Christelle Scharff, PhD, became interested in mobile computing while traveling through Cambodia and Senegal where the use of mobile phones has exploded in recent years. People in these countries as well as other developing countries now use mobile phones for commercial, communications and entertainment purposes. What is missing, however, are mobile applications unique to specific locales and markets, particularly ones that promote social change.
Knowing that mobile phones are computers that can be programmed, Dr. Scharff became convinced that mobile applications could be programmed toward that end. She was also able to convince the National Collegiate Innovators and Inventors Alliance (NCIIA) that her vision was a viable one and, embarked on implementing “Sustainable Technology-based Entrepreneurship for the Senegalese Market” with support from a Sustainable Vision Grant from that agency. The grant was shared with Stony Brook University and the University of Thiès in Senegal, both partners in the project.
On sabbatical, Dr. Scharff spent most of the 2008-09 academic year in Senegal where she taught Mobile Application Development at several universities. Early in her stay she created a model for teaching application development for social change that incorporates aspects of technology, software development, and entrepreneurship. The model was implemented during a successful bootcamp that took place in January 2009. Another is planned for next year. With input from students at the University of Thiès, she developed specific mobile applications for women entrepreneurs interested in expanding the market for traditional Senegalese crafts such as leather goods, textiles and weavings. Four artisans from the Artisan Village of Thiès (http://artisanatthies.com) are currently using these applications that help them track their business expenses and sales. Additional applications involving educational games that teach math and reading were created for young children attending school in rural areas.
Hoping to enable Senegalese academics to build on and expand this initiative after the funded period, Dr. Scharff held a training session for 22 faculty from seven universities across the country. The session was held at the headquarters of Manobi, the only mobile service company in Senegal. She was also able to enlist Nokia to provide phones for use by the students developing the applications and by those benefitting from them. In addition, she facilitated the creation of a network of universities, companies, NGOs, and associations to share new initiatives linked to mobile technology in Senegal. This network is currently organizing a mobile application competition open to all university students in the country. The project encourages the involvement of Senegalese computer science students, who with their understanding of African realities, will be the ones who will best be able to develop applications that respond to the diverse needs of their compatriots.
Dr. Scharff had an extremely rewarding year in which she provided the impetus for sustainable social change through technology in Senegal. She believes that her model is equally valid here at home and has said “I truly think that location-based and social network applications will drive innovation in the United States and that the use of mobile phones in health care and activism is crucial for social change.” Back at Pace, she is currently teaching a course on mobile applications development for social change and drawing upon her enriching experience to inform her other classes.
To learn more, visit http://mobilesenegal.com.