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Mobile Devices and The Inversion of Control

The rise of internet-enabled mobile devices is rapidly changing our ability to measure and report on aggregate human activity and is enabling bottom-up, collaborative cartography of economic, social and political microstructure at a previously unprecedented scale. This trend has far-reaching consequences for countries where such incumbent structures are barriers to development: Monopolistic price setters, local service corruption, and institutionalized bribery all present clear obstacles “the adoption of policies that would reduce market failure” [Acemoğlu; 2012]. However, these locally inefficient power structures are coming under increasing scrutiny due to the rapid rise of the mobile internet Panopticon.

In Aleppo, First Mile Geo provides a mobile crisis mapping platform enabling field workers to chart the changes in control of checkpoints that carve up the city, separating rebel- from government-held districts. They’ve also been able to track the availability of electricity and the location of operating bakeries (40% of which have been destroyed, or damaged).

In Lagos, “Wecyclers” runs a fleet of bicycles collecting recyclable material from thousands of poor households in areas avoided by traditional waste management infrastructure. Points are awarded and redeemed directly over SMS for plastic bottles, plastic sachets and aluminum cans.

In Kuwait, entrepreneurs sell sheep on Instagram.

In India, roughly 70% of the economy is tied to agriculture, and India is one of the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. However, due to the lack of cold storage, cold chain facilities and poor transportation infrastructure, post harvest losses routinely exceed 25%. Farmers are forced to sell produce immediately after harvest which results in cycles of glut and scarcity. In aggregate this structural failure results in poor food security for over a billion people; for individual farmers, low price realization is a major factor inhibiting social mobility.

Intuit offers a free SMS-based product Fasal, which connects rural farmers with buyers and provides real-time price quote information. The service boasts 500,000 subscribers with prices clearing 20% higher due to increased transparency.

In North Africa and the Middle East, as food prices threatened to once again hit the 2007-2008 crisis levels the 2010 “Arab Spring” uprisings which saw civil uprisings in 16 countries, overthrowing extractive, opaque regimes in 4 of them. Mobile access to social media site such as Twitter has been implicated as a key factor for protesters reaching organizational critical mass.

In each of these cases, challenges inherent in “hyperlocal” economic institutions contribute to uniquely determine the broader macroeconomic climate. Indeed, the state of economic measurement in 2014 is a bit like doing global climate modeling without having individual weather stations. A disproportionate amount of time is spent focusing on the model itself rather than investing in material improvements in the actual data collection apparatus.

Aggregate measures of inflation or production are rarely relevant to individual actors. The experience of Argentine households when it comes to buying dinner differs fundamentally from government reports about aggregate consumer price trends. Likewise farmers in India might certainly be impacted by the RBI’s loosening monetary policy, but they’re more apt to think and respond to the price of onions.

Furthermore, traditional indicators like CPI for aggregate inflation or GDP for aggregate production — Soviet-style holdovers from post-WW2 government consolidation — are tightly controlled by central governments and are often simply “man-made reality” as Le Keqiang, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China, has pointed out.

What if instead of top-down economic storytelling, we were to invert control of economic measurement? Start with providing the farmers with the means and incentives to collect local data and then rebuild the aggregate statistics off of the back of that? That is, give individuals and communities the tools they need to collaboratively map their local economic landscapes, monitoring prices, corrupt actors, and services quality. Then as the local maps become more complex, dense, stable, we can use them to derive entirely new indicators, without top-down “Soviet-style” government intervention.

At Premise, our mobile platform enables precisely this inversion of control — putting the power to map local economic “weather” directly in the hands of data contributors and field workers. We believe that citizen-led, on-the-ground-generated economic transparency are the key components for a mission to connect the planet’s next 5 billion people.