While the GSMA Barcelona Mobile Congress grabs headlines with announcements of all the latest gadgets, mobile technology also serves a critical role tackling some of the world’s toughest problems – from reuniting displaced children with their families, to tracking the spread of dengue fever.

Mobile technology will play an integral role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Of the 4.8 billion people in the world with mobile connectivity, some 3.6 billion live in low- and middle-income countries, according to the GSMA, making this a powerful tool for sustainable development.

In addition to running the Barcelona event, the GSMA - a trade organisation representing mobile operators - also runs a development team bringing together the mobile industry, technology innovators, the development community and governments. Their aim is to scale up the types of innovations needed to deliver broader financial inclusion, access to healthcare, food security, as well as more effective energy, water, and sanitation distribution.

Preventing maternal deaths

One of the most common reasons for women dying during or within hours of giving birth is heavy bleeding caused by placenta complications. Qualcomm Wireless Reach's Mobile Ultrasound Patrol programme provides rural mothers with effective and affordable ultrasound screenings to help reduce these complications in rural areas of Morocco.

This provides participating doctors and nurses with backpacks containing devices that are wirelessly connected to specialists in hospital clinics to ensure far-reaching, high quality diagnostics.

Patients, nurses and doctors access the system via mobile devices such as smartphones and phablets (phone – tablet). Images are captured with a portable ultrasound device, they are encrypted and then sent to the reviewing physician.

The results have been impressive. The time needed for images to be reviewed has been cut from four days to two seconds; waiting time for a medical opinion fell from two weeks to less than 24 hours; the marginal cost of ultrasound for patients was slashed 98% to $2; and there has been a 72% increase in health workers' ability to deliver ultrasounds.

Solar power, paid for on your phone

In the off-grid energy sector, the “mobile-enabled solar pay-as-you-go model”, or PAYG solar, uses mobile money services and machine-to-machine technology to provide reliable, clean energy to families and small businesses in east Africa. With up to 800,000 solar home systems available on a PAYG basis, it is estimated that about 40,000 new systems PAYG solar energy systems are being installed on a monthly basis.

Reuniting families

During 2016, the global refugee crisis continued to grow, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced, 21.3 million of whom are refugees. It is estimated that 51% of refugees are children, with the majority facing long-term displacement.

Mobile Network Operators and humanitarian agencies have been delivering mobile connectivity and creating innovative services for refugees in a variety of rural and urban contexts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for many years. To raise awareness of the importance of connectivity for refugees, the GSMA – the association of mobile operators – launched the Refugees and Connectivity Portal during the 2016 UN General Assembly.

The potential of mobile services and online platforms to facilitate reconnection between family, friends, caregivers is being further explored by organisations such as REFUNITE. REFUNITE’s long-standing partnerships with Ericsson, various mobile network operators, and the UN, allowed it to collaborate on the pervasive problem of family separation among forcibly displaced populations, to witness the effects of these separations, and to refine its approach to reconnect loved ones. Through these partnerships, REFUNITE has set out to change the process of family tracing. By creating a user-friendly, online global database of over 600,000 profiles, users can now search for their missing loved ones with the click of a button.

Another family reunification tool is UNICEF’s Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification (RapidFTR) project. This is an open-source mobile phone application and data storage system. Designed to streamline and speed up the efforts of humanitarian workers immediately after a crisis or violent outbreak, RapidFTR collects, sorts and shares information about unaccompanied and separated children in emergency situations. The goal is to register them for care services and reunite them with their families as soon as possible. For example, the Ugandan Red Cross has previously used RapidFTR to reunite unaccompanied and separated Congolese refugee children with their families.The project is run by volunteers under active development from the Child Protection in Emergencies Team at UNICEF, and has received funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and UNICEF Supply Division.

Educating girls

There has been considerable interest in the potential of mobile services to overcome the many challenges of providing education to refugees, such as Ericsson’s Connect to Learn initiative.

Around the world 62 million girls are not in school – half of them are adolescent. These girls have diminished economic opportunities and are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, early and forced marriage, and other forms of violence. Yet, when a girl receives a quality education, she is more likely to earn a decent living, raise a healthy, educated family, and improve the quality of life for herself, her family, and her community.

Connect To Learn was conceived to address some of the challenges relating to secondary education access and quality. A global education initiative launched in 2010 by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, Millennium Promise and Ericsson, the aim is to scale up access to quality secondary education, in particular for girls, by providing scholarships and bringing ICT to schools in remote, resource-poor parts of the world, over mobile broadband. To date the initiative has launched in 22 countries and benefits over 76,000 students.

Tracking dengue

In Pakistan, meanwhile, Telenor Research is conducting the first-ever countrywide effort to understand and model the spread of dengue fever using anonymised mobility data, with the ultimate goal of designing prevention strategies rooted in data-driven methods. This project provided an innovative new approach to dengue forecasting using mathematical models and population-level mobile phone data to estimate human movement, while also protecting the individual mobile customer's privacy.

This project is not only the largest of its kind ever conducted, in terms of the number of subscribers analysed, but also represents the first attempt to conduct an analysis of dengue outbreaks using call detail record (CDR) analytics. The approach produced accurate predictions about both the location and timing of disease outbreaks, not only in regions already known to be at risk, but also in previously dengue-free regions of Pakistan. Predictions provide sufficient lag-time to allow local public health officials to prepare for epidemics. The approach can be operationalised in the form of dengue risk-maps that can serve as useful tools for health practitioners and government in Pakistan, and provide insight for designing better prevention strategies.