11/05/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Seizing the Mobile Opportunity

We are in the midst of a mobile revolution. By next year, there will be more mobile subscriptions than humans on the planet, and mobile phones are creating change in communities throughout the world. Mobile phones not only connect people to each other, but to vital health information, commercial markets, and financial services like savings and payment accounts. And these are just early uses; mobile innovation is flourishing.

With less than 800 days to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - eight goals embraced by the United Nations and governments to improve the lives of the world's most vulnerable by 2015 - mobile technologies are playing an increasingly important role in accelerating development efforts.

This December, thousands of experts, innovators, and leaders from government, business, and civil society will come together at the fifth annual mHealth Summit to discuss the use of mobile technologies to advance global health. The field of mobile health (mHealth) has shown tremendous promise in recent years to advance, in particular, child and maternal health (MDGs 4 and 5).

At this moment, pregnant women - many of whom don't have easy access to a health worker or facility - are receiving health information through their mobile phones to promote safe pregnancies. Mobile phones are tracking disease outbreaks, speeding up diagnoses, educating citizens on how to stay healthy, and reminding families to vaccinate their children. And they are helping front-line health workers provide better care and more effective treatment for their patients.

Given its benefits, the field of mHealth is growing. The mHealth Alliance, an innovative partnership hosted by the United Nations Foundation, brings together experts from multiple sectors to drive collective action on mHealth in low- and middle-income countries. Since the Alliance was created nearly five years ago, numerous initiatives on child and maternal health, including the 26 recipients of the Alliance's catalytic mHealth grants, have incorporated mobile technologies into their programs. This integration is helping to foster collaboration between the public health sector and private sector companies, as well as improve health outcomes.

Mobile health efforts are also helping drive progress on other important global challenges. For instance, many mHealth programs are becoming increasingly integrated with financial transactions and mobile money, helping to fight poverty (MDG 1). And mobile technologies are helping to empower women and promote gender equality (MDG 3) by providing autonomy and access to health and other information and services. That is why we must do more to close the gender gap in technology: A report from GSMA found that women in low- and middle-income countries are 21 percent less likely to own a cell phone than men. We need to make sure women have access to mobile technology and that mHealth programs take their needs and context into account.

Our challenge - and our opportunity - over the next roughly 800 days is to maximize the use of mHealth technologies to make progress toward the MDGs, especially the goals to reduce child and maternal mortality, which require stronger action. We need to grow the body of research in mHealth, scale up projects that have been proven successful, and develop new and innovative technologies and programs.

At the same time, we need to make sure that mHealth and the broader field of mobile technology are included in the discussion around the post-2015 development agenda. Right now, the international community, under a process led by the United Nations, is planning for what comes after the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. This new agenda will provide shared global goals and a roadmap to get us to a more sustainable, fair, and equitable world by 2030. Mobile technologies and services can and must play an important role in achieving this brighter future.

Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released a report that discussed the mobile opportunity, writing, "The number of mobile phone subscriptions has risen from fewer than a billion to more than 6 billion, and with it many mobile (m-) applications - m-banking, m-health, m-learning, m-taxes - that can radically change economies and service delivery in sustainable way." To realize the promise of this technology, we must make sure that mobile is a key part of the development dialogue in the years to come.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of the power of mobile. It's potential to drive development both now and post-2015 is enormous: From alleviating poverty to expanding educational opportunities to improving health, mobile technologies can help transform the lives of billions. Now we must seize this opportunity.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, the mHealth Alliance and HIMSS Media in conjunction with the mHealth Summit, which will take place in the Washington, DC, area on December 8-11, 2013. The Summit brings together leaders across sectors to advance the use of wireless technology to improve health outcomes, both in the United States and globally. For more information about the mHealth Summit, click here.