Petabytes for pennies

Community health worker holding a smartphone.
In the next 15 years, the exponential price decline of digital technology will put more power and information into the hands of the poorest people than ever before, catalyzing a surge of global economic development and health innovation.

Mobile, digital, and wired development and health

Between 2015 and 2030, the costs of computation, storage, and bandwidth will drop by roughly a factor of 1,000, with enormous implications for economic development, poverty, and global health.

By 2030, we can expect Internet access that is effectively ubiquitous around the globe through handheld or worn devices that are at least 100 times more capable than what we have today. Here are five ways that may affect development and health.

Education: The ability to deliver text, images, and video at gigabit speeds and tailor that delivery to the person’s responses, knowledge, and skill level opens up incredible new possibilities. Education drives income and development, which in turn increases health.

Democracy, corruption, and good governance: Informed populaces demand better governance and less corruption, one of the thorns in the side of development. Corruption thrives in the shadows created by power and information asymmetries. Ubiquitous devices armed with cameras erase those shadows.

Health education and information: Worldreader, a charity that delivers digital books in Africa, reports that their most-read book of 2014 was Ebola: Practical Info. The third most-read book: Male Condom Instruction (read primarily by girls, apparently). Ubiquitous, high-bandwidth mobile devices can deliver health information to more people and leverage the power of celebrities and authority figures to convey a message.

Remote health and diagnostics: The rapid dissemination of smart devices will make them universal health care terminals. For example, an ultrasound probe connected to a smartphone can transmit images to a physician in a far-away city for diagnosis. By 2030, algorithms will make many such diagnoses, transforming health in the most remote and least developed areas with few health care providers.

Health monitoring and reporting: Ubiquitous connectivity will increase intentional and incidental self-reporting of health data and the ability of individuals and health care practitioners to report on infectious disease outbreaks or other events.

The greatest benefit may be the innovations that take place atop this expanded digital platform. Health innovators should ask themselves the question that Google reportedly asks its engineers: What would you do if computational cost, bandwidth, and storage were no limit?

Yet the dissemination of hyper-connected supercomputers into the pockets of 7 or 8 billion people will not automatically cure all ills.

Today, more people around the world have mobile phones than toilets. Our best hope is that widespread mobile Internet access will accelerate economic development and thus increase access to clean water, sufficient food, and other underpinnings of global health.

There will also be challenges as billions come online. How do we direct people to accurate information instead of myths or rumors? How do we build trust in legitimate institutions? In the developed world, we often fail at this. Can we do better with the billions to come?

Even with the many challenges, in the next 15 years, the exponential price decline of digital technology will put more power and information in the hands of the poorest people than ever before, catalyzing a surge of global economic development and health innovation.

The future has never looked brighter.

Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.