Gerard McCarthy is Project Manager (Asia-Pacific) at TechChange, based in Sydney. Keera Pullman is based in Darwin where she works for Esri Australia and volunteers for the Standby Taskforce.

The past decade has seen rapid increases in urban dwellers across the Pacific. Recent analyses of this region-wide human movement by a World Bank panel showed that the absence of reliable health and education services in rural areas, the concentration of industry and jobs in cities, and the proliferation of mobile phones which permit daily contact with rural friends and families, are prompting many across the Pacific to board buses, trucks and motorbikes in search of better lives in cities.

 

The results are unprecedented booms in urban real estate and municipal health services stretched to their limits. The Director of Papua New Guinea's National Office of Urbanisation, Max Kep, said these dynamics could soon lead to the emergence of slums on the periphery of cities, a trend exacerbated by government officials who see denial of the problem and conscious resistance through forced evictions as a solution to the largest human movement in Pacific history.

Responding strategically to urbanisation is notoriously difficult. But it's clear from Danielle Cave's paper, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, as well as international examples, that the explosion of mobile phone and internet access throughout the Pacific can help in the implementation of two basic responses: reducing the need for medically motivated migration to cities, and facilitating planning and formalisation of urban settlements.

Mobile-supported health services, or mHealth, is a fast growing area, with health ministries the world over supporting deployment of mobile-based data collection and diagnostic tools. Danielle's research highlights some of the innovative deployments of mHealth initiatives across the Pacific, including the Vodafone Foundation's Dr SMS service, which has significantly improved patient services in Fiji. However, such deployments still have a long way to go to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by rapidly increasing mobile penetration across the region.

Indonesian health authorities, for instance, have used mobile-based mass-communication tools such as FrontlineSMS as well as SMS news system Info Obat Murah to significantly improve diagnosis, inform rural patients of appropriate treatments and conduct rapid assessments of rural health infrastructure and medical centre needs. Other text-message survey tools such as EpiSurveyor and GeoPoll have boosted the reach of rural vaccination campaigns in Bangladesh by using SMS to inform residents in targeted districts about where and when to bring their children for treatment.

Meanwhile, Angola's major telecommunications provider Movicel had tremendous success with a recent polio campaign by offering a top-up of phone credit for the parents of vaccinated children, resulting in 100% attendance by local families.

Greater funding from major donors such as AusAID and NZAID for the development of mHealth applications, face-to-face and online training of health workers in data collection, epidemiology and treatment, and the roll-out of mobile-based incentives schemes is vital if one of the major drivers of urbanisation across the Pacific is to be addressed.

The decision to urbanise is often about more than just access to health care. It can be influenced by a variety of factors including the search for employment, education and a richer social life. It's therefore vital that mobile-based and online tools be used to improve government response to the rapid growth of cities.

Lessons from Kenya's informal settlements suggest that accurate mapping of urban topography as well as reliable information about human settlement and the service delivery needs of fringe dwellers are vital enablers of political action. In Nairobi's Kibera slum, for instance, crowdsourced mapping tools such as OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi have been used to collect information cheaply and reliably about the area's human geography, ultimately resulting in its appearance on official maps and inclusion in planning processes.

Closer to home, Indonesia's Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has focused on data preparedness and disaster risk reduction in cities. The goal is to train communities to collect reliable base data (roads, health facilities, water points etc.) which are then analysed to identify areas vulnerable to natural disasters. The exercise helps government and community decision makers understand the critical importance of developing local disaster resilience. With many Pacific Island countries at high risk of natural disasters, it's vital that similar initiatives aimed at building resilience through mapping and local emergency management partnerships receive strong support from donors.

Obviously, increasing deployment of internet- and mobile-based tools alone will not solve regional challenges such as rapid urbanisation; that's where committed, transparent governments willing and able to take action are vital. But Danielle is certainly right that a coherent Pacific ICT-for-Development Strategy is necessary to ensure donors provide governments with the right tools and expertise to confront those challenges effectively.

Photo by Flickr user WhiteAfrican.