Using mobiles in participatory research

I just spent a great week at the Participatory Technologies Camp in Hungary – working with one of my supervisors, Chris High, and a group of academics involved in action research and participatory research from Hungary, the UK, Ireland and Kenya, exploring how we might use different kinds of technology in participatory research. I ran two workshops to explore how we might use mobile technologies in research.

It was a great week – most notably for the amount of doing, rather than talking that was involved. We made films, we created short dramas, we made maps and finally we made horror films with mobile phones. Each process had its’ own reflective element – allowing us to capture the affordances and requirements of each technology.

In thinking about the methodology I’m going to use for my research I hadn’t fully considered up until this week the potential of co-creation and participatory techniques to tell stories and be a source of data for ‘serious’ research.

Piloting some ideas at this workshop made me realise how much potential there is to use mobile phones themselves as a tool in research – exploiting the multimedia and file sharing capabilities of even the most basic phones to allow people to tell stories and share experiences. I’m excited to expand and develop these methods more as I pilot my research in more depth over the coming months.

You can read a full  account of the workshops on the camp blog.


Ubiquitous computing – where the real action is?

I just spotted some fascinating research being presented at UbiComp 2012 “Takes a Transnational Network to Raise a Child: The Caseof Migrant Parents and Left-Behind Jamaican Teens” To quote the introduction:“In this paper we describe how mobile phones in particular have entered a complex care network and while they support some communications they have also contributed to many of the difficulties associated with migration.” 

This reminded me of a book review I wrote recently – “Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia” which has now been published.

Elsewhere at Ubicomp “Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse” was presented: “We want to argue here that colonialism is a much more pervasive aspect of ubiquitous computing than we normally give it credit for. In fact, it is entwined with all sorts of aspects of how we think, how we talk, and how we work in ubiquitous computing.

I love these critical engagements with the social and political aspects of technology that are apparent here. This reminds me to revisit the special issue of Interacting with Computers on “Feminism and HCI: New Perspectives and to keep checking in on what the HCI/Ubicomp scholars are up to.


Digital inclusion

New report on low and discontinued internet use amongst young people (1)

My response to the recent report from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Nominet Trust on young people living outside the ‘digital mainstream’ “On the Periphery  Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain” is going to take a couple of blog posts – its such a rich and important piece of work. It is the first time I’ve seen an exploration of the “..significant minority of young people who are not able to navigate or connect properly with the online world” and the implications this has for the lives and opportunities of these young people. It vividly demonstrates how wrong it is to typecast young people as ‘digital natives’.

But for now I’m just going to take up one point  raised in the report – (somewhat predictably) about the references to mobile phones. The report states how important mobile phones are in the lives of young people – “Mobile phones were typically considered to be very important for communication, and for the majority of interviewees their phone better met their social needs than the Internet.” The researchers go on to say that “It is worth stressing here, that those who had any kind of experience of using the Internet on a mobile device tended to describe it as being quite limited due to issues with speed, usability and cost” and that therefore “The notion of the mobile as a solution to digital exclusion seems to us not sufficient and based on inaccurate assumptions about this group.

Further on they say “We also found that while mobile phones or BlackBerrys can in some ways compensate for a lack of Internet, particularly when it comes to social functions and applications, they are not a sustainable solution with regard to purposes such as applying for jobs, education, and the search for housing, which were the main priorities for most of the young discontinued Internet users we interviewed.”

Anybody who has struggled to use mobile versions of websites might agree that its often a frustrating, time consuming process. For those young people described in the report who are challenged by a lack of cognitive resources – such as literacy skills – this must definitely be an issue.

But I have three challenges to the notion that mobiles aren’t a ‘solution’ to digital inclusion.

Firstly, there isn’t a single ‘solution’ to digital inclusion – as the report’s authors suggest in their conclusions (page 37) a raft of strategies are required.

Secondly, mobile technologies are very fast moving and the price of mobile data will change – so that may remove some of the barriers to ‘instrumental’ uses of mobile internet by young people.

Thirdly, there is the issue of user interface – and how we can address these challenges through better usability.

I just took a look at the Beta version of the gov.uk site on my Smartphone – checking out my entitlement to free childcare as an example of the kind of information a young, lone parent looking to return to work might be interested in. The stripped down, intuitive interface was easy to get to and clearly laid out and the language was plain and clear.

I don’t think mobile phones are ‘the’ solution to digital inclusion – what I do think is that the gov.uk site shows that a focus on usability has a role to play in overcoming digital inclusion by making it easier for anyone to access information about their rights and opportunities. We shouldn’t give up on mobiles just yet.

Digital inclusion

Measuring political participation with the capabilities approach

As I reflected in my last blog post, I’ve been wondering about how the capabilities approach might work as a lens for understanding technology and political participation in the UK, in particular when it comes to young women and the technology they love the most: the mobile phone.

Up until today I’d been looking at work from the ICT4D field so I was delighted to find a research programme at LSE on Equality, Capability and Human rights in the UK and Europe.

As I’m looking for a means to operationalise concepts to provide a framework for my research design it was great to read that one of the goals of the programme is to “ develop and implement a measurement framework based on the capability approach”. To this end, they worked with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help them develop The Equality Measurement Framework “ a measurement framework that can be used to assess equality and human rights across a range of domains relevant to 21st century life.” covering 10 domains of freedom and opportunity:

I was particularly interested in chapter 13 which looks at ‘participation, influence and voice’ which has the following sub-domains of capability:

A. participate in decision-making and make decisions affecting your own life independently

B. participate in the formulation of government policy, locally and nationally

C. participate in non-governmental organisations concerned with public and political life

D. participate in democratic free and fair elections

E. get together with others, peacefully

F. participate in the local community

G. form and join civil organisations and solidarity groups, including trade unions

This an interesting list: frameworks like this are what I’m looking for to help structure my research.

There’s also some really valuable information in there about where key data on political participation can be found. For example, the British Election study tells us that only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2005 General Election (compared to 76% of those aged 45-64). The Citizenship Survey tells us that 29% of 18-24 year olds took part in political activity in the last 12 months (compared to 44% of those aged 45-64).

But I’m wondering where the technology is in these frameworks. If our political lives are now mediated by technology, how are we defining and measuring that? And what are we doing with our mobile phones that might fit into these frameworks?

There’s broader questions here as well – how are young, unemployed people (especially young women) having ‘voice and influence’ in British society and are existing national surveys collecting this data?

Research, Theory

Technology as freedom and unfreedom: why I like the capability approach

I’ve been working with a new theoretical framework for my research over the summer. Capability theory draws on the writings of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is concerned with models of development that give people the freedom to choose the lives the value: giving us analytical frameworks to appreciate how people’s perceptions of their own situations and capacities might be constrained by poverty or social marginalisation. As a feminist who’s work is concerned with the lives of young women, its important to me that this framework is especially able to incorporate concerns of gender justice (Nussbaum, M., 2003)

Whilst these ideas are deeply embedded in development contexts – serving as the basis for indices such as the UNDP Human Development Report – its only in recent years that there has been a broader movement of people trying to use this framework to understand technology. A recent special issue of the Journal Information Technology for Development was dedicated this to this subject: “Development as freedom – how the Capability Approach can be used in ICT4D research and practice”.

I’m only just starting to engage with this theory but I’m really excited about it for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it gives us a language and framework to talk about technology and social justice – opening up a realm described by Justine Johnstone (2007) as ‘technological justice’ “looking at computer technologies in terms of their contribution to people’s abilities to define and lead lives that they value”.

Secondly, it works well with the notion of ‘affordances‘ I have previously discussed on this blog – the things which a certain technology might promote or inhibit and it also gives us space to interrogate the ideologies embedded in technologies. In her work on the Capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’ Dorothea Kleine (2011) talks about how these affordances can limit or allow freedom of choice. I particularly like the neat phrase “Technologies can be a source both of freedom and of unfreedom.” (2012)

So far, the work I’m reading on capabilities comes from the ICT4D (ICT for development) field. But I’ll save my post about ICT4D and why we can’t use the same theory to apply to technology and development in my own backyard for another day!


Johnstone, J. 2007. Technology as empowerment: A capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: Steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Kleine, D., Light, A. & Montero, M.-J. 2012. Signifiers of the life we value? – considering human development, technologies and fair trade from the perspective of the capabilities approach. Information Technology for Development, 18, 42-60.

Digital inclusion

The elephant in the room in the digital divide

The “digital divide” isn’t showing any signs of going away – more than 8 million adults in the UK aren’t online. I’m no statistician, but it appears there is a link between earnings and internet use: “Of those adults in employment whose gross weekly pay was less than £200 per week, 8.1 per cent had not used the Internet. The proportion of Internet non-users declines with each successively higher weekly pay band up to those paid £800 to £899 where there were no Internet non-users.”

I’ve been thinking about the digital divide in my professional life for many years, as I’ve worked with international NGOs exploring how technology can be used for political activism. But one of the many joys of PhD study is the opportunity to ‘go up a level’: to critically examine the assumptions underlying my professional life.

One of these assumptions is that there is a link between new media and democracy – that people want to participate in civil society, and that research on digital engagement doesn’t need to probe this issue.

In the academic context, Nick Couldry suggests that debates on the digital divide have been ‘fudged’. In an article written in 2002, but still deeply relevant today, he argues that we need to design research which doesn’t take it for granted that people are able to “name their own powerlessness”. Quoting a 76 year old respondent who “doesn’t want to be a full and active member of this stinking society”, he asks of researchers that we “avoid building in the researcher’s assumptions about what forms of wider connection are rational or desirable”.

Couldry, N. 2002. The forgotten digital divide: researching social exclusion/inclusion in the age of personalised media. Media in Transition: Globalisation and Convergence. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Digital inclusion, Uncategorized

Simulacra of support

My proposed research is set against a policy background of a crisis in youth employment in the UK – almost 1 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are classified as ‘NEET’ – not in education, employment or training.  The Youth Contract, recently launched by the Department of Work and Pensions is intended to address this issue.

But the revelation published by the Guardian last week,  that ‘acceptable personalised support’ provided to young people under the Contract can amount to a single, weekly text message depressed me.  Is that ‘support’?  Thats a Simulcra of support; not the real thing. The Baudrillard quote for the world Simulacra on Wikipedia pretty much sums it up  “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.

Is this what digital delivery of services means? Simulacra of support, simulacra of political engagement?



Book Reviews

Some thoughts on Polymedia

Academic writing on technology doesn’t reflect our contemporary experience of the ecology of communications; the choices we make about how we talk to the people in our lives and how we interact with institutions. Much of the literature on mobile communication that I’ve read focusses on voice or SMS.

But my Smartphone offers me the following ways of communicating; SMS, email, Tweeting, Google Plus, Instant messaging… Skype. Oh yes… and the phone! Each of these means of communication has its own texture, its own emotional nuance and range; a target audience. The communications ecology of my own family illustrates this. I wouldn’t Tweet my mum or my big sister, but I would send my little brother a message on Google Plus. I would send my big brother an SMS but I wouldn’t Skype him. I would email my dad but I won’t give him access to my locked Twitter account (sorry dad).

One of the many pleasures of reading ‘Migration and New Media’ by Mirca Madionou and Daniel Miller is how it captures what the authors describe as the ‘affordances’ of different modes of communications. The authors conducted a long term ethnographic study of Filipino women working overseas and the children they leave behind; looking at how these relationships are mediated by various kinds of communication technology.

The authors propose ‘polymedia’ as a means to understand a new territory of convergent communications which many of us now occupy;  beyond platform, channel or device. Within this framework people chose a means of communication (be it Facebook status update or shared meal over webcam Skype) not just because its convenient or available, but because the means of communication conveys a message too – “they become the idiom of expressive intent”. The structure as well as the content of the message conveys a message. A text message is a tool for ‘phatic’ (seemingly trivial) talk; checking in with loved ones.  In the book a young Filipino uses a blog for washing dirty family laundry in public, a woman who is separated from her young baby sings songs to her over a webcam; another young woman participates in a family funeral through a laptop which a relative carries through the event.

There is much else to say about this exemplary work – not least its engagement with the political economy of the ‘care chains’ which bring the Filipino  women to the UK in the first place – but I’ll save that for a journal review. For now, I’m figuring out what polymedia might look like for marginalised communities in the UK.

Digital inclusion

Digital by default?

Since I wrote my last post I’ve been thinking more about what digital refusenik-ism looks like in the age of the age of digital government by default in the UK.

Two personal anecdotes in particular set me thinking.

Over Christmas I arranged to meet a friend. He turned up (uncharacteristically) 45 minutes late. The reason? He didn’t  have a mobile phone to pay to park his car. He doesn’t hate technology – he just doesn’t own a mobile. My mum recently told me she thinks it’s no coincidence that mobile phones emerged as the rail service went downhill in this country – so people need to make the classic “I’m on the train” phonecall to alert loved ones of delays.

I really enjoyed this post by Paul Clarke on the shifts in design thinking necessary if digital by default is going to work – meaning that digital infomation delivery channels aren’t  crudely bolted on to existing information systems. He crisply outlines the three choices; redesigning from the ground up, forced channel shift to digital delivery by removal on non-digital choices, and thirdly making digital channels more attractive than non-digital channels.

The Cabinet Office are doing some nice work on making government services accessible and usable on a variety of platforms  – the Gov.uk beta site is a vast improvement on Direct Gov. But good design may not be enough.

If we take it as a given that for economic reasons digital by default is happening, how are vulnerable groups (such as the young people not in education, employment or training my research is concerned with) going to be mediating their relationships with government agencies?  If you don’t have the cash to pay for mobile data and you don’t have home internet access are you no longer entitled to receive information from government agencies?


Digital refuseniks and mugging proof phones

Digital refuseniks and mugging proof phones

One of the perils of being related to a PhD student is that at some point you might be seen as research fodder, or to put it more politely, an informant. This was the case over the holidays.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spectrum of digital refuseniks; from people who don’t want to be online at all to the ‘non-upgraders’ who refuse to swap their antique but reliable Nokia’s for a smartphone. This led me to quiz the non-upgraders amongst my family and friends about why they were sticking with their distinctly non-smart phones. An 18 year old living in West London wanted a mugging proof phone (a smart decision in a city where phones make you a target for assault), whilst busy women in their forties were sticking with the phones they knew how to use.

Others were being forced by their partners to turn off their phones over Christmas – expressive of a broader cultural shift into a more considered, measured use of technology – a digital diet.

The crudest interpretation of digital inclusion – which is one of the framing ideas of my research – equates familiarity and ease of access to technology with economic and social benefits. Whilst some great work has been done on ‘typologies’ and gradations of internet of use (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007) examining the degrees and types of engagement with digital tools, where does that leave the people who just don’t want to play the digital game?

I enjoyed Haddon’s work on domestication (2011) as he grounds an understanding of what people are doing with technology in the context of the non-technological aspects of their lives, and suggests that this may be a way to view these non-users as rational, critical consumers. What could be more rational than refusing to carry a device which might get you mugged? Or refusing to upgrade to a phone which has an unfamiliar – and probably unintuitive – user interface?

John Holmes (2011) has done some great work analysing Ofcom data on internet use by young people. He suggests that the ‘cyberkid’ discourse – which assumes that all young people are digital natives – disguises more complex truths about how our use of technology is informed more by our societal location than our peers.

In an important policy brief published last year Ellen Helsper (2011) warned of the emergence of a digital underclass characterised by socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, who might become unable to access public services which are becoming digital by default. My research is framed around the idea that young people who are ‘digitally excluded’ in some way might use their phones to get access to services.

I’m interested in finding out about how young people are playing the ‘cyberkid game’ with their phones. Are they playing it differently by sticking with their mugging-proof phones or not using the internet to access information? Are girls only interested in using their phones to maintain relationships ­ through BBM and Facebook?


Haddon, L. 2011. Domestication analysis, objects of study, and the centrality of technologies in everyday life. Canadian Journal of Communication, 36, 311-323.

Helsper, E. 2011. The Emergence of a Digital Underclass Digital Policies in the UK and Evidence for Inclusion, LSE Media Policy Project: Media policy brief

Holmes, J. 2011. Cyberkids or divided generations? Characterising young people’s internet use in the uk with generic, continuum or typological models. New Media & Society, 13, 1104-1122.

Livingstone, S. & Helsper, E. 2007. Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media & Society, 9, 671-696.