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Why Yes, Pokemon Go Is Relevant to Digital Development!

By Jacob Korenblum on July 14, 2016

pokemon go for ict4d

The runaway success of mobile game Pokemon Go has many of us scratching our heads in disbelief: More people are swiping balls at monsters than using Twitter? They’re spending more time with imaginary creatures than with imaginary friends on Facebook? And all this happened in a single week!?

For the ICT4D community, the game’s jump from zero to 20 million users (by some estimates) since its launch on July 6 prompts some further questions: Can we reach that kind of scale? And is this even relevant to our work, if most people we serve don’t have smartphones?

A recent New York Times opinion piece lashed out at the glut of apps that “solve all the wrong problems” -telling us where we can find the nearest rentable yacht, but failing to address key global issues like food insecurity. Do we add Pokemon Go to that list? Or do we look to it for inspiration, as we aim to create tech solutions that empower people in need?

Here are some arguments for and against the relevance of ball-hits-monster to our ICT4D work.

Upsides of Pokemon Go

The game has broad appeal.

This isn’t just an American fad. Pokemon Go is being played in Egypt, El Salvador, the Philippines and Guatemala – all places with USAID presence. Yes, you can argue that players in those locations may be the elite, smartphone-owning minority. For now. It’s Week One, and the game has already reached 20+ countries, before even launching officially in most of them: People are so hungry for the app, they’re “sideloading” it from sources other than the Google Play or iTunes store. We can learn from this (the “creating broad appeal” part, as much as the “hack your phone” part).

The game is building community and promoting learning.

As players go out into their communities and look for imaginary monsters, they’re interacting with other real people, and helping each other achieve a common goal. They’re also learning more about the places around them. Could today’s monster-hunting could become tomorrow’s community asset mapping, or civil society strengthening? It sounds far-fetched, until it starts happening.

The game is helping small businesses.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are buying “lures” to drive customer traffic into their stores, and their sales are growing. Can we call this a sure-fire Private Sector Development model, based on a week’s worth of data from Brooklyn? Absolutely not. But when Jordan’s Tourism Board invites people to catch monsters at tourist sites, the potential for new tech to help drive donor-funded economic growth projects – in a country where tourism is the main industry – becomes less hard to imagine. And that’s just an example from one sector.

Downsides to Pokemon Go

The game sucks battery life and data.

Pokemon Go uses a smartphone’s camera and GPS to place “pocket monsters” in your field of view, along with “poke balls”; aim phone at monster, swipe ball, repeat. If we tried to create a similar health- or education-focused mobile game, using camera and GPS functionalities, for communities in Nigeria or Indonesia, would it work?

Setting aside the need for smartphones to begin with (these countries have 28% and 21% smartphone ownership rates, respectively), you’d need reliable power supply and affordable data: Pokemon Go uses roughly 15% of a phone’s battery and 10MB of data for each 30 minutes of play, according to one estimate. In communities where electricity is scarce and data is costly, that’s a non-starter.

The game collects users’ personal information.

Developers Niantic and Nintendo collect IP addresses and location information from game players, as they move around the real world catching virtual monsters. This feeds into the larger debate about data privacy and informed consent – which is all the more crucial in communities where mobile users only have basic schooling, or can’t read, or aren’t well-versed in the 20,622 words of the iTunes store’s Terms of Service agreement (we counted).

The game may put users’ safety at risk.

To move ahead in the game, Pokemon Go players collect virtual items at real-world public places. They can also buy “lures”, which draw monsters – and other game players – to a real-world location for a 30-minute period. Concerns about safety have already been raised in the US, with reports of would-be thieves baiting unsuspecting players. In a refugee camp or conflict zone, these risks become all the more acute.

Pokemon Go Conclusion

It’s possible that Pokemon Go will end up being another flash-in-the-pan tech fad (Google Glass, anyone?). But something has changed: Location-based services and augmented reality just got a massive, worldwide vote of confidence. For the 4.2 billion global citizens who lack web access, this means very little today.

But as mobile penetration and smartphone access continue to grow, this unique mix of interactivity, user engagement, and personalized game-play may offer our sector new building blocks to reach scale and impact.

Written with co-author Gina Assaf, Souktel’s Digital Design Lead,

Filed Under: Featured, Thought Leadership
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Written by
Jacob Korenblum is CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions, a developer of custom mobile data solutions for the aid and development sectors.
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One Comment to “Why Yes, Pokemon Go Is Relevant to Digital Development!”

  1. Mika Välitalo says:

    Thanks for the interesting and topical post. Admittedly the potential of Pokemon Go learnings for development seem a bit far fetched (when the most effective ICT4D solution is probably still community radio, IVR and SMS), but definitely useful to keep an eye to opportunities that might become relevant in the coming years. But for fundraising, campaining and advocacy among the hundreds of millions of smartphone users, this is all applicable already today.