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The Future of Myanmar is Mobile Phones

By Wayan Vota on September 17, 2014

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Today, Myanmar has the same mobile phone usage as North Korea, Eritrea, and Cuba – less than 10% – yet technology restrictions are ending, three mobile operators are racing to roll out services, and the 60 million people of Myanmar are about to rush into the future, practically overnight.

On August 6th, FHI 360 convened a workshop in Yangon of leading technologists and development experts to explore the role of ICT and development in Myanmar and its impact on government, civil society, business, and most crucially, the people themselves, focusing on three overall questions:

  1. What is the social and cultural impact when a country goes online virtually overnight?
  2. What will Burmese find, or not, on the Internet of today? Or tomorrow?
  3. Who will benefit, or not, when all the citizens of Myanmar have a digital voice?

While we touched on many points throughout the discussion, and did not always agree on the answers to our questions, we did agree that by 2018, Myanmar would have a very different technology landscape. A future that development practitioners should be planning for now.

This is our tentative future vision of Myanmar’s technology landscape in 2018:

Technology will be ubiquitous

  • It may be hard to envision now, but by 2018, almost every household will have a smartphone, which means that almost every person will have access to a mobile device, and most people will own a mobile phone and have some level of both digital and information literacy to use the Internet effectively.
  • Internet access will be both affordable and fast in cities and towns, and delivered via wireless technologies more often than wired. Even in rural areas, there will be mobile network coverage, allowing for Internet browsing and data usage via mobile devices.
  • Social media networks (most likely Facebook) will be synonyms with the Internet and a central aspect of the Myanmar online experience. Citizens, government, and civil society will all interact seamlessly via multiple media formats on these networks.
  • Mobile money will be common and accepted for online purchases and person-to-person payments. There will be a growing ability to pay with phone-based systems when purchasing retail goods or services in urban stores and restaurants, with rural retail adoption poised to grow.

Government will be online

  • There will be eGovernment services, starting with common citizen needs, and citizens will be primarily accessing these services via mobile devices.
  • Government will have real-time data flows from the point of citizen interaction, such as in health clinics and schools, and the government will be finding ways to make better decisions based on that data.
  • Communities will be interacting with their elected officials, and those officers will respond and campaign via online platforms, with social media paying a central role in every election contest.
  • Communities will have widespread access to technology tools that will allow them to have a voice in their own development, and independently monitor the progress of government and other development actors to respond to community needs.

Private sector will be expanding

  • With almost 60 million people online, a thriving technology ecosystem will be responding to their needs, and building out Myanmar’s digital presence – with entrepreneurs competing for both business and consumer online spending.
  • The technologists will have sorted out a unified way to represent Myanmar language fonts in mobile device menus and online websites, and there will be simultaneous and accurate translation between Myanmar languages and English.

However, achieving this future vision will not be painless. We also agreed that Myanmar is on the cusp of a national debate on the cultural and legal norms for online communications.

There is already a lively discussion around the role of Facebook and hate speech, and even in 2018, we recognized that there would still be ethnic and religious tensions, which will be reflected in online conversations. Also the country has yet to start managing the shift from paper-based systems to digital ones, where requiring stamped paper correspondence morphs into accepting emails as legally binding agreements.

Finally, the shift from an analog to a digital economy will not be without winners and losers, just as we in the US economy. Printed mediums will fall out of favor, automation will streamline repetitive tasks, and businesses large and small will have to adjust their workforce in response.

As development actors, we should not sit idly by. We need to engage with government, civil society, the private sector, and communities themselves, to help in this transformation. We also must acknowledge that we too will be transformed. We cannot expect to do development in 2018, or even tomorrow, as we are doing it today.

Not when 60 million people start to direct their own digital destiny, smartphone in hand.

Filed Under: Thought Leadership
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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