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?


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 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?

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.