I'm sure I'm not the only one who uses my mobile phone for almost everything but to make a call. Thanks to technological advances and the explosion of social media, we text, tweet or do Facebook posts on our devices. But beyond mere communications tools, mobile phones are also crucial for fostering economic activity and development. And I don't mean just in the U.S. and rich countries, but in developing countries.
Around three-quarters of people around the world have access to a mobile phone. The number of mobile subscriptions has actually grown from fewer than 1 billion in 2000 to over 6 billion now, of which nearly five billion are in developing countries, according to the World Bank report, Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile .
This increasing use of mobile technology in developing countries has allowed people to access the financial system, and governments to improve service delivery and citizen-feedback mechanisms. From making cash payments via cell phone in Mexico, to job-matching services in the West Bank and Gaza, to providing information services for Senegalese farmers, mobile phones seem to be doing a lot.
Now, they are also been used to measure poverty and gather development data better. Examples include high-frequency surveys in Latin America , as well as the "Listening to Africa" initiative, being implemented by my World Bank colleagues. The experiences in Tanzania and Sudan show that data can be collected via mobile phone on a wide range of topics in a cost-effective, flexible, and fast way, as it is explained in detail in the latest edition of Economic Premise , "Collecting High-Frequency Data Using Mobile Phones: Do Timely Data Lead to Accountability? "
This is an important development because one of the problems in Africa, for instance, is the lack of frequent surveys to gather information about socioeconomic conditions related to well-being, service delivery, income, security, health, and many other issues. Why? Because this type of survey is usually carried out face-to-face, thus becoming expensive.
As the authors of this note explain, although phone surveys have been standard practice in developed countries, this has not been the case in poorer nations because phone ownership rates used to be too low. In Tanzania, for example, only one percent of homes had a land line in 2010. But all this has changed thanks to mobile phones. Mobile phone ownership increased from 9 percent in 2004-05 to 46 percent in 2010. And in Kenya, it is estimated that some 80 percent of adults have their own mobile phone.
The mobile surveys in South Sudan and Tanzania collected information on a wide variety of issues, like health, education, water, security, electricity and governance. "They have been used to ask perception questions on topics varying from what respondents considered the most pressing problems to be addressed by the city government to people's opinion about the draft constitution," explain authors Kevin Croke, Andrew Dabalen, Gabriel Demombynes, Marcelo Giugale and Johannes Hoogeven. The surveys have also been used to collect info for large scale programs on food fortification, and the data becomes of even greater interest when the same information is tracked over time.
Nevertheless, as promising as they are, mobile phones surveys are no substitute for lengthy household surveys. They are complementary and a great way to get rapid feedback and track issues over time. They are also a great way to provide governments and citizens with very relevant and timely data regarding public services, as long as there is proper dissemination of the results to the proper authorities, civil society and the media.
Follow the latest from Otaviano Canuto at twitter.com/OCanuto  and keep up with the World Bank's efforts to help countries fight poverty and close gaps in income and opportunity at twitter.com/WBPoverty . For more Economic Premise notes, go to worldbank.org/economicpremise .