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, 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.

Digital inclusion, Research

Universal credit, assisted digital and some unanswered questions

I’ve been trying to pull some threads together in reaction to some recent reports reflecting changes in the structure and delivery of benefits and also a new report on the challenges faced by young people seeking work. How are the digital channels involved in the systems supporting young people on benefits and into work playing out against our stereotype of the young person as digital native? How might this play out differently for young men and women?

From April 2013 the government is introducing a new system of ‘universal credit‘: replacing income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance or housing benefit. The DWP claims the new Universal Credit system will: “improve work incentives, supporting a dynamic labour market simplify the system, making it easier for people to understand, and easier and cheaper for staff to administer, reduce in-work poverty and cut back on fraud and error”. Yet these proposed changes have come under attack from various angles.

The Women’s Budget Group suggests that the method by which the universal credit is paid to one member of a household may  exacerbate existing gender inequalities by concentrating financial resources and power into the hands of one person.

The union Unison is has warned “ Many people who will move to Universal Credit are socially excluded, and are on the wrong side of the digital divide.” The Government’s response to the challenge  challenge is Assisted Digital – a ” range of developments, strategies, and actions aimed at ensuring that no one is left behind” in the shift to ‘Digital by Default’ government.

The government is also considering the use of social media sites to allow people to access public services – including benefits – which could be seen as benefitting young people who are heavy users of these sites.  However in my role as Mobiles Specialist at Tactical Tech I’m lucky enough to be part of a critical response to the opaque and confusing security settings on these sites. There are multiple reasons to be concerned about the privacy issues of this process: most people do not use particularly robust security for their social media accounts and we can’t be sure that there won’t be data leakage given that Facebook is scanning users email for links.

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released this month highlights the multiple challenges facing young people looking for work and shifts to digital channels are impacting on jobseekers: “The recession has affected job supply in all areas. intense competition means advertised jobs can be filled within days or even hours…. even well-qualified candidates can face repeated rejection…. jobseekers without constant access to the internet are at a disadvantage”. The report highlights how employers are increasingly using the internet for recruitment and how young jobseekers need to be able to search daily and respond to vacancies quickly.

Lets not forget that gender matters too in internet use – Hargittai’s study of digital inequality in the US 18- to 26-year-old American adults, shows that “women are less likely to claim knowledge about online terminology and features, and those who use the Web infrequently also report lower levels of know-how about it.” (Hargittai, E. & Hinnant, A. 2008. Digital Inequality Differences in Young Adults’ Use of the Internet. Communication Research, 35, 602-621.)

So to bring the threads together – there are major shifts not only in the channels used to help young people find work and get support whilst out of work, but also in the types of benefits they will be receiving. Again – young people who are online at home, and have the cognitive skills to use the internet effectively to search for work and respond quickly to vacancies are at a clear advantage.

I’m reminded again of the “..significant minority of young people who are not able to navigate or connect properly with the online world” cited in the recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Nominet Trust. I’m thinking about the people who fall in between the gaps – like the young people using the library for internet access quoted in this reportOne day I was doing that assignment; there was a deadline; (…) and then suddenly the library closed and they told me to log off. And I was just—I told her, but she was like, “No, it is closing time, I cannot give you more time.

I can’t bring these threads together because I’m just left with more questions: What is the long term future for assisted digital? Does the government really going to trust Facebook to be part of benefit provision in the UK? Where is the Smartphone in all of this? Are men and women experiencing this inequality differently?

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 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 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?

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?



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 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?