Where is the Caribbean on the apps bandwagon?

Computing applications are critical to the usability of PCs and laptops, and they are becoming increasing important in the realm of mobile devices. Worldwide, considerable attention is being paid to the “applications sphere”, but where is the Caribbean in all of this activity?

The development of mobile applications (m-apps) has been receiving intense focus over the last few years, especially since mobile technology has evolved to carry data traffic. The extensive use of mobile phones worldwide, including smartphones and tablets, which in many countries is the principal form of telecoms, has driven the supply of a wide range of programmes to satisfy the needs of those users.

Initially, the majority of the programmes created were geared to mobile users in developed countries. However, the impact of m-apps such as M-PESA, a money transfer service in Kenya, and WIZZIT, which offered basic banking services in South Africa, has caused attention to shift to developing countries, where it is believed m-apps can greatly improve quality of life.

The m-apps development programmes that are occurring in developing countries ar generally focussed on the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP), that is the poorest socio-economic group in a society. The general view is that there is the greatest potential for innovation, for needs at the BoP, but more importantly, the combined purchasing power of this group cannot be underestimated.

In that regard, one of the most recent initiatives to capitalise on this premise is the partnership between infoDev (an agency of the World Bank), Nokia and the Government of Finland. Through the project, regional m-apps laboratories have been established in East and Southern Africa. Application (app) development will be supported by business incubation and technology entrepreneurship activities, and will be promoted through mobile social networking. The project, which commenced in 2010, is hoping to generate 8 to10 viable m-apps by 2012, and to be self-sustaining by that time. There are also plans to launch similar projects in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Arguably, there are numerous untapped opportunities for computer and mobile apps to improve the lives and livelihoods of persons at the BoP.  This group, which comprises the largest segment of a country’s population, are the ones whose way of life may still be virtually unchanged irrespective of the advancements that have been experienced in other parts of the society. More importantly, they are the critical mass that truly reflects a country’s level of development.

The Caribbean Apps Directory is a voluntary registry for computer and mobile apps developed in the region. As at 21 February, it had only 16 apps listed. Have other apps been created by Caribbean developers? Is another more comprehensive listing available?

While kudos should undoubtedly be given to the developers listed in the Directory for being innovative and creating indigenous content, we might still feel the need to ask, what support would other untapped but brilliant ideas need to create workable apps?” Moreover, upon further scrutiny, it seems unlikely that any of the apps in the Directory could improve the lot of someone at the BoP.

To date, infoDev and its collaborators have no published plan for an m-app laboratory in the Caribbean. However, currently there are two activities within the region worthy of mention.

First, in February 2010, the University of the West Indies (UWI) launched the  “Caribbean Innovators Challenge: Mobile Applications for Development” competition. Participants had to be under 35, and had to be teaching or involved in innovation at a tertiary Level Institution (TLI). They were required to propose:

“a needs-based, mobile application for an identified community of low income earners in the Caribbean, and
indicate how the activities and / or outputs of the competition will be used in the teaching programme at the competitor’s TLI.”

Entries were shortlisted late last year, and those candidates were given some funding to build and deploy their m-app. The overall winner of the competition should be announced on 15 April 2011.

Second, the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organisations (CANTO) opened registration for its e-content competition, i-Create, in September 2010. Its aim is “to search out and reward the most creative and innovative e-content developers in the Caribbean region”. The competition is open to all Caribbean citizens, and the deadline date for receipt of projects has been extended to 31 May 2011. The app must function in an electronic medium, such as video, mp3, games or m-apps, and entries may be submitted in any one of 11 categories. During the course of the competition, Ericsson will reportedly offer free training on the Android platform.

The above initiatives are indeed commendable: in their own way, they are promoting app development in the Caribbean region. At the same time, it is somewhat discouraging that the focus appears to be almost exclusively on organised groups that already possess the skills to develop apps. It would perhaps be more beneficial to create an environment where viable ideas can be nurtured on a wider scale.

With regard to app development, so far the efforts in the Caribbean appear a bit fragmented. There seems to be scope for a more coherent and enabling environment to encourage and support app creation in the region.

Do you agree?  What are your views on apps development in the region?



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