Nathan Eagle, a former Media Lab researcher at MIT, realized that the mobile phone was the networked computer of the developing world. Through these ubiquitous little computers, he could reach the 3 billion or so with mobile phone subscriptions in developing economies, about half of the 5.9 billion phone users worldwide.
Besides opening up vast new markets to direct marketing, it could also help drive development for governments unable to monitor or influence their citizens in any other way. From this idea, Jana, which means "people" in Sanskri, was born.
"The groundbreaking thing is we’re providing [a voice] to people who traditionally have not had a global voice," Eagle, the founder of Jana, told me. "This was not possible even a few years ago without the ubiquity of mobile phones."
The idea wasn’t supposed to be a social good. Eagle first launched a company called Txteagle in 2009. Txteagle was a crowdsourcing platform for the developing world. People earned money by completing simple tasks by mobile phone. As it turns out, the demands of a for-profit business model meant that Txteagle was chasing the cheapest possible workforce without leaving many lasting benefits in its wake.
In its newer iteration as Jana, the system uses a similar infrastructure, but sends out surveys, advertisements, and information, rewarding its respondents with free airtime or discounts with selected companies. The company claims to have formed partnerships with at least 230 mobile phone operators in 80 countries, opening up access to more than 2 billion customers.
The United Nations is one of the first major customers. Instead of sending teams all over the world to conduct surveys, the U.N. used Jana to solicit 75,000 responses from more than 5,000 people in 23 countries at a fraction of the cost (we reported on the results, which formed the Global Snapshot of Wellbeing, in November).
Next up are probably companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever, who will use the service to find out more about potential new markets that are otherwise hard to reach. But if Jana’s business model works, everyone just might make money off the arrangement, and open up society in the process.