Posts Tagged Digital Divide

Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities

23 August 2011

Last week, I went in search of a few guidelines for using new network technologies– web-based and mobile-based– to help foster civic engagement and create social capital, and waded through a few pitfalls of these technologies as well. The two lessons I tried to distill out were: first, successful tools won’t simply offer an online environment, they will bridge the online world with offline communities and actions. Second, these tools will cross some of the cultural, political, class-based and interest-based boundaries that so often keep us in narrow information silos on the web.

In seeking to build social capital and bring people together not just online but offline, proximity is, of course, key. I don’t begrudge rural regions their elemental place in American society or question the importance of rebuilding social capital there, as well, but nowhere does new technology have greater potential to bring people together than in the city. Densely, diversely populated, well wired, and with a melange of public spaces, businesses and fora to bring people together– the city is the ideal environment to pursue these goals.

By bringing people together in cities over common concerns, the same tools can help make those cities more livable and more attractive. Of course, that’s good for people who already live there. What’s more, if city life is more appealing and less stressful, it could lure people back to cities. A trend toward urbanization would directly counteract the “sprawl and suburbanization” that Robert Putnam identified as contributing a full 10% toward the decline in social capital since the 1950s. And if that’s not enough for you, population density is, as David Roberts writes in a great series of blog posts over at Grist, “the sine qua non of sustainability.” That is, cities have, contrary to their sometimes sooty appearance, a smaller carbon footprint per capita than any village or town: the denser, the better. (more…)



Language, Literacy, and Rising Mobile Adoption

10 December 2010

The BBC had a good article this week about mobile-based learning tools. The piece doubled as a bit of self-promotion, as it discussed the BBC World Service Trust’s own project, Janala, which uses brief audio lessons to teach English to poor Bangladeshis. The other story is about Nokia’s Ovi Life tools, which has 6.3 million users in China, India and Indonesia, and just introduced in Nigeria. Nokia’s service uses SMS messages to teach English, instead of voice.

Much of the article focuses on the challenge of delivering content that is locally relevant and appropriate. Nokia’s service in Nigeria will use Hausa and pidgin English as available languages of instruction, just as they’ve used 11 regional Indian languages to make their service useful to Indians who don’t speak Hindi. Janala teaches English with a Bangladeshi accent, rather than the Queen’s, and replaced references to “tennis and hamburgers” with references to “cricket and rice.”  All good stuff.

But the question I want to zero-in on here has to do with the different models of instruction: voice vs. SMS.  I don’t want to take anything away from Nokia’s service– if they’re reaching over six million people, with over one million repeat users, they’re creating a valuable service. But around the world today there are more and more people who own mobile phones, and yet cannot read: people for whom SMS is useless.

In most countries, the literacy rate still exceeds the mobile penetration rate, but this won’t be true for long. Take a look at the graph below, which charts the growth rates in mobile penetration in a sampling of developing countries over the past 15 years. South Africa is in there as a fully-saturated market, to give you a sense of what the mature S-curve looks like:

Extrapolate those trends forward to today, and it’s a safe bet that 40-50% of Indians and Bangladeshis have a mobile phone, while the rate in Nigeria is creeping toward 60%. Literacy rates are still higher– India’s is around 66%, Nigeria’s is about 72%, Bangladesh’s is about 53%– but those numbers grow more slowly, at only about 1 or 2 percentage points each year over the past fifteen years. Probably sometime in the next two to three years, more Bangladeshis will own mobile phones than are able to read. The same will likely be true in India and Nigeria within four-five years, if not sooner. 

This should perhaps change the way we think about tools– not just learning tools, all tools– on mobile. If, very soon, there’s going to be a massive market of phone-owners without the ability to read, then how much can we make available by voice, as opposed to SMS? Earlier this year, I wrote about CGnet Swara, a citizen journalism service in Chhattisgarh, India, that’s entirely-voice based. What about banking services? Healthcare services? Even better, how might voice and SMS hybrid services be used to improve literacy? 

(Mike Trucano wrote about one project working on that problem here, and MobileActive.org covered another project here.)



Whither the Digital Divide?

1 December 2009

Digital Divide?We can’t say that the digital divide is gone, but it certainly is changing its shape, thanks to trends in mobile broadband adoption. NPR ran a story on Morning Edition today that reported on a Pew Hispanic Center study on the intersection of race and mobile use. I’ve written about this stuff before, and Simon covers it in his Dawn of a New Politics presentation– really interesting.

The data show, as you can see in the chart at left, that blacks and Hispanics use broadband and other features on their mobile phones at consistently higher rates than whites. The report offers four explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. Cost. In our networked world, everyone who can have broadband access wants it.  Mobile broadband is cheaper than in-home broadband.  Blacks and Hispanics tend to be lower-income, and so gravitate toward mobile.
  2. Youth. Young people tend to be early adopters. Black and Hispanic populations skew young.  ‘Nuff said.
  3. Network Effects: As more people in these communities adopt the technology, the effects are compounded as they pull in their families and other social networks.
  4. Convenience: Particularly for Hispanics, who tend to be more itinerant  and more in touch with family and friends abroad, connecting to the network via mobile makes a lot more sense than in-home broadband.

Is this a good thing? Surely.  In-home broadband connections are prohibitively expensive for many Americans, and in a world where it’s increasingly a necessity to be connected, it’s hugely important that there is a lower-cost option for lower-income people. 

But is this the end of the digital divide? Surely not. Blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income Americans do still lag in computer use and in-home, fiber broadband connections.  While mobile broadband is helping to level the playing field, there is a degree of functionality that is lost on a cell phone.

No more than about 40% of black and Hispanic users access the internet on their phones– reflective in part, no doubt, of the lower usability of mobile web– and that remains a critical indicator.  Until every parent can view their child’s grades online, and every student can learn to use the web for research, and every car buyer can search the internet for the best loan rates– until then, the digital divide will remain a reality we need to challenge. We should be encouraged by this report, but not complacent.

(h/t JS)