Three New Papers (and a presentation) on Civic Tech

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This blog has been slow lately, but as I mentioned before, it is for a good cause. With some great colleagues I’ve been working on a series of papers (and a book) on civic technology. The first three of these papers are out. There is much more to come, but in the meantime, you can find below the abstracts and link to each of the papers. I also add the link to a presentation which highlights some other issues that we are looking at.

  • Effects of the Internet on Participation: Study of a Public Policy Referendum in Brazil.

Does online voting mobilize citizens who otherwise would not participate? During the annual participatory budgeting vote in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil – the world’s largest – Internet voters were asked whether they would have participated had there not been an online voting option (i-voting). The study documents an 8.2 percent increase in total turnout with the introduction of i-voting. In support of the mobilization hypothesis, unique survey data show that i-voting is mainly used by new participants rather than just for convenience by those who were already mobilized. The study also finds that age, gender, income, education, and social media usage are significant predictors of being online-only voters. Technology appears more likely to engage people who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users.

Read more here.

  • The Effect of Government Responsiveness on Future Political Participation.

What effect does government responsiveness have on political participation? Since the 1940s political scientists have used attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy to explain participation. More recent work has focused on underlying genetic factors that condition citizen engagement. We develop a ‘Calculus of Participation’ that incorporates objective efficacy – the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact – and test the model against behavioral data from FixMyStreet.com (n=399,364). We find that a successful first experience using FixMyStreet.com (e.g. reporting a pothole and having it fixed) is associated with a 54 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report. We also show that the experience of government responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of government responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry, while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Read more here.

  • Do Mobile Phone Surveys Work in Poor Countries? 

In this project, we analyzed whether mobile phone-based surveys are a feasible and cost-effective approach for gathering statistically representative information in four low-income countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe). Specifically, we focused on three primary research questions. First, can the mobile phone survey platform reach a nationally representative sample? Second, to what extent does linguistic fractionalization affect the ability to produce a representative sample? Third, how effectively does monetary compensation impact survey completion patterns? We find that samples from countries with higher mobile penetration rates more closely resembled the actual population. After weighting on demographic variables, sample imprecision was a challenge in the two lower feasibility countries (Ethiopia and Mozambique) with a sampling error of /- 5 to 7 percent, while Zimbabwe’s estimates were more precise (sampling error of /- 2.8 percent). Surveys performed reasonably well in reaching poor demographics, especially in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Rural women were consistently under-represented in the country samples, especially in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Countries’ linguistic fractionalization may influence the ability to obtain nationally representative samples, although a material effect was difficult to discern through penetration rates and market composition. Although the experimentation design of the incentive compensation plan was compromised in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, it seems that offering compensation for survey completion mitigated attrition rates in several of the pilot countries while not reducing overall costs. These effects varied across countries and cultural settings.

Read more here.

  • The haves and the have nots: is civic tech impacting the people who need it most? (presentation) 

Read more here.

The Effect of SMS on Participation: Evidence from Uganda

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I’ve been wanting to post about this paper for a while. At the intersection of technology and citizen participation this is probably one of the best studies produced in 2013 and I’m surprised I haven’t heard a lot about it outside the scholarly circle.

One of the fundamental questions concerning the use of technology to foster participation is whether it impacts inclusiveness and, if it does, in what way. That is, if technology has an effect on participation, does it reinforce or minimize participation biases? There is no straightforward answer, and the limited existing evidence suggests that the impact of technology on inclusiveness depends on a number of factors such as technology fit, institutional design and communication efforts.

If the answer to the question is “it depends”, then the more studies looking at the subject, the more we refine our understanding of how it works, when and why. The study, “Does Information Technology Flatten Interest Articulation? Evidence from Uganda” (Grossman, Humphreys, & Sacramone-Lutz, 2013), is a great contribution in that sense. The abstract is below (highlights are mine):

We use a field experiment to study how the availability and cost of political communication channels affect the efforts constituents take to influence their representatives. We presented sampled constituents in Uganda with an opportunity to send a text-message to their representatives at one of three randomly assigned prices. This allows us to ascertain whether ICTs can “flatten” interest articulation and how access costs determine who communicates and what gets communicated to politicians. Critically, contrary to concerns that technological innovations benefit the privileged, we find that ICT leads to significant flattening: a greater share of marginalized populations use this channel compared to existing political communication channels. Price matters too, as free messaging increase uptake by about 50%. Surprisingly, subsidy-induced increases in uptake do not yield further flattening since free channels are used at higher rates by both marginalized and well-connected constituents. More subtle strategic hypotheses find little support in the data.

But even if the question of “who participates” is answered in this paper, one is left wondering “as to what effect?”. Fortunately, the authors mention in a footnote that they are collecting data for a companion paper in which they focus on the behavior of MPs, which will hopefully address this issue. Looking forward to reading that one as well.

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Also read

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness 

Unequal Participation: Open Government’s Unresolved Dilemma

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Regarding the above picture of DRC government troops with their mobile phones, Alexis Madrigal from the Atlatinc wrote in his column last year:

I don’t know what to say about this photograph aside from suggesting that an enterprising PhD student write a dissertation on “Cell Phones in War.” How are fighting, killing, and controlling territory different when you can call your brother after battle, post a photo of your squadron on the march to Facebook, or play Angry Birds between skirmishes?

Part of the answer to Alexis’ question comes in a newly published article in the American Political Science Review by postdoctoral fellow Jan Pierskalla and PhD candidate Florian Hollenbach (ht the Monkey Cage).

In a nutshell, the authors’ findings suggest that cell phone coverage in Africa increases the likelihood of political violence. The abstract is below:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

It will be interesting to see how this paper resonates with different audiences, such as the ICT4D community and political scientists. Some have already started to question the methodology and underlying assumptions in the paper.

But despite the findings of this study, like it or not, at some point technology cheerleaders will have to come to terms with a simple fact: if technology helps us overcome problems of collective action, there’s no reason to believe that this can only happen when it comes to virtuous collective action. And it shouldn’t take a PhD to know that.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness

I just came across some interesting analysis in a study about SMS usage among low-income populations in Asia, by Juhee Kang (Michigan State University)  and Moutusy Maity (Indian Institute of Management Lucknow). The study uses data collected through a survey conducted in 2011 with 9,066 low-income mobile phone users (bottom of the pyramid) from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Picture by juicyrai on flickr.

Some of the numbers provided should serve as a reminder that having a mobile phone does not necessarily mean that a person uses SMS. In other words, if you think your project is inclusive “because it uses SMS” and “nearly everybody has a mobile phone”, think twice: there’s a chance your project is not as inclusive as you’d like to think.

A few excerpts from “Texting among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use among the Low-income Mobile Users in Asia”:

Of the total 9,066 respondents, 54.3 percent own a personal mobile phone (N=4926).

Approximately thirty two percent (32.2%) of the mobile owners have ever used SMS.

While the distribution of the users is similar between urban and rural, it was found that a large proportion
of the non-users live in rural areas (73%).

The reported daily income was higher among the users (USD2.88, SD=2.80) than among the non-users (USD 1.51, SD=2.58).

The non-users tend to have lower education as 83 percent of the non-users had only primary schooling or no formal education.

The users also have a higher level of access to other media such as TV, radio and personal computers than the non-users.

And some sobering conclusions that development practitioners should bear in mind:

We argue that the quantity of mobile phones in the Global South does not automatically translate into the high quality impact of mobile communication. In fact, the path between mobile access and developmental impact seems to consist of multiple stages of mobile service adoption and utilisation. While many development practitioners currently make positive assessments about the growing penetration of mobile phones in developing countries, it is still uncertain how these mobile phones can bring positive benefits to the poor, and what types of services can lead to socioeconomic development.

Making a mere provision of information via SMS may not reach the mobile owners who use mobile phones mainly for voice calls, in particular the poorest and the least educated of the poor. The study found that the barriers to SMS adoption are beyond the issues of affordability and literacy and the problem lies in the current limitations on usability and the lack of familiarity with text-based communications.

You can read the full study here [PDF].