Social Life Networks for the Middle of the Pyramid

By Athula Ginige, Wednesday, 09th November, 2011


The Social Life Networks for the Middle of the Pyramid (SLN4MoP) is an International Collaborative research program that aims to provide real-time information to support activities related to livelihood delivered using mobile phone applications targeted to meet the needs of people in developing countries. 

In the past few years,there has been an explosive growth in the area of mobile communications.Today, nearly 5 billion people use a mobile phone, and over 3 billion of them live in developing countries.  But majority of mobile applications that have been developed and deployed are intended to meet the needs of the 1.5 billion living in developed countries.  Most of those applications, however, don’t address the primary needs of people in developing countries. People in developing countries need applications that can assist them with their livelihood in areas such as prevailing market demand and prices of a variety of products and services, assistance with farming, fisheries micro-banking, healthcare services and emergency response.

Leveraging the enormous reach of mobile phones equipped with myriads of sensors such as GPS, Camera, microphoneetc it is now possible to develop thenext generation of social networks known as Social Life Networks (SLN) that not only connect people to people, but also have the capability of providing real-time, context-sensitive local information by aggregating information from a variety of sources including sms messages, sensor data and data from public data sources such as meteorological data. This aggregated information can provide real time information on evolving situations such as market prices, how to manage pests and bugs destroying the crops, good locations to catch the fish under current climatic conditions, thereby providing just-in-time assistance and support for their livelihood. SLNs could also be a powerful force for individual well-being and economic growth, particularly for developing regions.



Catering to the Middle of the Pyramid


From a technological perspective, as outlined by Ramesh Jain [1], world population can be divided into three groups (see Figure 1).




Figure 1. Global population pyramid


Approximately 1.5 billion people at the top of the pyramid, through their mobile phones and tablet computers connected to modern wireless communication networks, have access to immense information resources and a huge range of applications, while another two billion people lack any modern means of communication. In between these two groups are those in the middle of the pyramid (MOP) — the three billion people who have mobile phones but not useful applications. The majority of current mobile applications have been developed to meet the needs of the 1.5 billion living in developed countries, but not in MOP, though MOP now represents about half of the world’s population and continues to grow.


In his theory on a hierarchy of needs pyramid, Abraham Maslow classifies the needs of a person into basic or deficiency needs  such as physiological, safety, love, and esteem,  and growth needs such as cognitive, aesthetics and self-actualisation.  One must satisfy basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs.  Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualisation [2]. It is important, therefore, to first develop mobile applications that would support basic needs of people living in developing countries.

Social networks connect people to people. Social Life Networks (SLN) can connect people to resources [1]. Information about resources can be obtained using vast array of sensors now connected to the Internet. For instance, a person equipped with a mobile phone who can send a text and multimedia message is also a sensor in this global network. By aggregating the sensed information we can create valuable information resources that people can use to enhance some of their day-to-day activities, as outlined later.

Next Generation Social Networks: Social Life Networks

The second generation Web (Web 2.0) applications empower people to be both information consumers as well as producers. Emergence of applications such as blogs and wikis, and websites such as Wikipedia and YouTube offers this empowerment. Further the connectivity provided by Web 2.0 technologies to share information is fostering social connections through social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. Microblogging,  a form of communication in which users can broadcast their current status in short posts through instant messages, mobile phones, email or the Web, has now become very popular with Twitter and other such microblogging services.  Widespread and constant use of social networking websites and microblogging services highlight that the users are willing to share information, either with a defined group or publicly.

Leveraging the enormous reach of mobile phones equipped with sensors such as GPS, Camera, and microphonewe can now develop  the next generation of social networks that not only connect people to people but also capable of providing real-time local information of value to them by aggregating the information sent by their users via their mobile phones (see Figure 2). These networks can also provide timely access to essential resources such as healthcare, transportation, education, or even clean water [3].

 SLNs can be configured to allow people to post their multimodal experiences as microblogs using text or multimedia and specify any other information, such as their location or activity they are participating using some variant of check-in functionality.

Sensors in mobile phones can be used to automatically capture activity and other status related information about people unobtrusively. These phones also provide users the ability to easily capture audio-visual experiences and observations and post those easily, often requiring lesser effort than typing characters. User can share those information with either a limited group (as commonly done on Facebook), and broadcasting them for everybody (as is typically the case on Twitter). Several studies reveal that by aggregating such microblogs one can find useful value-added information related to evolving situations [1].


Figure 2. High-level view of social life networks


Potential Applicationsof SLNs for MoP

People in the middle of the pyramid need applications that can assist them with their day-to-day livelihood.  By aggregating micro information that we can obtain from billions of sensors including people with mobile phones, we can obtain comprehensive value-added information that helps the users in several ways.  We highlight below a few sample application scenarios.

Assisting selection of crops for cultivation

Often farmers tend to grow the same crop within a region, and this could cause potential over supply of crops. But farmers come to know, or realise, about over supply only when they bring their harvest to the market, and the oversupply reduces market price for the crop, disadvantaging the farmers. When the supply is abundant, farmers may not be able to even sell their crop.   Neither the farmers nor government agencies able to make necessary adjustments for lack of timely advance information on what farmers plan to cultivate, or have cultivated. And the yield could be affected various factors including availability of water, weather, and pest.  Farmers can make an informed decision on what crop to grow if they have mobile phone-based access to an information system to inquire what others in that region are growing.  The information system can provide this information only if most farmers use this system and indicate what crop they plan to grow. Aggregating the information provided by the farmers the information system can also inform the stakeholders what has already been grown.

Creating a better market dispersion

In many developing countries agriculture and fisheries plays a major role in the country’s economy. In a study, Jensen  investigated the effect of mobile phones on the fishing industry which is one of the important industries in Kerala, India [4]. Fishermen sell their catch almost locally as they do not have capacity to invest on proper storage and to take their catch to far away market places due to high transportation costs.  The local fishermen do not have vital information on their market conditions such as the competition, other suppliers and buyers, and may end up selling at a lower price than they could possibly demand.  This causes greater inefficiency in the process, high price dispersion and waste. But use of mobile phones by fishermen to gather relevant real-time information could address this problem. According to a study by Jensen,  using mobile phones the fisherman were able to exchange information about the market better and, as a result, the price dispersion was reduced, fish were allocated efficiently across the market, and waste was reduced [4]. Further, perhaps more importantly,  the study revealed that it has lead to welfare improvements for both fishermen and consumers --  fishermen's profits increased by 8%, consumer prices declined by 4% and consumer surplus increased by 6%.

In this scenario, however, every fisherman coming to the shore with a catch of fish has to call few people on the shore to get some idea about the prevailing market conditions along the shoreline. The fishermen then individually need to aggregate the sketchy information that they have received and decide where they should take their boats to optimize their income. And this is cumbersome for fishermen and is prone for errors. This process can be improved significantly by replacing the manual aggregation of information provided through the mobile devices with a system that can automate the aggregation of the information. This can also lead to many more people along the shoreline being able to provide the information about their need for fish for the day leading to creation of a more accurate picture of the prevailing demand. Such a system can easily be extended to other commodities such as vegetable and staple food. When this happens the fishermen who were mainly the consumers of the aggregated information can also become information producers by informing their needs for vegetables and other commodities. The farmers and merchants on the shore line can now become consumers of this broader source of local information.

Emergence of a New Ecosystem

Deployment and widespread use of such Social Life Networks has the potential to create a new ecosystem benefiting the community at large in the middle of the pyramid in many ways.




1. Jain, R., V. Sing, and M. Gao. Social Life Networks for Middle of the Pyramid. 2011; Available from:

2.  A. H. Maslow, A.H., A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 1943. 50: p. 370-396.

3. Ginige, T. and A. Ginige, Towards Next Generation Mobile Applications for MOPS: Investigating emerging patterns to derive future requirements, 2011.

4. Jensen, R.T., The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2007. 122(3): p. 879 − 924.