Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Do policymakers in the South text more than talk?

By Simon Batchelor

In a news story today on the BBC website, the headline reads “Texting overtakes talking in UK, says Ofcom study”.  The article states that “While 58% of people communicated via texts on a daily basis in 2011, only 47% made a daily mobile call, [according to the UK's] communications industry regulator [Ofcom].”

As readers of this blog will know, we have been conducting our own study in 6 countries on the information ecosystem* of policy actors.  You can find our previous blogs, here and here.

While we asked participants in the study about what ICT technology they owned, how frequently they used the Internet, how they searched for information, and so on, we did not ask them specifically about their preferred form of mobile phone use (texting or talking).  However, the Ofcom report which prompted the BBC news story, focuses on much more than texting – in fact, it covers very similar set of questions to our own study (indeed we used the Pew US studies to help shape our own study).

For example, UK Ofcom report states that “39% of (UK) adults now own a smartphone, a 12% increase on 2010.”  How does this compare with policy actors in the South? The graph below shows that of our sample of 100 actors in each country, a similar proportion have at least one smartphone. In fact some people have more than one, since cross network calls are often expensive enough that it makes it worth carrying two phones to keep call costs down.  This is particularly true of say Ghana, where several respondents had 2 or 3 smartphones.

The UK report also states that “Tablet ownership is also on the rise, with 11% owning such a device, up from 2% last year.”  Interestingly as this blog showed, Tablet ownership among policy actors is at an equivalent level – currently at about 15% (from the updated data set). We concluded in that blog that this ownership of technology suggests that information intermediaries seeking to get evidence in front of policy actors in order to inform their decisions, should indeed be using these channels.

The Ofcom report also offers detail on internet behaviour of UK households – contrasting the behaviour of 16 to 24 year olds with others. Of course, in our study we didn’t have many 16–24 year olds as we were interviewing those in leadership and management positions.  However we did note that the younger respondents tended to do more with their smartphones and tablets than older respondents – with the exception of where older respondents let their children play with their phones. Where this occurred, the older respondents themselves had as good a knowledge of the more tricky smartphone activities such as downloading an app, or uploading a video, as the younger respondents. 

And finally the Ofcom report states that “Two thirds of internet users have accessed Facebook.”.  From our preliminary data almost 70% of our respondents have accessed internet communities. Keeping in mind that actually there are alternative social networks to Facebook on the world scene (hard to believe!), this again shows an equivalent figure. What is much more surprising from our data is that nearly 60% of those who have smartphones have accessed social networks from their phones. Unfortunately, the Ofcom report doesn’t say how people access their social network. 

Conclusion?  As we have previously noted in our work, the respondents to our survey show that technology use among policy actors in the South pretty much mirrors the average household in USA (Pew Internet and American Life Project research). With this Ofcom report on UK behaviour, we can see that our research findings also appear to mirror technology use in the UK.   

If this is so, (and this is where I am speculating) then perhaps it is reasonable to assume that the details of how people surf might also be true?  For instance, Ofcom report that “With two-thirds of internet users on Facebook, it generates almost a quarter of all referred traffic to YouTube (23.7%), in contrast to Google’s 32.3%. Facebook also refers traffic to other popular websites: BBC (11.2%), eBay (6.7%), Twitter (3.8%), and Wikipedia (3.6%).”  If policy actors are members of social networking sites, then perhaps Facebook is driving them to sites as much as their own searching of Google. If this is the case, then it becomes all the more important that social networks are used by knowledge intermediaries to bring evidence to the attention of policy actors.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

When policy actors engage with the internet, what do they actually do?

By Simon Batchelor

Ever wondered what those serious men and women who describe themselves as involved in policymaking actually use the internet for?

From our study of 360 policy actors across 4 countries, Ehtiopia, Nepal, India and Ghana, the graph below shows the percentage of the whole sample undertaking certain actions on the internet.

Graph from IDS Impact and Learning team study on information behaviours of policy actors in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal

Unsurprisingly, almost all policy actors engage with the internet for emails. As you can see from the graph, over 80% download official forms, obtain information from public authorities’ websites and read or download newspapers or online news. A majority undertake the remaining options Instant Messaging, internet communities, video and audio podcasts, uploading self-created content and seeking health-related information. Just under half have telephoned over the internet.

Yet, when you compare these responses, coming from a wide variety of actors in the global South, some of whom have quite poor connectivity, to that pioneer of internet engagement, the USA, you find that their internet use is almost same as that of the average American household! According to recent Pew Research Center on households in the USA, 92% read email, or use a search engine, 76% read online news and 65% use social networking. Only 24% of USA households have used Voice of Internet (PDF link) – so in this case the policy actors are ahead in their use than the average US household.

Are differences still about connectivity?

There are of course differences across the countries not captured by the above graph. We would expect the use of the internet to relate to the connectivity of the country, and to some extent this is what we see in our findings. According to the 2011 ICT Development Index (IDI) (PDF), undertaken by the International Telecommunication Union, Ethiopia ranks 150th, Nepal 134th, Ghana 120th and India 116th - out of a total of 154 countries covered by the index. (We also speculated that connectivity in the South of India was better than the North, and divided our sample accordingly.)

In the graph above we see that telephoning over internet (VOIP), which demands good connectivity, follows our understanding of the connectivity of the countries surveyed. Ethiopia with its poor connectivity makes telephoning a difficult option even for those on the best connectivity the country can provide. Whereas in South India it has now become common across most respondents to use the internet for telephoning (80%).

Data around obtaining information from public authorities’ websites also follows levels of connectivity at the country level, with the exception of Ethiopia. The unusual high use seems to be explained from other data as being about ‘formality’ and need to know official government positions.

However, not all behaviours are best explained by connectivity. When we consider instant messaging and uploading video – which other data suggests are emergent behaviours more dependent on early adoption  – there is no significant difference between countries. Whereas for the use of emails, while there is some difference between countries, the overwhelming uptake makes such differences of no practical meaning.

Finally just considering early adopters; unsurprisingly early adopters have a higher use on Telephoning over the Internet, video calls (via webcam), entertainment, videos or audio podcasts and ‘uploading self-created content to be shared’. We didn’t dare ask these senior policy actors what entertainment they were accessing!

So why should we be interested in this? 

We often talk as though policy actors are a unique species, that because they are such important people, they behave in a unique way. To me the data suggests they are human as the rest of us when it comes to communication and information-seeking behaviours. They use the internet in much the same way as the average UK and USA household uses it. And there is a spread of use, in the same way we see a spread of use among US households. Some have invested in new technologies (see my earlier post on the adoption of Tablet PCs) and some of them are early adopters, just as some households are early adopters. Policy actors seem to demonstrate a spread of human interest in the new communication tools in much the same way as a population with wealth and access might show.

When I first came to IDS I wondered whether ‘policy actors’ in countries of poor connectivity would ever push the Facebook button on a webpage or use instant chat for a helpdesk. I thought that perhaps some of our efforts using the latest communications technologies were a little too North-centric, and that policy actors in the South might be left cold.

However, our research suggests otherwise. My scepticism has been duly quashed.