Progress toward Digital Literacy and Inclusion in Emerging Markets

In 2014, the usage and purchase of mobile devices overtook desktop computers as the most common digital platform in the United States. A similar trend has been observed in developing countries. Despite limited fixed-line Internet access and relatively high costs associated with computer ownership, mobile usage in developing countries has increased by more than 20 percent in five years, quickly becoming the primary way people engage online. This expansion of mobile Internet has revolutionized the way people interact and do business. The World Bank recently estimated that a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration would generate a 1.4 percent increase in GDP from job creation in low-to-middle income countries. However, the situation is not without concerns. As Mark Surman, Corina Gardner, and David Ascher, directors of the Mozilla Foundation and the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA), point out in a recent article, since many would-be Internet users in Sub-Saharan African countries are illiterate, the rapid expansion of mobile access may be leaving those communities behind.

Literacy represents the primary area of concern when it comes to Internet in the developing world, as over 80 percent of illiterate adults live in developing countries. This is especially true in countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Niger, where over 70 percent of the population is illiterate. Because the majority of Internet technology relies on text to communicate, these people are often excluded from the benefits of accessing free information online.

Low levels of smartphone ownership in developing countries also pose a problem. According to the GSMA, in 2014, the mobile subscription rate in Sub-Saharan Africa was only 39 percent, compared with nearly 80 percent in Europe and North America. Even though the rate is expected to double by 2020, the increase in mobile device ownership is mostly limited to older phones that require triple-tap text entry, making it more difficult to access mobile Internet applications at all.

Some common strategies have emerged to tackle these challenges. Mobile Internet designers sometimes focus on visual cues, such as pictures or videos, to replace the use of text. Some have also developed voice-based mobile tools to reach illiterate users, and to provide critical information in areas such as healthcare.

However, Ravi Chhatpar and Robert Fabricant, co-founders of the Design Impact Group, argue that addressing these challenges is not enough: Many mobile technologies have not realized their full potential because they have failed to take cultural context into consideration.

The case of mobile banking services illustrates this challenge. A large population in developing countries is “unbanked” because of a shortage of banking locations. Mobile banking services are intended to bridge the gap by providing individuals living in low-income, rural areas with easier access to financial options. Additionally, to overcome the technical barrier, these services are designed to run on older phones over SMS-based interfaces. However, these products have suffered from a low adoption rate—fewer than 10 percent of these applications have succeeded in attracting beyond 200,000 active users, out of a total population of 2.2 billion “unbanked” adults in developing countries.

Why are these products failing? The research finds that conceptual literacy poses a barrier to adoption. In many developing countries, cultural norms are the driving forces behind many consumers’ saving needs. For example, in rural parts of South Africa, it is common for people to spend the majority of their savings on funeral rituals. As a result, local people do not find a simple savings account appealing. The interpretation of a concept may vary dramatically in different cultural contexts; therefore, conceptual literacy becomes a critical consideration in mobile application designs.

In a digital age, the ubiquity of mobile Internet creates tremendous opportunities for individuals and communities. But unlocking these social and economic opportunities requires mobile designers to constantly prioritize the underlying cultural context of the products they design.

Article Source: Surman, Mark, Corina Gardner, and David Ascher. “Local Content, Smartphones, and Digital Inclusion,” Innovations, 9, No. 3/4 (2014).

Featured Photo: cc/(alexerich, photo ID: 70149913, from iStock by Getty Images)

xzzhang@uchicago.edu'
Judy Zhang
Judy ('17) is a staff writer for Science & Technology. She is interested in technology development and economic development.

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