M4D: Money, Sex and Facebook

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I was invited by the organisers of the London ICT4D Group to come and talk about Mobiles for Development last night. This was a great opportunity to talk to an engaged and thoughtful crowd.

I took this as an invitation to reflect on my many years  professional experience working on technology and social justice issues for Tactical Tech and Fahamu and draw some threads together with my PhD research on socially excluded women in the UK and their use of mobile phones.

The original hype around mobile phones as a ‘leapfrog’ technology for poorer communities had been a big driver for my research initially as I was always curious as to the impact of these devices on marginalised communities closer to home. This talk was a chance to look in brief at these two issues side by side.

I pulled out three key findings from my research relating to Money, Sex and Facebook and looked in parallel at these issues and their resonance in the broader Mobiles for Development space.

Money

The potential for mobile phones to impact positively on economic development has been much hyped over the years. A much cited paper in ICT4D (ICT for international development) is Jensen’s 2007 paper on the use of mobile phones by Keralan fishermen: “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector“. According to Google Scholar it has been cited 836 times. In this paper Jensen argues that the fishermen’s ability to use mobile phones to find the best price for their fish has impacted positively on their economic status.

“Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.”

Given the popularity of Jensen’s thesis it was interesting to read (via Emrys Schoemaker) that it had been recently debunked. “Claims of mobile phone use by Kerala fishermen not supported by fieldwork” argues that new fieldwork shows that the fishermen weren’t using their phones for these purposes at all.

“None of our conversationalists used mobile phones to determine market prices at other markets, and when they use their phones it was to communicate with their home landing centers about practical or personal matters.”
http://steyn.pro/kerala/

For the women in my study mobile phones are an expensive outlay, as I’ve written about before on this blog.  40% of respondents reported financial problems associated with mobile use and some, like this respondent, had the burden of paying ex-boyfriend’s mobile contracts.

“How much a week do you get to live off? 
£80 a week…
So that’s quite a lot of your money going on the phone? 
Yeah about £10 a week… But I’m also paying for another contract. I gave it to my ex partner but he wasn’t paying for it. Now I have to pay the rest of that contract. So that’s another £15 a month”

The idea that there is a ‘poverty premium‘ for utilities, that the ‘poor pay more’ for mobile connections has resonance both with the respondents in my study, and on a global level. This respondent was paying about 15% of her income on mobile costs. ITU figures show that mobile costs in some of the word’s poorest countries can be in the region of 50% of monthly income. In Malawi, for example, mobile phone costs are calculated as 54.19% of monthly income.

Consumer surveillance

In my thesis I look at how the prevalence of mobile phone contracts amongst poorer young people in the UK is bound up with a higher level of consumer indebtedness. Analysis by a leading UK consumer site in 2014 found that the amount paid for a new iPhone on a two-year contract can be the equivalent as buying the phone with a 48% APR two-year loan. Research has also suggested that social networking sites are used by payday lenders to assess credit-worthiness of potential customers. Langley describes the mechanisms whereby consumers are ranked and scored as a “credit panopticon” which might be seen to be serving a political purpose: “an increasingly pervasive means of surveillance that divides “good” from “bad” credit consumers”. Given this, I was uneasy reading that people’s mobile phone data is being used to sell financial services to the poor in developing countries.

Sex

In my research I interviewed youth workers about their perception of the impact of mobile phones on young women in potentially abusive relationships.  One spoke about her experiences with her young clients.

“I think the technology is making the whole situation much much worse. Because without the technology there wouldn’t be the capacity or the ability to be able to stay in contact with somebody constantly. Its opened up a whole new way of controlling someone.”

Although this youth worker was concerned about the negative impact of mobile phones on vulnerable young women she spoke positively about apps such as SendThisInstead and the Sexual health app SWISH produced for young people in Brighton.

I was interested to read about the impact of an intervention in Uganda, whereby young people were offered free SMS based sexual health information. This had the unexpected impact of increasing risky sexual behaviour and promiscuity.

Quantitative survey results allow us to reject the hypothesis that improving access to information would increase knowledge and shift behavior to less risky sexual activities. In fact, we find that the service led to an increase in promiscuity, and no shift in perception of norms. We find the composite index of nonrisky behavior decreases (i.e. shifts toward riskier behavior), as does the index of nonpromiscuity. For infidelity, we find an increase overall from 12% to 27%.

The response of one informant in this Ugandan study captured the problem of the limits of technology based interventions in a situation where economic, structural issues mean the infrastructure isn’t there to support his needs.

“Now you have the information, and you are even told where to get further tests and treatment, but you don’t have money for treatment, or even transport to the place you have been referred to. Now have you been helped at all?”

Facebook and a new kind of digital divide

What other things do you look up on your phone or use the Internet for? 
Facebook that’s about it”

Finally, this quote from a respondent in my study captured how Facebook dominates young women’s use of mobile phones. For many of my respondents, Facebook and WhatsApp were the main uses they made of their phones. Mark Zuckerberg is hoping that this will also be the case for the  ‘next two billion‘ who will be connecting to the internet via their smartphones. Facebook are offering ‘zero rating’ connection, whereby people are able to connect to Facebook for free in developing countries. Whilst this is a great opportunity for people who might not otherwise be able to afford it to get online and connect it raises questions about a new kind of ‘digital divide’ and the potential positive impact of connection to the internet if it is limited to Facebook. This is reinforced by a recent study that showed that millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet.

Questions for practitioners 

I rounded up the presentation with some questions for people working in the M4D and broader fields.

  • How is the digital divide remaking itself in the era of ubiquitous smartphones?
  • Regarding the use of mobile data, what are our responsibilities to the communities we work in the post-Snowden era?
  • How can we ensure our interventions are impacting positively on gender relations?

Thanks to the organisers for a great event and for everyone who contributed to an excellent discussion afterwards.

Gender, technology and inequality: what my research is all about

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As I write up my research the stories in the data and what’s motivating me to do this work becomes clearer.  Here’s a brief extract:

This research is concerned with the unequal position in society of poorer young women in the UK and how we might understand this inequality in relation to their use of mobile devices. It responds to Green and Livingstone’s call to ‘gender’ the digital age in the face of what they see as an absence of gender in mainstream digital age theorising (2013). Feminist approaches underpin this research: a commitment described by Standing to “…translate between the private world of women and the public world of academia, politics and policy” but to do this “…without reinforcing the stereotypes and cultural constructions we are challenging” (1998)

This research asks questions about how these devices are helping poorer young women overcome the inequality they are experiencing in some aspects of their lives or indeed how these devices might be making this inequality worse.

It also looks how the use of these devices might be helping to produce and manage their gender identity (Yates & Lockley 2008). The research is driven by gaps in the data that have been identified in both the literature and data on the use of technology – and in particular mobile devices – by socially excluded young women.

Green, Eileen & Singleton, Carrie 2013. ‘Gendering the Digital’: The Impact of Gender and Technology Perspectives on the Sociological Imagination. Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, 34.

Standing, Kay 1998. Writing the voices of the less powerful: research on lone mothers. Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research: Public Knowledge and Private Lives. London: Sage Publications.

Yates, Simeon J. & Lockley., Eleanor 2008. IV Moments of Separation: Gender,(Not So Remote) Relationships, and the Cell Phone. In: Holland, S. (ed.) Remote relationships in a small world. Peter Lang.

Mobile HCI 2014: Mobiles and work-home boundaries

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I  recently attended the  Mobile HCI 2014 conference for a workshop on Socio-technical systems and work-home boundaries. I presented a paper on Work-Home Boundaries and Mobile Technologies in the Lives of Socially Excluded Young Women in the UK which drew on some of the early findings from my research. The workshop bought together a great group of researchers looking at how mobile technologies have enabled more porous boundaries between work and life, and the positives and negatives of this development.

“Its my baby! I can’t live without it”

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As academics we have a responsibility to communicate our ideas and findings to a broader audience. Posters are a great way to do this by making us capture key aspects of our research in a visually accessible format. I’ve just created one for the Postgraduate Conference for the Centre for Research in Computing at the Open University where I am based.

The quote “Its my baby! I can’t live without it” was a response from one young woman when I asked her how she felt about her phone. We both laughed when she said this – knowing that she was only half joking.

In my fieldwork I’m discovering a lot about our feelings of love, fear, resentment and addiction to our mobile devices and the central role they play in young women’s lives. For some women they are their sole means to access the internet: for homeless women they are invaluable for staying connected with friends, family and support agencies.

Whilst my research draws on ideas such as the capability approach, the ‘big question’ is  whether mobile devices are a good or a bad thing in the lives of socially excluded young women. I hope this graphic shows something of how I’m going about answering this question.

ResearchPosterJune2014

How mobile devices might be engineered for addiction

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I’ve been wondering why the women I’ve been interviewing are still using Facebook so much. Research on 16-18 year olds in London found that it is basically dead to them. Yet most of the women I’m interviewing (who are between 18-24) are still looking at Facebook a lot: often the first app they’re looking at after they wake up. This doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it – on the contrary they talk a lot about how its become boring, a routine. They’re also using a lot of other platforms – WhatsApp, SMS, Instagram – so its not a question of being loyal to a particular platform.

Reading a brilliant article about Addictive Technologies illuminated this issue for me in that it talks about how the platform is engineered to get you addicted to the ‘serotonin’ it emulates.

“Facebook doesn’t just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings–the positive ones at least–that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness.”

There’s lots of theory to help us understand what’s going on here – the technical codes in the design of the software and devices that reflect the cultural horizon of our society, the network effects that pulled the women onto Facebook in the first place – but this is an opportunity for a reflexive moment. I need to look more deeply at what we’re doing when we choose to look at a particular app, fiddle about with something on our phones, check Twitter again for a little serotonin buzz. I want to understand how these urges and ‘addictions’ then impact on decisions we make about what else we are doing with our phones; how much we spend on them and why we choose particular devices over others.

Social exclusion and smartphone poverty

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The women I’ve been interviewing for my fieldwork are between the ages of 16-24 and if they are in receipt of benefits they might get job seekers allowance of around £250 a month. Many of them are on smartphone contracts of anything up to £36 a month; approximately 15% of their income. Lots of factors can add to these costs: when a relationship ends women might find themselves paying off contracts for ex-partners in addition to their own contract.

Many women report unexpected debts related to smartphone use: going over their minutes limits on their contracts because they need to make a lot of calls to find work, or going over their data limits when they’re using a phone as a hotspot.  Smartphone contracts can be very complex and the way that information is provided by operators can feel opaque: women complain of not being able to access basic information on what they are paying per minute when they go over their talk allowance. Even the apps designed to help manage costs on a phone can be problematic; failing to update frequently enough for people who need to micromanage their call costs.

When I started my fieldwork I had no idea of how big a role money was going to play in the story of young women and mobile devices but it keeps on coming up as an important theme: broken contracts, smartphone related debt and expensive devices. Unlike our engagement with the energy companies, where public opinion and the work of consumer champions has made some impact, mobile operators don’t seem to be under the same sort of scrutiny. Although mobile phones (and in the case of 16-24 year olds this usually means a smartphone) are a necessary utility they seem to be placing an enormous financial burden on some of our most vulnerable young people.

I’m going to carry on talking to women about money and smartphones as I think this is an important issue, in the meantime it would be great to see more public debate and scrutiny about how some of the most vulnerable members of society are impacted by smartphone debt.

Code Red, Aunt Irma visiting and apps for women?

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I’ve not been blogging recently as I’m deep in fieldwork but I couldn’t resist this.

It was international women’s day recently, so what better time to learn about an incredible new app. Yes. Code Red. “A survival guide to her monthly cycle. Period.” This app is designed not to empower women to take control of their fertility, but instead to provide men with a day by day indication of their partner’s likely mood based on their menstrual  cycle: “Code Red Alert – Warns you that the Her-ricane is coming”. Maybe there are some women out there would would be deeply touched by the consideration demonstrated by their partner installing this app. But you know, I just wouldn’t.  Even though it does offer “Links to local vendors for presents, groceries and goods (via Google Maps)”. (Worrying side thought: Are we now going to see Google harvesting our menstrual cycle data, offering us targeted ads at particular times of the month?)

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Screenshot from Code Red app

The app creators say that ““Every month, women go through the same ups and downs, but the men in our lives never seem to catch on” and I can see that it might be helpful for some couples. I’m interviewing young women about what they are doing with their smartphones at the moment, and accessing health information in a confidential way is a very positive aspect of the role these devices are playing in their lives.

But getting their boyfriends to track their period? Not so much. Via the fascinating Menstruation Research blog  I was reminded of the hilarious IT crowd episode where Jen is forced to euphemise her PMT symptoms “I’ve fallen to the Communists”. I think I’d rather stick with the old crimson tide.

In light of International Women’s Day a lot of other issues are raised around gender and technology by this app: what does it mean when men are tracking women’s biology on their smartphones? How are these intimate relationships being mediated by technology? But I’ll leave those for another day.