All, Digital inclusion, Research, Uncategorized

‘Human-battery interaction’ – some work in progress

I’m working on a section of my thesis on the battery life of mobile phones which has been illuminated by the work of Ahmad Rahmati on ‘human-battery interaction’. Below is an extract from a first  draft of this chapter.  When I mention women’s capabilities I’m referring to the theoretical framework of the capability approach which I’m using in my research to critically examine the impact of smartphones on the lives and opportunities of socially excluded young women. 

Why do you hate your phone?
Mainly because of the battery…

Morgan’s response to the question of why she hated her phone was not unusual in this study: for many respondents poor battery life was a major annoyance. This is also possibly related to the fact that, for the 11 homeless women in this study, finding a place to charge their phones was difficult.

This is in part down to technological constraints. Battery life has not kept up with the speed of the phones themselves: “Battery capacity, in terms of volumetric or gravimetric energy density, improves at a much slower pace than computing capacity” (Rahmati et al. 2009 p.466). This is shown in the experience of respondents who reported that the battery life of their phones was less than a day. In contrast, two of the feature phone users in this study, Kayla and Rebecca reported a battery life of three to four days.

Jessica was 21 and homeless.
What’s the battery life [on your phone] like?
Like a day?
Not even that, if you’re texting your friend for about an hour it goes down to 50%. And I don’t actually have a charger for it myself.

Tanya, 17, was also homeless and had resorted to paying a pound in central Brighton to get her phone charged for half an hour because the battery life was so poor. Zara had also paid to get her phone charged but related the fact that it needed charging regularly to the variety of functions the phone served for her.

Would it [battery] go in a day? half a day?
A day easily but thats because of all of the stuff that you use on there.
Did you ever pay to go and get it charged in town?
We have done yeah, like a pound or something.
Did it annoy you that you had to do that?
It is quite annoying as you pay enough for the phone.

Emma complained about the battery life on her iPhone, saying that it had gone down to half way already that day at the time of the interview at 10.30 in the morning. The field notes record an observation that her battery life might have been linked to her compulsive checking of her phone.

We talk about battery life and she says her charge is really bad. She has charged it fully that morning and it is gone down to halfway already even though it was only about 1030 in the morning when I interviewed her. She was fiddling with her phone constantly – just locking and unlocking it almost compulsively. When I asked her about this she says she’s looking at the time and checking on her battery life. She was talking about how rubbish her battery life was and she even mentioned that she thought it might be because of this fiddling about. 

Megan’s perception was that the battery life on her phone had declined since she first got the phone.

I’ve known my phone to go from fully charged to completely dead within two hours, watching films, playing music.
Has the battery life gone down a lot since you got it?
Yeah its probably halved.

Megan’s experience is related to the fact that the batteries used in the generation of smartphones used by women in this study start declining immediately after manufacture. A finding which was reinforced in Rahmati et al’s study.

Most mobile phones employ rechargeable Lithium-ion (Li-ion) or Lithium-ion polymer (Li-poly) batteries, which enjoy improvements over previous generations, such as nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH)… An important drawback of Li-ion and Li-poly batteries is that they start aging immediately after manufacture, even if not used . Battery lifetime becomes noticeably shorter after several months of usage, and this was reported by participants in our four-month field trial. (Rahmati and Zhong, 2009 p.466)

In the same study the authors found that users were not making effective use of the power saving settings on their phones which might have increased the battery life.

While virtually all mobile phones provide user adjustable power-saving settings and other settings that impact battery life, they usually remain unused and ineffective. (ibid. p.475)

Other work by Rahmati et al. links larger overall levels of smartphone use and impact on battery use with Socio-economic status. They conducted a longitudinal study comparing iPhone usage among two groups of college students with different Socio Economic Status (SES) and found that users with lower socio-economic status had much higher overall usage of their phones.
On one hand, the iPhone offered the lowest SES users access to technology for information and entertainment that was used very frequently, much more than others at higher SES levels. For the women in this study this is related to their ‘digital exclusion’: less then half of respondents had their own computer so were invariably using their smartphones for more activities.

By relating complaints about battery life to a broader sense of ’poor perceived usability’ this study shows how this particular maintenance affordance might impact on women’s capabilities to lead lives they value. Firstly by interrupting their connectivity when their batteries run out and secondly the cost burden of payment for charging phones.

Rahmati, A., Tossell, C., Shepard, C., Kortum, P. & Zhong, L. Exploring iPhone usage: the influence of socioeconomic differences on smartphone adoption, usage and usability. Proceedings of the 14th international conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices and services, 2012. ACM, 11-20.
Rahmati, A. & Zhong, L. 2009. Human–battery interaction on mobile phones. Pervasive and Mobile Computing, 5, 465-477.

All, Uncategorized

M4D: Money, Sex and Facebook

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.


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.”

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.


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.

Theory, Uncategorized

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

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.

All, Uncategorized

Mobile HCI 2014: Mobiles and work-home boundaries

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.

All, Uncategorized

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

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.


All, Uncategorized

Social exclusion and smartphone poverty

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.

All, Digital inclusion, Open University, Theory

Opening up to debates: capabilities, affordances and consequentialism

Last week I presented some thoughts on capability theory and digital inclusion at the Open University’s Society and Information Research Group.

There was a great discussion afterwards and I’d like to thank the individuals involved for their contribution. Some issues raised include the following:

  • What do we know about the way in which smartphones might be making young people vulnerable to crime?
  • Are ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook appealing environments to young people with limited ‘digital capabilities’?
  • In our gradations of digital inclusion, in future years will we be seeing more and more refuseniks who are sophisticated manipulators of their online persona’s – individuals who are politically opposed to the increasing encroachment of surveillance technologies into everyday life?
  • How might we use the theories of Foucault and Latour to understand the power dynamics experienced by marginalised young women in their interactions with the state?

All of these will feed into my research at a later date. A couple of issues were raised which I want to share some brief thoughts on here.

How do we understand the relationship between affordances and capabilities?
This last question feels very cogent for me right now as I feel that both terms provide a means to articulate the dynamics between a technology, individual agency and the state. It was suggested during the discussion that affordances (“functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001) 444) might be a means to directly interrogate a technology’s use, and that capabilities might complement this by enabling us to understand the socio-technical framework – the imbrications of society and technology, and the structures (network operators, software designers etc) which shape our uses of technology.

How does capability theory handle people’s ‘competing’ rights?
A further discussion looked at the ethical underpinnings of capability theory: the challenges of ‘ranking rights’. Alexander (2008) describes Sen’s theory as ‘broad consequentialism: a way of looking at the consequences of exercising rights. This ‘pluralistic consequentialism’ suggests that a a variety of fundamental principles can be taken into account when assessing a situation or a policy. This is set against the monistic model of utilitarian philosophy which suggests that only utility can be taken into account. Alexander shows how rights and capabilities are not equivalent – but are interdependent so without capabilities you cannot exercise rights.

All in all this discussion showed me the value of opening up work for debate and discussion at an early stage, and reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant and challenging intellectual environment at the Open University.

Bibliography of works cited

Alexander, John M. 2008. Capabilities and social justice : the political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Pub. Ltd.

Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009. Equality Measurement Framework: 13. Participation, influence and voice, London, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Eynon, R. & Geniets, A. 2012. On the Periphery? Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain, Nominet Trust

Hutchby, I. 2001. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology, 35, 441-456.

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.

Johnstone, Justine 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.

Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as freedom, Oxford University Press.