Archive for sharing behavior
Molly Steenson and I wrote an article on handset sharing, based on her fieldwork in Bangalore. The chapter is now available in The Reconstruction of Space and Time: Mobile Communication Practices, edited by Rich Ling and Scott Campbell. In the chapter we describe different forms of handset sharing we observed, and their relationship to the physical spaces in which we observed them.
We saw lots of instances of basic, conspicuous sharing (X borrows Y’s phone with ‘s permission). We also saw stealthy sharing (X borrows Y’s phone, and hides his tracks doesn’t make that clear). In business settings, we observed mobiles imitating landlines, so that incoming callers were ‘place seeking’, expecting to call a partiuclar business, even if they did not know whom would pick up the line.
Most quirky of the four modes we saw is ‘person seeking’ or ‘approxi-calling’. If X wants to find Y, but Y does not own a mobile (common among teens in Bangalore in 2006), then X might call Z if he/she thinks it is likely that Y and Z are nearby to each other. The better X knows the social habits of Y, the better chance X has of calling a mobile which will be proximate to Y at the right time of day. Y and Z are thus sharing a handset, but the sharing behavior is initiated by an external and non-proximate third party, X.
There are many interesting papers in the volume, including “Migrant Workers and Mobile Phones“ by Fernando Paragas, which examines how mobile use provides increased opportunities for temporal and spatial simultanaeity with lives back at home.
Last month, Kathleen Diga at IDRC pointed out a very interesting paper by Megumi Muto and T. Yamano at the Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute, called “The impact of mobile phone coverage expansion on market participation: panel data evidence from Uganda”. The paper joins earlier work by Jensen and Aker in examining the mobile’s role in transforming agricultural marketplaces via quantitative analysis. Abstract here:
Uganda has recently experienced a rapid increase in the areas covered by mobile phone networks. As the information flow increases due to the mobile phone coverage expansion, the cost of crop marketing is expected to decrease, particularly more so for perishable crops, such as banana, in remote areas because the increased information allows traders to collect perishable products more efficiently. We use panel data of 856 households in 94 communities, where the number of communities covered by mobile phone networks increased from 41 to 87 over a two-year period between the first and second surveys in 2003 and 2005, respectively. We find that the proportion of banana farmers who sold banana increased from 50 to 69 percent in the communities more than 20 miles away from district centers after the expansion of the mobile phone coverage. For maize, which is another staple but less perishable crop, we find that the increased mobile phone coverage did not affect market participation. These results suggest that mobile phone coverage expansion induces market participation of farmers who are located in remote areas and produce perishable crops.
Although, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not a sufficiently skilled econometrician to assess the quality of the statistical models employed in the paper, I found both the paper’s underlying rationale and findings interesting for a number of reasons.
1. They “explicitly consider pathways in which better access to information increases income” (p50), distinguishing between changes to prices and market participation. In this case of bananas (plantains I think), they find no clear effects of mobile use on prices, but rather on market participation (the proportion of agricultural households in a given region who sell part of their crops in the market. They suggest that in the absence of competition between traders, households were more likely to participate in the markets (marketing the availability of ripe bananas for sale to traders), but that traders were able to keep prices paid to these homes relatively low.
2. They back up their model with field surveys, learning how, for example, “traders use mobile phones to set up a time and place to trade banana”, whereas in the absence of mobiles they just arrive unannounced and buy what’s available, waiting until their trucks are full (See Overa).
3. By accounting for distance, they tackle the complex interaction between mobiles, transport costs, and the availability of alternate face-to-face channels for information exchange — indeed they find clearer effects on market participation levels among households situated at least 12 miles away, and even more so at 20 miles away
4. by running the model for different products, and finding different results, Muto and Yamano illustrate the degree to which the mobile’s impact on agriculture, and on enterprise in general, remains quite context-specific. They find the participation model predictive in the case of perishable bananas, but not for less-perishable maize. Reconsidering the Jensen results in light of the Muto&Yamano study illustrates how the presence of multiple (competitive) markets and the pressure of a highly perishable product may have made the Keralan fish market particularly receptive to improvement via mediated communication. Thus the Uganda paper is a helpful cautionary note to those who might be tempted to make generalizable claims about the impact of mobiles in agriculture based on a handful of undeniably excellent studies.
And a couple of minor points for mobile phone researchers:
5. Their model actually does not offer much predictive power at the level of individual households; rather, the results are interpreted at the sub-regional level, comparing places with mobile coverage to those without, rather than homes with mobile coverage to those without. One could ‘unpack’ this a little more than the authors do in their article– perhaps once the trader is summoned by one household with a mobile, others nearby share the benefit of that call and can also sell ripe bananas. Or, perhaps there is more explicit sharing of handsets, such that even farmers without phones of their own can access one and use it to call traders to purchase and transport ripe bananas. We’re making strides on handset sharing but there is room for greater attention to it in our quantitative assessments of impact
5. Finally, despite the attention to mobile telephones and network coverage, this is still a paper about connectivity and the compression of distance, rather than mobility per se. While it is possible that the traders at the other end of the calls from the producers would be unreachable by landlines, the model can’t account for that. We have to look to Overa for that assessment.
In summary, Mutu and Yamano identify greater impacts of the mobile on the marketplace for perishable bananas than for not-so-perishable maize, and find larger effects for distant/remote farmers, for whom information exchange via face-to-face channels is less possible, and for whom the appeal of replacing travel with a phone call would be higher. Studies like these help the ICTD field develop a better understanding of which marketplaces are likely to be impacted by a step-change in the accessibility and affordability of telecommunications services, and which ones are not.
Jenna spoke about her current fieldwork (with an emphasis on mobile phone sharing) in Rural Uganda. Wesley Shrum of LSU shared some initial findings about increased sociability among mobile users in Nairobi. Tom Molony of the University of Edinburgh spoke about mobile use on the streets of Dar es Salaam, with an emphasis on how some small enterprises took advantage of the ‘mobility’ as opposed to simply the connectivity functions of the device.
I did a bit of a re-synthesis of my Africa studies, combining the small enterprises surveys with the open-ended interviews to illustrate how varied (and incomplete) our understanding of mobile’s role in development remains. I contrasted the kinds of high-clarity results available from narrowly focused papers like Jenson’s Digital Provide (which focuses narrowly but so effectively on one independent variable (mobile Use) and one depended variable (price of fish) with broader explorations. These broader approaches so far either place mobile use in context of other communication behaviors like face to face interactions and internet use, or expand the range of behaviors under examination to include both instrumental (enterprise/developmental) uses and intrinsic and/or social uses. This broadening comes with a cost, of course, as the ‘impact’ of mobile use is harder to isolate. Initial slides are here.
Unfortunately, a few others Mohammed Mohammed from Intel, Hsain Ilahiane from Iowa State University and our discussant Don Slater were unable to attend the panel and were each missed, both during the session and during the lively chats occurring afterward, over coffee.
Congrats to Jenna, by the way, for winning the Nicholas C. Mullins Award, given by the Society for the Social Studies of Science for “an outstanding piece of scholarship by a graduate student in the field of Science and Technology Studies.” Her paper explored “West African Internet Scams as Grassroots Media Production”
July 22nd, 2008 sharing behavior
Click over to LIRNEasia to read about the proposed (and, it seems, now delayed) law in Sri Lanka to a) require a proof-of-SIM-ownership certificate to be carried along with one’s mobile and b) to prohibit the sharing of mobile phones. This is a level of regulation of individual behaviors which would go far beyond common requirements to register SIMs at the time of sale.
There are issues of national security under discussion here (urgent ones, given the conflict on the island), but at LIRNEasia points out, this law would be especially onerous for lower-income users, among whom mobile sharing is quite common.
I’ve written about Ken Banks’ work with kiwanja.net from time to time. Ken just completed a lengthy interview with the technology program Spark on CBC Radio One. It’s a very good overview of some of the most interesting implications of the spread of mobiles in Africa. The short form touches on m-banking, microenterprises and livelihoods. The longer form adds Ken’s comments on shared phones, low-cost handsets, and beeping/flashing/missed calls/’please call me’.
Over the years, I’ve been keeping an eye on the research literature about mobile use in the developing world. I first presented a version of this review at a conference in Hong Kong in 2005. Now, thanks to Leopoldina Fortunati’s efforts to pull together a special issue of The Information Society, the review has finally been published. Thanks also to the editors at the Information Society, and to the reviewers who provided such valuable feedback at various stages.
There’s a lot more of the literature to cover than there was when I started this back in 2005. And, since it is an interdisciplinary review, I’m sure to have missed some citations. Nevertheless, it has been a great exercise for me to get a sense of what’s out there, and to become familiar with the diverse work of an amazing set of researchers along the way.
I hope some of you find this review a useful input to your own work.
Donner, Jonathan. (2008). Research Approaches to Mobile Use in the Developing World: A Review of the Literature. The Information Society 24(3), 140-159.
This paper reviews roughly 200 recent studies of mobile (cellular) phone use in the developing world, and identifies major concentrations of research. It categorizes studies along two dimensions. One dimension distinguishes studies of the determinants of mobile adoption from those that assess the impacts of mobile use, and from those focused on the interrelationships between mobile technologies and users. A secondary dimension identifies a subset of studies with a strong economic development perspective. The discussion considers the implications of the resulting review and typology for future research.
Some perspectives today from the Hindu Business Line on the needs of rural mobile phone users in India. The article covers a lot of ground; missed calls, sharing, livlihoods, and text-free user interfaces figure prominently. I thought this quote was particularly interesting:
If you thought missed calls is a purely Indian phenomenon, think again. Says Sarup [from Nokia], “I too thought so but was amazed to see this phenomenon in Africa. There they call it ‘flashing’, and the basic message is ‘Call me back’.
Having spoken to users in both spots (India and Africa) about beeping/flashing/missed calling, I’ve been impressed by how people want to describe the practice as something unique to their region. One of my interview participants started his explanation of beeping with: “you see, in Rwanda, we have a culture…”. I think it has to do with how people learn to beep/flash/miss call. They’re introduced to the practice by friends and family, not by websites or manuals. Beeping is therefore perceived as a social practice, as a (re) creation of the people they know, rather than a property of the handset or even the network to which it connects.
Putting people first highlights a new piece of research, which makes me wish I read French.
The French newspaper Le Monde reports on new research, published today, that shows how mobile phones are increasingly becoming objects of collective use.
The research, which involved six months of field observations and interviews, was commissioned by the French Association of Mobile Operators and managed by researchers of Gripic, a research group of the information sciences school Celsa at the University of Paris-IV-Sorbonne.
For monoglots like me, the post on putting people first has relatively lengthy translations of some of the findings, which include observations of family sharing patterns as well as beeping/missed calls. It’s not exactly focused on the developing world, but the beeping and the sharing make it worth mentioning here.
August 18th, 2007 sharing behavior
I found this on LIRNEasia’s blog today — a pointer to an interesting article on Grameen Village Phone by Richard Shaffer at Fast Company. The whole thing is worth a look, but the point is this: as more people in Bangladesh acquire mobile phones, operating a village phone franchise isn’t quite as lucrative as it used to be.
Ten years ago, Begum provided the sole telephone in Patira and the surrounding area, the only connection for nearly 10,000 people. Today, she must vie with 284 other Village Phone operators nearby, plus all the cell phones her neighbors have bought for themselves as prices have come down. As a result, Begum’s phone rentals these days bring in monthly profits of only $22. “If I didn’t have so many other businesses,” she told me, “I couldn’t afford to be in this one.” Says her loan officer, Salim Khan, general manager of a Grameen Bank branch: “She is fortunate that she began when she did. Today, poor women who go into the phone business stay poor.”
Of course, this general shift toward handset ownership and increased ‘teledensity’ isn’t surprising – there are clear advantages to owning a phone of one’s own. Thanks to phone ladies, people who previously could not make calls at all are now able to place calls, from time to time. Meanwhile, new mobile owners, who previously had to rely on public phones, now can make and receive calls, whenever they want.
But the shared phone dynamic isn’t disappearing entirely (yet). For the time being, it is just getting more complex. As detailed in the article, Begum is losing clients in three ways 1) some are buying their own handset. 2) some are going to other, presumably more convenient village phones and 3) some are borrowing from an increasingly broad range of friends and family. I’d like to understand the relative importance of (2) vs (3), and the choices non-handset-owning people make about when to use either option. My hunch is that relying on a shared (friendly) phone has both advantages and disadvantages over the village payphone—but some more data would be helpful here.
Vodafone, Nokia, and Nokia-Siemens Networks have released a new collection of papers on m-banking in the developing world, called “The transformational potential of m-transactions”. As was the case with Vodafone’s earlier collection on mobile phones in Africa, the report has attracted a fair amount of attention (e.g., Economist, NYT, blog1, blog2). The word “transformational” makes a few more appearances than some might prefer, but all and all, it is a great addition to a small but growing literature on m-banking.
Three of the six core papers deal with regulatory and business model issues. One contrasts some of the leading systems (m-Pesa, Wizzit, and Globe) in more detail. The remaining two describe user-level experiences with systems in Kenya and Egypt.
The more granular user data is found in the piece by Walia and Goodman on Airtime Services in Egypt. Airtime transfer is sort of a cousin/antecedent to currency-based m-banking; it allows users to share load between accounts, which opens up all kinds of opportunities to share, barter and transact in real time. I am unaware of any other detailed surveys of airtime transfer behavior, so I was happy to see their segmentation of airtime sharers into “heavy users”, “sharers”, “receivers”, and “light users”. Their paper points to some of differences in norms and expectations at play between, say, proximate families sharing minutes, émigrés sending minutes back home to their families, and business partners using airtime as a proxy for currency (which the authors point out is the exception, not the norm). One of Walia and Goodman’s propositions is that “balance transfer use supports social networks”. Probably so, although as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’d like to see more attention paid to how social networks support and structure balance transfer use.