Four Innovative Ways Mobile Phones Are Saving the Lives of the Urban Poor: Examples from Nairobi, Mumbai, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro

An Indian housewife speaks on her mobile phone as she sits outside her home in Mumbai on September 27, 2011. India's telecom
An Indian housewife speaks on her mobile phone as she sits outside her home in Mumbai on September 27, 2011. India's telecom watchdog the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) today exempted various service providers, including the dealers of telecom operators, e-ticketing agencies and social networking sites, from the new limit of one hundred Short Message Service (SMS) per day per SIM, which was imposed to block pesky calls and messages. India is the world's fastest-growing cellular market and second largest after China with over a dozen operators competing for millions of new customers each month with 858.37 million subscribers as of July 2011 according to latest official data made available by India's telecom regulator TRAI. AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the developing world, mobile phones are both ubiquitous and relatively affordable. They are also a good investment, according to the Indian Institute of Management, facilitating communication with employers and helping users to network for employment. But mobile phones are also being put to work in more innovative ways that magnify their impact on the lives of the urban poor. Here are four examples of how mobile phones are making a difference in Nairobi, Mumbai, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.

Mobile phones are being used to reduce India's high infant mortality rate. A new initiative, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), gives expecting and new mothers access to vital and often life-saving information using mobile phones. Subscribers receive weekly health messages and reminders through text messages or voice; the audio option is essential given that 35 percent of women in India are illiterate. The messages include everything from proper nutrition, breastfeeding, vaccinations and referrals to local health resources. The service also incorporates "insights and delightful details alongside health messages, sending mothers week by week messages that tell her how her baby is growing." Through these adaptable messages, MAMA has reached over 20 million mothers.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, an initiative called Wikimapa aims to enable young people from Rio's low-income areas to map interesting sites and relevant activities in their neighborhoods. The maps can be accessed via a web browser or using a mobile application that incorporates GPS to allow for detailed mapping. The project's goal is to promote greater knowledge and understanding of the culture and history of Rio's poorest neighborhoods. It also cultivates a positive sense of identity among favela residents, who might not know the historical details of their community's past, nor what resources, events and activities are available to them.

One out of every two people in the world who sends money over a mobile phone is Kenyan, and 70 percent of Kenyans have an M-PESA account. M-PESA is a mobile phone money transfer system that allows users to easily deposit, transfer and withdraw money at any M-PESA kiosk through the use of SMS technology. Not only is M-PESA the most successful money-moving service in the world, it has also morphed into the main banking system for the urban poor, who lack access to mainstream banks. By making cash mobile, this technology can be used for paying bills, groceries, school fees and rent, and for sending money home (which is especially important for Kenyans). In addition, running an M-PESA agency is an excellent entrepreneurial opportunity; some agents now earn a higher monthly income than lawyers or doctors. Finally, the M-PESA system has succeeded in limiting muggings and robberies in Nairobi, because few people walk around with large amounts of money in their pocket when they can have it in their phone instead.

Mobile banking has contributed to financial inclusion for the most marginalized populations in Mexico City as well. One bank, Grupo Financiero Banorte, has implemented mobile banking through phone applications and through SMS in order to attract customers who lack access to formal banking channels. However, challenges remain due to limited device support for the application and the high cost of text messages. Accion International, in partnership with Compartamos Banco, the largest micro-finance bank in Latin America, has developed a technology platform based on mobile devices to provide low-income populations with access to banking services, remittances and savings.

As these four examples show, mobile technology can be a development tool for reducing marginalization, improving health indicators, and creating a sense of community. Join us on URB.im, the global community for just and inclusive cities, to read more on this topic and to join the conversation.