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.