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A visit to ‘Digital Bangladesh’

June 5th, 2013 by Posted in Uncategorized

Laura Eldon, Digital Communications Specialist, Oxfam GB

Photo: AKM Robiul Alam

Photo: AKM Robiul Alam

‘99% mobile coverage and 90 million mobile phones and rising.’ In a country where projects like the fantastic cycling ‘Info Ladies’ have been making waves for years, Bangladesh is undergoing something of a digital revolution. Just driving in from Dhaka airport, you’re immediately bombarded with posters and signs advertising the latest mobile phones and new 4G networks – a technology that’s yet to reach my home of Oxford in the UK.

Much of this is thanks to the government’s official policy of ‘Digital Bangladesh’, but it’s the people who are embracing this technology to make real change happen.  Oxfam is no stranger to the idea of using technology in its overseas programmes – our ‘pink phones’ project in Cambodia works to empower women by giving them access to information, while our drought monitoring project in East Africa uses mobile phones to monitor water points and provide early warning of droughts before they strike. But Bangladesh takes it to another level.

Meeting with colleagues and local partners, I was struck by the sheer variety of tools that are being developed. In country with the 70% of its land less than 10 metres above sea-level, the risk of flooding is particularly high. At the same time large numbers of communities depend on the water for their living, often risking their lives to brave the seas to fish. Along Bangladesh’s southern coast, Oxfam is supporting a digital early warning project to help save the lives and livelihoods of fishing communities. Fishermen are sent warnings of incoming storms transmitted by telecommunications towers to special devices installed on their boats. If a boat is caught in rough seas, the device allows them to be tracked so that the coastguard can be deployed to rescue them. Fishermen can also raise an alarm in the event of hijacking and can even access information about fish availability.

Further north, monitoring on a poverty reduction project is being carried out using mobile phones. Staff interview programme participants and input the information on a mobile phone, saving time over the traditional method of paper and pen which then needs to be transcribed into an electronic format. Data is instead automatically sent to an online platform where project members are able to log on remotely and view results in real time.

And that’s not all. Through funding from a regional innovation grant, the humanitarian team have been developing a Smart Information Management System to register beneficiaries and facilitate two-way feedback using Android smart phones. In the same area Oxfam is running a mobile cash transfer programme using the local ‘bKash’ system.

With rising levels of mobile penetration across the globe and the constant development of new innovative digital tools, it’s an exciting time for Oxfam as we seek to integrate the use of technology in our programmes. And its countries like Bangladesh that are leading the way. I for one, can’t wait to see what initiatives take hold next.

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