The instructor of NextLab at MIT, Jhonatan Rotberg, is asking students "Can you make a cell phone change the world?" The answer is "Yes." Students are directing their efforts towards helping people in developing nations in several unconventional ways.

"Since mobile phones are dispersed throughout the developing world, they now constitute a platform atop which other services – mobile banking, mobile health, etc. – are now possible," said Michael F. Maltese, of MIT?s Legatum Center. The director of the Center, Iqbal Quadir, has experience operating in this environment. He founded GrameenPhone, a company that introduced low cost cell phone service to Bangladesh in 1997.

Health, wealth, and literacy are the focus of just a few of the applications that MIT is directing its attention towards. And they are all being developed for the cell phone. Rotberg wants his students to develop technological solutions and demonstrate the viability of their business plans. His hope is that they can "take them to other parts of the world, where entrepreneurs can take it and run with it."

Several teams consisting not only of MIT students, but those from Harvard and Tufts, are developing applications pointed towards filling a void in the lives of rural dwellers. They are using the cell phone to provide banking services in Mexico, health care in areas far removed from the facilities and professionals in urban areas, and informational services or farming data to people who don?t have ready access to useful and timely information.

The projects have great names, such as Moca which concentrates on health care, Zaca which is geared at empowering farmers in a poor region of Mexico, Dinube which enables people without bank accounts to make payments via the cell phone. Transport Link will help remote villagers learn when transportation will be available to them, or arrange ride sharing. A most interesting application is Celedu (Cellular Education) meant to help children in India learn to read. Look for more information about these ambitious projects in future articles.