Signs of change in Kenya

February 22, 2009

In a country where basic living necessities are not fulfilled, where people survive on scarce food and water and struggle to have a decent home, dreaming about real democracy, they will probably be better off with cell phones. This is the main point of Paul Mason’s BCC short report on his journey to Kenya. The correspondent traveled through the country following the mobile phone networks and emphasized changes in the economy and democracy brought by these networks.
Mason describes the importance of the creation of M-Pesa, a mobile application built by Celtel and Safaricom that allows users to transfer money. In a place where most of the people don’t have bank accounts and barely use plastic money, this simple innovation can make Africa a more liquid economy. He also explains how the use of cell phone is already benefiting the population in terms of democratic actions. In Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum, people are using cell phones to fight evictions. He reports: “They used what we would call flashmobbing to call people from across the many different and rival settlements together where big evictions were planned, and threatened to sit down in front of the bulldozers.”
Even though the changes seem very small, Kenyans who own a cell phone consider it massive. Not that all the problems will suddenly disappear, but as Mason wrote on his report, they will give African people more power, and a bigger voice. It is definitely something for those who have never had anything.


1. What other countries besides Kenya are using similar systems to M-Pesa? What are the security risks associated with the financial transaction?  

2. Could the Kenyan government shut down the mobile phone networks if it considered “dangerous” for political purposes?


Digital Natives

February 22, 2009

A good example of a digital native is the little girl that Microsoft recently brought on its ads, Kylie. She is 4 years-old and she knows how to upload pictures, color correct them, and e-mail them to her family. In addition to her cuteness, the ad is compelling because presents a very plausible circumstance: yes, a four-year-old could easily execute the same tasks as Kylie – if growing up in the same technological environment, naturally. It would not necessarily happen because of the usability of the Windows Gallery Interface, but because kids like her are born digital.

Palfrey and Gasser’s book encompasses different aspects of the digital natives’ lives, ranging from construction of their online identities to their role as political activists inside the society. The 375 page work employes diversified research methodologies drawn from social science, psychology, neuroscience, developmental pediatrics, and information sciences fields, as well as the application of focus groups and interviews with digital natives. The book ‘s goal is “to present the good and the bad in context and to suggest things that all of us – parents, teachers, leaders of companies, and lawmakers – can do to manage this extraordinary transition to a globally connected society without shutting the whole thing down” (p.9). Born Digital is divided into 13 chapters and 12 topics. For a more succinct division I will group these topics into three main parts: digital identities, digital native’s roles, and digital information.

Digital Identities
To the authors, new technologies bring changes to our understanding of identity, and as a consequence it is necessary to distinguish personal identity from social identity. On one hand, digital natives – those born after 1980 – have several personal identities spread over different profiles, which can be constantly updated. However, their social identities can be seen from different perspectives and contexts, leading to more risks associated with the formation of this social identity. The main point here is that the social identity may not represent the personal identity of these young people.

According to psychologists, the reason why teenagers share a lot of information about themselves on the Internet stems from the “disclosure decision model” and reciprocity. The disclosure model emphasizes that the way a person shares information is based on the evaluation of rewards and risks. The revelation of information is projected to reach goals, such as social approval, intimacy, or relief of distress. The idea of reciprocity is that if a teenager shares information with others she imagines others will also reciprocate and share information with her. The authors emphasize that the difficulties of forming an identity in a digital age are especially related instability, because teenagers have less ability to control how others perceive them, and insecurity, because they cannot control who access their digital identities in a given moment.

It is important to point out that the authors differentiate between digital identity and digital dossier. Digital identity is composed of elements that the individual contributes voluntarily and elements other people contribute about him or her, and digital dossier is information associated with a name, which can be disclosed to third parties or not. All entries in search engines and in online retailers’ sites, and other digital data that is not necessarily accessible – like medical exams, are “personally identifiable information” and part of their dossiers. The authors’ main concern is that every connected person has a digital dossier, and those who were born digital have a complete digital dossier. As the authors note: “The information is held in many different hands, and every part that has access to it is subject to its own rules about what can be done with it. Young people are not asked to make informed decisions about the data collected and stored about them, and even if they were, they would be in no position to make those decisions” (p.42-43).

Another worry related to this immense online exposure is privacy and safety. According to Palfrey and Gasser, “most young people are extremely likely to leave something behind in cyberspace that will become a lot like a tattoo – something connected to them that they cannot get rid of later in life, even if they want to, without a great deal of difficulty” (p. 53). Besides giving too much information to other people, who will make their own judgments on their identities, digital natives also give their information to corporations and institutions, and these entities do not always protect their privacy. The authors suggest that companies that host services used by many people should build secure systems, and teachers and parents should try to teach digital natives how to behave in online environments.

Regarding safety, the authors affirm that one of the greatest harms of the online environment is psychological, i.e., exposure to something that children are not ready to see, such as graphic violence and sex. Children usually go online without adult supervision, so they are less likely to have an adult nearby to help them understand disturbing material. Another common problem is cyberbulling or the intentional use of any digital medium to harm others. Palfrey and Gasser write that the Internet facilitates this because children in the early learning stage of social interaction often use visual and auditory cues to guide their behavior, and they don’t necessarily have these cues online. They also point out that some children and even adults are influenced by the “disinhibition effect” caused by an imagined absent identity. To mitigate these problems, the authors recommend better digital media literacy for children, teachers, and parents, as well as more incentives to technology companies and law-enforcement to keep these kids safer.

Digital Natives’ Roles
Just as digital natives have several online identities, they also have the opportunity to play diversified roles online. The book touches on how they are creating, innovating, learning, acting, and perhaps – not so proudly, aggressing and pirating.

From this population, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Shawn Fanning (Napster), and Chad Hurley (YouTube) were responsible for the creation of great online successes. However, most of the content produced by other digital natives is of the “unspectacular sort” (p.113). Kids are mostly engaged in blogging, online game-playing, instant messaging, and online social networks. To the authors, the importance of these activities is not only their uniqueness, but also the opportunity for learning, expressing emotions, creating autonomy, and even in changing their political views.

In some cases, digital natives get involved in political campaigns and, most commonly, social services. Some critics argue that participation in online social networks’ groups doesn’t necessarily mean anything. For those critics this kind of attitude “is nothing more than a convenient way to make a statement, the digital equivalent of a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker” (p.263). Nonetheless, the authors mention TakingIT-Global, a famous action group that organizes over 200,000 young people to take action in their local communities, not only online.

Another important factor of this creation process is the teens’ new possibility for reflecting on the news through comments and blogging. The Internet enables citizens to criticize the news, and also modify the way public events are told. The authors reference Terry Fisher’s article “Semiotic Democracy,” which stated that “in a semiotic democracy, a greater number of people are able to tell the stories of their times. This broader group of people participate in the ‘recoding’ and ‘reworking’ of cultural meaning” (p.266).

Unfortunately, not all activities in the virtual environment are beneficial to young people. One negative role they play is the aggressor. The authors observe that violent images in our society are not only present on the Internet but also in television, movies, and games. The sole difference is that the Internet is used as an outlet to express aggressive thoughts. The authors explore the General Aggression Model (GAM), a theoretical model studied by several disciplines that tries to explain why violence seen through media increases violence in real lives. According to this model, mimicking of aggressive behaviors increases if the executor the child observes is similar or attractive to him. Also, a stimulus in the environment can trigger an existing set of violent thoughts and make these emotions a long-lasting part of the child’s regular mental state. The third aspect considered in this model is that violence on screen is arousing for kids. All of this applies to the Internet and the superrealistic scenes of violence in online games.

The last role that I will describe in this section is the pirate. Many digital natives don’t know that file-sharing is illegal and those who know often continue doing it because they don’t see any harm. According to the authors, 66% of the peer to peer users originate from the US and about 76% of the surveyed American college students believe that piracy of music or movies was acceptable in some or all instances. The solutions proposed by the authors for the piracy problem include less intervention of judges and lawmakers to facilitate resolution through market competition, more positive use of law (example: use of Creative Commons), better alignment of incentives (YouTube could make deals with content owners) and, more significantly, children’s education.

Digital Information
The authors observe that in 2007, 161 billion gigabytes of digital content were created. It is equivalent of 3 million times the amount of information all books ever written. Information overload is one of their main concerns about the Internet. “There are limits, in cognitive terms, to how much information people can process. A person’s short-term memory, for instance, can hold roughly seven items at once. Our minds have an estimated maximum processing capacity of 126 bits per second” (p.186). They go on to assert that information overload is considered one of the psychological diseases of digital age. Symptoms of this disease include increased heart rates, increased cholesterol, migraines, retarded reading skills, and restlessness. Psychologists affirm that when information cannot be processed, it causes confusion, frustration, panic, or even paralysis.

Specialists also assert that multi-tasking is not necessarily advantageous because kids learn better if they pay full attention to what they want to remember. The authors’ recommendations to alleviate this problem include better selection of websites (better design and color choices), more effective search engines, use of RSS feeds, and use of recommendation systems. They also advise technology companies to create tools to help everyone to better manage information, and government to work with technologists to generate better navigation and filtering systems.

An additional problem is that children have greater difficulty to distinguish between good and bad information than adults. Specialists affirm that it is because their brains are not fully developed, they usually have shorter attention span, and they have fewer experiences comparing the information they are assessing. Palfrey and Gasser suggest some actions to deal with this problem: creation of social norms within communities to promote quality of information (example: Wikipedia user norms), well designed code that help digital natives judge information quality (examples: kid-friendly browsers, filters, search engine for kids), enhancement of education programs and strategies for children by the government, and parent and teacher tutoring.

Born Digital explains broad concerns about the use of the Internet by digital natives and presents recommendations for parents, teachers, companies, and governments to address this problematic period of transition. Even though the authors suggest an extended number of measures for different parties to protect children, encourage their creativity, and increase respect for copyrights, they emphasize the importance of parents and teachers to educate them regarding the “right ways” to navigate the Internet. To me, the greatest contradiction of this book is that it appears not to have been made primarily to understand those who were born digital, but to teach those who were not born digital. It didactically explains the concepts of social networks, blogging, RSS feeds, file-sharing, online games, and other Internet activities. If you still remember Kylie in the Microsoft ad, she was presented as doing everything by herself. And it seemed very natural.

Palfrey, J.; Gasser, U. (2008). Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.

Mobile Web Best Practices

February 16, 2009

The Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0 is a useful and detailed guide directed toward Web Site owners, developers, and operators, who intend to improve the user experience when accessing the Web by mobile devices.  The document was prepared by the Best Practices Working Group (BPWG) and it is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Recommendations.

I was most impressed by the amount of restrictions that website developers have to cope with in order to create a pleasing user experience. Some examples of these limitations – or recommendations, presented in the document are: minimal navigation at the top of the page, identification of target links, limitation of scrolling to one direction, use of sufficiently contrasting colors, and division of pages into usable but limited size portions. The document emphasizes the importance of readable content in different types of devices and the need of creating an optimal user experience, considering screen size and users’ difficulty to enter text into their cell phones.

The Mobile Web Best Practices guide is interesting because it explains what the best alternatives are, how to configure a web page for mobile use, and what to test. The document provides very good insights of what to stress and what to leave out when creating a page that may be visited by mobile users.



1. In the 5.4.6 Image Size topic (p.21), the authors suggest the resizing of images on the server because it reduces the amount of data transferred and the amount of processing the device has to carry out. How does this process occur?

2. New application markets have been emerging recently and, consequently, more independent and amateur applications and content are available for cell phones. Do amateur pages usually respect the mobile best practices? Is there also a Mobile Applications Best Practices’ guide?  

Privacy Issues

February 9, 2009

In the paper “Direct Marketing: Mobile Phones, and Consumer Privacy: Ensuring Adequate Disclosure and Consent Mechanisms for Emerging Mobile Advertising Practices” Nancy King discusses the companies’ necessity to inform mobile phone users about disclosure privacy, and argues that current federal and state regulations are inadequate and don’t protect consumers’ privacy in mobile advertising. King suggests that one solution is to oblige companies to have a more transparent approach and notify consumers about the company’s privacy practices. Among several recommendations, she also suggests the use of privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) to protect consumer’s identity.

On the other side, James Nehlf criticizes King’s suggestions, alleging that consumers don’t have the capacity to judge whether to opt in or opt out of a proposed privacy-reducing transaction. He explains that consumers cannot make an informed choice because they don’t know “what is at stake” (p.54). As the Jamster case shows, the lack of a coherent mobile advertising policy and the lack of a better understanding of disclosure practices are allowing companies to take advantages of consumers indiscriminately.

 To me, the problems regarding privacy in mobile advertising are occurring for a simple reason: technologies are evolving in such a fast pace that they give legislators no time to rebuild every paragraph of regulations. Similarly, mobile technologies are being developed much faster than the consumers’ capacity to judge whether they are beneficial or not. I believe that King’s approach would probably not solve all the privacy issues, but it would help mobile users to start reflecting on this matter and might influence them to investigate regulations before exposing their private data.


1.       Is there any wireless carrier that is taking a more transparent approach in regards to consumers’ privacy disclosure?

2.       Are there other public known cases of irregular mobile selling practices? If so, what were the measures taken to punish those that committed infractions?

Shared Phone Use

February 2, 2009

Visiting the Personal Democracy Forum I was happy to encounter several articles on mobile phone use all over the world. As we think about mobile technologies, high tech devices, applications, market places, deals among wireless carriers, and so on usually come to mind.  It was definitely refreshing to see something else.

An article I found especially interesting was “Nokia Anthropologist Shares Thoughts on Mobile Sharing” and then the related paper “Shared Phone Use.” It encompasses the shared phone practices in Uganda, as reported by Jan Chipchase, a Nokia anthropologist.

Chipchase interviewed people in a farming community, a fishing village and a small town in 2006 and found unique phone practices in those places. Among others, Chipchase revealed an informal practice of sending and receiving money through phone kiosks and networks. As the author (Chipchase, 2007, p.3) explains:

Joe lives in Kampala and wants to send his sister Vicky 10,000 Ugandan Shillings – about 4 Euros. He buys a pre-paid top up card for that amount but instead of topping up his own phone calls the local phone kiosk operator in Vicky’s village. The phone kiosk operator uses the credit to top up his own phone, takes a commission of anywhere between 10 and 30% and passes the rest onto Vicky in cash. The kiosk operator then resells the airtime at a profit (it is after all his business).   

Another very common practice in Uganda that is uncommon worldwide is “Step Messaging”, i.e., delivering text or verbal messages via shared cell phone or kiosk where the message is delivered the last mile on foot.  In Uganda it is socially acceptable to leave messages with someone else (a neighbor or kiosk operator), and by using the social hub people can connect to others without having individual devices.



1.       Chipchase affirms that people prefer to have their own mobile phone rather than borrow one and that the cost of buying one is the main barrier. If manufacturers created specific devices for shared use that somehow could have some “individual” features, i.e., people could set their devices in different ways and log in and log off, would it change consumers in Uganda’s stated preference to have an individual phone?

2.       What other research was conducted in emerging markets regarding shared phone use? Is it not economically viable?