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.

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?


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.


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 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.


Finding out about finding out

First a note on what I’m doing here. This blog is a space to play with ideas in a loose, informal way – a way of recording my trains of thought outside of the constraints of formal academic writing. So forgive me for trains that go nowhere.

I’ve been ‘finding out about finding out’; exploring methodologies that have been used by researchers to concerned with people’s use of their mobile phones and smartphones. I’ve been keen to go outside the boundaries of science and technology studies to see what other disciplines might offer.

This has taken me from feminist critiques of the paradigms of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) studies, studies of social networking in Krygystan to large scale quantitiative studies of Finnish teenagers mobile phone usage habits. Studies using micro-ethnographies and day-long shadowing exercises to explore the material culture of modern motherhood. And reflexive anthropological studies of youth culture and mobile phones in Mozambique.

Ethical concerns and issues of access can take many forms. An HCI study where fieldwork took place in a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence (Dimond, J. P. 2011) showed how feminist action research can help minimise harm and intrusiveness. Researching ubiquitous computing in developing countries, an American team in Central Asia (Kolko, B.,2011) needed to state their opposition on the Presidency of George W Bush to gain the confidence of respondents.

Taking a broad disciplinary view has yielded great results. Shadowing techniques used in organizational studies (McDonald, 2005) seemed to throw up some great data on people’s sense of themselves and their roles, so it was a delight to see it used for a very different purpose – ‘micro-ethnographies’ of modern motherhood – by a research team at the Open University.

I’m also in the process of theoretically framing my work: aligning with or positioning against other theorists. Looking at where my work might fit in in the broader theoretical picture. Finding out how others have captured phenomena I’ve long observed in my professional life; such as Saskia Sassen’s descriptions of the complex ‘imbrications’ or layering of digital and material worlds.

These two processes are firing off each other. So, if we take the use of a mobile phones as mediated: what are the best methodologies for exploring that space, the mediated cultures between people and technology? What kinds of immaterial or affective labour are women doing with their phones? How might we find out what the digital divide looks like in the era of ubiquitous computing?


(Apologies for references from inaccessible scholarly journals – read a great rant on this topic by Danah Boyd!) 

Dimond, J. P., Fiesler, C. & Bruckman, A. S. 2011. Domestic violence and information communication technologies. Interacting with Computers.

Kolko, B., Putnam, C., Rose, E. & Johnson, E. 2011. Reflection on research methodologies for ubicomp in developing contexts. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 15, 575-583.

Mcdonald, S. 2005. Studying actions in context: A qualitative shadowing method for organizational research. Qualitative Research, 5, 455-473.

Sassen, S. 2002. Towards a sociology of information technology. Current Sociology, 50, 365-388.


Don’t shoot the (BlackBerry) Messenger….

This is a post I wrote in August 2011 reflecting on the role of the BlackBerry Messenger in the riots in the UK.

The causes of the riots which tore apart the UK’s inner cities this week are unclear, yet a technological scapegoat is emerging which I couldn’t let pass by without comment.

My research interest is in the potential role of mobile technologies in overcoming social and digital exclusion in young people not in education, employment or training (or ‘NEET’) and this seemed like an opportune moment to share a snapshot of some unexpected findings from my Masters Research earlier this year.

The messaging service BlackBerry messenger has been blamed for providing a communications channel for rioters, leading to calls from UK MPs to shut down the service and a critical response from those concerned about the implications for UK civil liberties of such actions.

My recent research on mobile phones and the digital divide was carried out with young people from the same communities that were being ripped apart during last week’s riots. These committed, hard working and inspiring young men and women were designing and creating mobile apps aimed at tackling social issues in their communities, on an inspiring pilot course run by Apps for Good.

Inspired by Rich Ling‘swriting on the significance of mobile phone brands to young people, I explored technology choices with participants. They all spoke about the ubiquity of the BBM use amongst young people (which resonates with OFCOM research on smartphone use). To quote one of the young people:

“EVERY teenager from the age of eleven, not even twelve, eleven… I see kids younger than that with BlackBerry’s now…

Because of that… thats the appeal for them?

“The appeal is for the messaging.”

Because you can use it internationally as well?

“Yeah….Here and message to the States. And to me thats what every kid do. You go on the bus now and you see a kid thats over twelve you can see him with a BlackBerry typing…. They would be broke and still find money to put on their pin [referring to purchasing more credit for their BB messaging account]”

One participant in my study spoke about the need to buy a BlackBerry to exploit weak ties – in this case connections to colleagues in the music business with whom he was loath to share his mobile number but happy to share his messaging ID.

So what does this tell us?

Young people are tied into platforms which are compatible with their peer’s devices. In the case of the BlackBerry – the networks they are using are created by the manufacturers – and are limited to other people using the same device. But does that mean we should shut down the networks if they are abused for criminal purposes? The reductive technological determinism implied by this idea jars with the complex, ‘polymedia‘ world inhabited by young people in inner city communities.

From a research perspective, it’s gratifying to note that ethnographic approaches can reveal unexpected and useful findings about our relationship with technology.

I’d love to discuss these issues further and share more information on my PhD research – if you’re interested please get in touch.