Reflections on what might have been
Whether you believe in serendipity or deny its existence citing its impact can be an attention getter. One of the attractions of Twitter for me is the way in which those serendipitous moments aggregate in one place. It was thus when last week I came across an academic paper by two Microsoft© Researchers, Nimmi Rangaswarmy and Edward Cutrell entitled Anthropology, development and ICTs: Slums, youth and the mobile internet in urban India.
I read the paper over the weekend and my initial responses led to a very interesting on line discussion with Paul Webster (@watfordgap), Stuart Parker (@stuartparker) and Karen (@GMTKT) all of whom are well respected practitioners in the realm of digital inclusion.
Having worked in some aspect of digital inclusion for the last 10 years I have come to appreciate the value of looking back as well as looking forward; scanning the horizon should be a 360 degree activity and the blueprint for our activities should be informed by the lessons learned. It’s a fact; most projects repeat the mistakes of earlier projects. Being on the periphery of the mainstream now, having served my time, I have the luxury of being able to take a constructive, critical view of the digital inclusion agenda and I use my blog to share my thoughts and observations.
Of late I have increasingly focused on what we in the UK call the final 20%; those who for whatever reason are hardest to reach, hardest to engage and yet, should digital delivers the promised benefits, those most likely to have their lives improved. My concern is that at a superficial level at least the trend appears to be to use the same approaches as we did for the 80%, perhaps with renewed vigor, in the belief that it will yield the same positive results. I don’t think it will and I’ve said as much previously in “Back to Basics Get the Inclusion Initiative Right” and “Rethinking Digital Inclusion” . I tried to pull all of this thinking together in “Looking Beyond Skills and Realising Public Value” .
I’m not critical of existing initiatives but I am concerned that there is no visible exploration of alternatives or of the mechanisms that impact on what we do. I have commented on the social values that we attach to digital inclusion and my perception that initiatives which target excluded groups are underpinned by a set of values that have no relevance. What intrigued me about the Microsoft © research is that it dealt with levels of exclusion that I certainly find hard to comprehend but where individuals resolved issues on their own terms. It prompted me to ask three questions:
I was particularly interested in the role played by the socio/technical hub; for two reasons, firstly they appeared to be spontaneous developments rather than deliberate interventions. I believe that this circumstance would help to create the conditions where the participating youth would have ownership of the space and feel most confident in developing their own skills; secondly, the role of the “expert” who knows just a little more than the novice but enough to move the novice forward. This would fit with my own experience and I suspect the experience of other practitioners of places where the community take ownership of social spaces and use these to share and develop capacity. I was also interested in the role of serendipity, things discovered by chance and adopted by a number of people, for example discovering the best places for downloads.
My question was whether these experiences are repeatable? Is there a level of intervention that would allow for the deliberate creation of the hubs by encouraging ownership in a way that would make this experience repeatable in other contexts? In this way can serendipity be influenced as well as being influential?
Nimmi Rangaswarmy’s response was this:
“The question about insights from specific research engagements as replicable praxis is one that charges me up. Two ways how I look at this phenomenon; One, engagement with the specifics of contextual practices coaxes out strong insights on the relationship between context and behaviours. Second, the nature of these insights shines a light on what to look for or go about studying similar phenomena in other contexts. In that sense I would say learnings from depth study of specific locations function as milestones for future work.
In this case, the interplay of market forces, socio-economic conditions of slum youth and the social geography of slums have many lessons to offer to build models of informal learning. For example the formation of the socio-technical hub, the organic emergence of a leader in the hub, the dynamic flow in the structures of learning, the shifting hierarchies among teacher/learner are quite applicable to other contexts. The street corner internet publics I refer to is inspired from a famous sociological study in Boston of immigrant working class/ street gangs published more than sixty years ago.”
My own thoughts are; “you don’t have to own the solution”. Everybody who is engaged in this field is engaged for the right reasons but I believe that there is an opportunity to let excluded groups develop their own solutions where the role of the intervention is to facilitate and, dare I say it, to empower. The study in the Indian slums highlighted the idea of inclusion through interest which was also leading to the acquisition of other knowledge that was deemed to be useful. Examples would be the boy who had discovered where to get the best pay plans for access or the acquisition of elements of language. In England we have a slightly more formalised approach to community based learning though it is one that still works through identifying areas of interest. If it fails it is because it moves participants on to formal learning models too quickly. The use of technology that Rangaswarmy and Cutrell describe is empowering in terms of the users and that is something I feel we fail to grasp in the West. My belief is that we fail to engage the final 20% of digitally excluded people because we seek to include them in a value set that has no relevance not because of any lack of capacity, desire or access.
The technology and the cost model were also interesting. Here we have endless debates about the relevance of technology types and whether there ought to be free or at least subsidised access as a way of encouraging disengaged members of society to get engaged with digital. Probably the best known examples are the recycled PCs and as focus shifts towards people in social housing there is talk of subsidised connectivity. While neither of these initiative types can be described as “bad” in my experience they often, ultimately fail either because the subsidy runs out or because the model of access (a PC in the corner of the room) is outdated and irrelevant. In the situation described by Rangaswarmy and Cutrell a model of free or nearly free internet capable mobile phones are made available and then cheap uncapped data access is facilitated at a price that, presumably, makes some money for the ISP with enough of a margin for the vendors. Here in the West we place a premium on both access devices (they are objects of desire) and we place a cap on data. My question was whether the cost model is crucial and is this something that is repeatable in other Indian cities; of course, I was thinking whether there were lessons learned for western city environments.
Nimmi Rangaswamy put forward an interesting statistic: “The cost model i.e. micro pre-pay plans tied to capped / uncapped internet, is specific to the India market conditions [and the state telecom policy] tailored to serve 700 billion subscribers. Bulk of the latter can ill-afford expensive phones or post-pay plans. But with the market flush with a variety of costly and cheap ‘China phones’ with diverse capabilities and a plethora of pre-pay deals the choice to match cost with need is endless.”
Personally I have no frame of reference for 700 billion subscribers! It does however lead me to question the way in which the mobile market place works in the UK and it emphasizes, for me, the importance of the opening up of the market place being pursued by the European Union. I don’t know the answer but it occurs to me that here is an area which we have yet to fully explore, how the market place can play a legitimate role in inclusion strategy.
My final question was this: I understand that there are social and cultural reasons for their omission but what happens to the teenage girls? Do they have their own opportunity or is it just a fact of life that they will not have access to digital technology?
Rangaswamy’s response was as follows: “Sadly it is a fact of life that young girls in slums and other low-income spaces, cannot participate actively in this public form of learning and sharing internet technology/skills. There are social restrictions to public participation and street corner publics are gendered spaces. But this reality shifts once the women are married, older and employed. It’s not that they enter these publics but have more resources to acquire and use ICTs. “
In some ways this made me sad even though I knew what the response would be and it reminded me that our society has a great deal going for it in many ways though I suspect that we often fail to recognise it. So where does this leave the debate? What are the lessons learned?
Firstly it shows that there must be debate; continuous and ongoing we must never assume that we have the answer and the box must never be ticked.
Secondly it suggests that extreme exclusion can and will find a way forward but it must do so on its own terms; even on the simplest level of lower cost service access for high cost users our aim is to lower the cost; that does not mean that we have to own the solution the solutions created by the final 20% must be given legitimacy.
I will finish this longer than usual blog post by thanking Nimmi Rangaswamy for taking the time to answer my questions and hopefully my readers will find time to both read her paper and to put their comments here.