) placed in the public domain earlier this year to be extremely disappointing. I understand that a Green Paper is normally far less detailed than a White Paper. Nevertheless, one would have expected that it would have presented a far more comprehensive overview of how mobile apps can be applied within Government and the strategic orientation thereof – given that smart phone technology has been pervasive since the late 2000s.
In truth, Malta lags considerably behind developing and less developing countries in leveraging mobile applications within the smart phone era. What renders the state of play displeasing is that Malta was one of the first countries that thoroughly exploited the mobile phone for the delivery of government services in the early stages of mobile telephony. Recognising that the proliferation of mobiles was increasing faster than desktops and laptops, which at the time were still expensive, Malta was innovative in applying mobile government services for what, at the time, was called ‘push down’ services. Push down services enabled a citizen, on enrolment, to obtain information which the relevant IS application would push down to them – whether this was an examination result, expiry of a driving license, or cancellation of an appointment. Indeed in 2004, Malta was awarded the e-Government Good Practice Framework award by the EU for its Mobile Government Gateway.
Since leaving the Malta Information Technology Agency (MITTS Ltd at the time) in 2008, I have had the opportunity to work with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation for ICT for Development in a number of regions on leveraging ICT4D. One of the regions I have worked extensively in is Sub Saharan Africa (SSA). Over this period of eight years, I assisted and have been involved in the strategic design and implementation of m-Government solutions in different SSA countries. It is no exaggeration to say that the harnessing of mobile technology for the provision of services, and for the inclusive participation of citizens, has created a new paradigm in SSA.
Mobile telephones are ubiquitous in most SSA countries – reaching 79 per cent, and the average 3G penetration is 13 per cent (2014). Mobile broadband has reduced the costs of data infrastructure significantly, as the implementation of mobile connectivity infrastructure is far cheaper than that of terrestrial connectivity such as dark fibre. The increased footprint of mobile broadband has reduced the gap with regard to internet connectivity between rural and urban areas, where in most SSA countries, 60 per cent of the populations live in the former.
The strategic focus in the application of mobile telephony has resulted in improvements in relation to health, agriculture, education, etc. To focus on one sector, for example, mobile technology is used extensively in SSA countries for health management – with a myriad of m-Health applications developed for both basic mobiles (using both push and pull effects) and smart phones. In Africa, there are 247 m-Health applications – the highest in use in the world, followed by Asia Pacific with 184 applications.
m-Health solutions have and are being applied in maternal and child health, and programmes reducing the burden of diseases linked with poverty, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. m-Health applications are introduced in such diverse scenarios as improving timely access to emergency and general health services and information, managing patient care, reducing drug shortages at health clinics, enhancing clinical diagnosis and treatment adherence, among others.
Additionally, m-Health is used to allow patients to self-monitor and transmit information to their health care provider; for example, blood pressure, data for diabetes control or a photograph of a wound; for the decentralisation of quality health services to lower health service provision levels, especially in rural areas; as well as for delivering important information and behaviour change messages on particular health topics to communities, and can serve as an additional channel of health communication.
Mobile technology has a direct and pervasive impact on the SSA economy. The direct employment in the mobile eco-system in SSA is 3.3m – and this is estimated to grow to 6.6m by 2020. In 2012, the mobile operators themselves in SSA contributed 2.8 per cent of the GDP; while the broader ecosystem (which includes equipment suppliers, handset distributors and local content suppliers) generated a further 0.9 per cent of GDP. In addition, the use of mobile services resulted in productivity benefits to the broader economy, particularly to “high mobility workers” (which account for around 10 per cent of the workforce across SSA). Research suggests that this has resulted in an average eight per cent productivity uplift. This is complemented by a 10 per cent productivity uplift for small-holding based agricultural and fisheries activities, where mobile services can bring benefits such as access to pricing information, online marketplace and information to optimise production.
Of particular note is that SSA is leading innovation in mobile banking not only in Africa but also globally. Mobile banking has not only rendered increased use of cashless payments but substantially increased people’s access to finance. As at the early 2010s, cash deposits withdrawal through M-PESA outlets amounted to US$650 million per month – with an average transaction of approximately USD33.
My experiences with mobile technology for ICT4D in SSA is that the mobile phone is already having a tectonic impact on the social, economic and sustainable development of most, if not all, of Africa’s nations.
Just imagine what the impact could be in Malta. The fact that to date we have not strategized for and have limited implementation of mobile apps for government service provision is not acceptable. That the government has only now, in 2016, signed a strategic partnership with another jurisdiction and launched the m-Government Green Paper shows that there has been an absence as well as a lack of ambition for the strategic leveraging of smart phones and mobile telephony eco-cycle for the continued economic and social development of Malta.