Off-Label Uses and More Unintended Consequences

E-mail Melanie Martella

The idea of the cell phone is fairly simple: "Hey, how about a phone you can take with you, wherever you go!" What's more interesting, at least to me, are some of the unexpected uses that have cropped up.

Riots and Fevers and Phones, Oh My!
In April 2002, a far-right military coup ousted Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's President. The coup was thwarted in large part by Chavez supporters using cell phones and pagers to rouse a crowd and surround the presidential palace. Faced by an angry crowd of 100,000 people, the plotters did a quick re-think and ceded power back to Chavez.

This year's Nobel Peace Prize went to Muhammad Yunus and his creation, the Grameen Bank. This bank provides small loans (micro-credit) to impoverished entrepreneurs who have a good idea, but don't make enough money to get a traditional bank loan to fund it. For example, the Bangladeshi "phone ladies" are impoverished women who are helped to buy cell phones, which they use to provide a mobile phone service to their communities. This not only helps the women but it also helps their communities, providing access to a phone close to home rather than requiring a trek to the nearest city or town to make a call.

According to a recent story on the BBC's Web site, a new project seeks to use cell phones to track diseases. Currently it's being used to track HIV, but the plan is to test the system and apply it to track bird flu or other pandemics. Field workers armed with cell phones will send and receive information on disease outbreaks along with data about patients, test results, drug inventories, and so on. Clear information about what is happening on the ground during a disease outbreak is the most important factor in containing it successfully. The project, a collaboration between Voxiva and the GSM Association (GSMA), is being tested in Rwanda and in Indonesia.

No technology is inherently good or inherently evil. Take cell phones—for all the clever and helpful uses they're being put to, I could list petty, nasty, and brutal ones: bullying via text messages and triggering bombs, for example. The only constant is the creativity of the people using the technology.

What's the cleverest (or stupidest) use of a cell phone you've seen or heard about? Let us know!

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