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How the spread of smartphones will open up new ways of improving financial inclusion

posted Dec 2, 2014, 9:28 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From Brookings Institution´s Tech Tank blog, 2 December 2014 (with David Porteous)] 

It’s easy to imagine a future in a decade or less when most people will have a smartphone. In our recent paper Pathways to Smarter Digital Financial Inclusion, we explore the benefits of extending financial services to the mass of lower-income people in developing countries who are currently dubious of the value that financial services can bring to them, distrustful of formal financial institutions, or uncomfortable with the treatment they expect to receive.

The report analyzes six inherent characteristics of smartphones that have the potential to change market dynamics relative to the status quo of simple mobile phones and cards. 

Customer-Facing Changes:

1. The graphical user interface.
2. The ability to attach a variety of peripheral devices to it (such as a card reader or a small printer issuing receipts).
3. The lower marginal cost of mobile data communications relative to traditional mobile channels (such as SMS or USSD).

Service Provider Changes:

4. Greater freedom to program services without requiring the acquiescence or active participation of the telco.
5. Greater flexibility to distribute service logic between the handset (apps) and the network (servers).
6. More opportunities to capture more customer data with which to enhance customer value and stickiness.

Taken together, these changes may lower the costs of designing for lower-income people dramatically, and the designs ought to take advantage of continuous feedback from users. This should give low-end customers a stronger sense of choice over the services that are relevant to them, and voice over how they wish to be served and treated.

Traditionally poor people have been invisible to service providers because so little was known about their preferences that it was not possible build a service proposition or business case around them. The paper describes three pathways that will allow providers to design services on smartphones that will enable an increasingly granular understanding of their customers. Each of the three pathways offers providers a different approach to discover what they need to know about prospective customers in order to begin engaging with them. 

Pathway One: Through Big Data

Providers will piece together information on potential low-income customers directly, by assembling available data from disparate sources (e.g. history of airtime top-ups and bill payment, activity on online social networks, neighborhood or village-level socio-demographic data, etc.) and by accelerating data acquisition cycles (e.g. inferring behavior from granting of small loans in rapid succession, administering selected psychometric questions, or conducting A/B tests with special offers). There is a growing number of data analytics companies that are applying big data in this way to benefit the poor.

Pathway Two: Through local Businesses

Smartphones will have a special impact on micro and small enterprises, which will see increasing business benefits from recording and transacting more of their business digitally. As their business data becomes more visible to financial institutions, local firms will increasingly channel financial services, and particularly credit, to their customers, employees, and suppliers. Financial institutions will backstop their credit, which in effect turns smaller businesses into front-line distribution partners into local communities.

Pathway Three: Through Socio-Financial Networks

Firms view individuals primarily as managers of a web of socio-financial relationships that may or may not allow them access to formal financial services. Beyond providing loans to “creditworthy” people, financial institutions can provide transactional engines, similar to the crowdfunding platforms that enable all people to locate potential funding sources within their existing social networks. A provider equipped with appropriate network analysis tools could then promote rather than displace people´s own funding relationships and activities. This would provide financial service firms valuable insight into how people manage their financial needs.

The pathways are intended as an exploration of how smartphones could support the development of a healthier and more inclusive digital financial service ecosystem, by addressing the two critical deficiencies of the current mass-market digital finance systems. Smartphones could enable stronger customer value propositions, leading to much higher levels of customer engagement, leading to more revelation of customer data and more robust business cases for the providers involved. Mobile technology could also lead to a broader diversity of players coming into the space, each playing to their specific interests and contributing their specific set of skills, but together delivering customer value through the right combination of collaboration and competition.

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