Last year the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council applied for a HUD Regional Sustainable Communities Grant. While the Region was not awarded a grant, one outcome of the process was a better examination of equity and how people consume civic information.
The grant application process coincided with the release of several fascinating studies from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. This series of studies is creating a portrait of the growing use of cell phones, smart phones and social networking sites, summarized below. These have huge implications for those of us who work with the community, and pay close attention to make sure everyone (especially kids, the elderly, low income residents/workers) has the same access to important community feeds and feedback loops.
This information also coincided with my own family’s experience with wireless. My Verizon plan will soon be up for renewal. As I groused about the price, my teenager quipped, “Why don’t you use this?” as he waved his Virgin Mobile smartphone. So I looked into it and come March, I too will part of the prepaid cell plan revolution, paying $35 rather than $110 a month for text, talk and data that comes closer to matching how I actually use my smart phone. The Pew studies took on a new meaning, as did my own outdated views on the digital divide.
Getting back to the Pew studies, here are links to the various studies and key tidbits from each:
- Cell phone texting has become the preferred channel of basic communication between teens and their friends, with cell calls coming in a close second.
- Teens from low-income households are much more likely than other teens to go online using a cell phone. 44% of black teens and 35% of Hispaic teens use their cell phones to go online, compared with 21% of white teens.
- Low income teens are much less likely to be on family plans. Among teens living in households with incomes below $30,000, only 31% are on a family plan that someone else pays for. In this group, 15% have prepaid plans that someone else pays for, and 12% have prepaid plans that they pay for entirely themselves.
- 83% of US adults have a cell phone of some kind, and that 42% of them own a smartphone. That translates into 35% of all adults.
- 25% of smartphone owners say that they mostly go online using their phone. While many of these individuals have other sources of online access at home, roughly one third of these “cell mostly” internet users lack a high-speed home broadband connection.
- Android is the most common smartphone platform, followed by iPhone and Blackberry devices
- Demographically, Android phones are especially common among young adults and African-Americans, while iPhones and Blackberry devices are most prevalent among college graduates and the financially well-off.
- Americans with a household income of less than $30,000 per year primarily own more basic mobile phones (roughly half have basic cell and a quarter own smart phones). However, age and ethnicity are huge factors: among 18-29 year olds earning less than $30,000 per year, 39% own a smartphone. 44% of both Hispanic and African Americans own Smartphones.
Others are writing about the growing use of smartphones, in particular among lower income groups as well. Last August, Lucy Hood wrote in the Wall Street Journal on how minorities are accessing the Internet through cheap, prepaid wireless data plans (here, subscription required).
If indeed, we are looking at pre-paid plans and mobile technology, what would that mean for packaging civic information? A couple of thoughts:
- Optimize for Mobile – My son’s homework is posted by his six teachers who use six different clunky platforms which are not optimized for mobile, and barely optimized for desktop. School Board - let’s talk about posting assignments for mobile phones.
- Android Civic Apps –Android devices dominate the prepaid phone market, so any civic hackathon better be on Android (in addition to iOS – Apple’s operating system).
- Creating Content – Access is great but like public outreach – is passive. Participation via smartphones would yield a lot of meaningful data since way too much public policy is created via reaction to a small number of squeaky wheels. How can we harness smartphones to get a true picture of what is happening in every neighborhood? What are the barriers to reporting and microblogging from people in high crime neighborhoods? Among the elderly?
- Prepaid and Computers – As long as we are talking pre-paid and equity, it is worth noting that prepaid vendors are also offering broadband – check out the Virgin Mobile plan for $20 a month. The crashing prices for laptops and netbooks may close further the digital divide.
- Tablets and eReaders - Overall, the number of Americans owning at least one e-reader (Kindle, Nook) or tablet (iPad) jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January. In another study, Pew also found that between November 2010 and May 2011, one of the highest adoption rates for e-readers was among Hispanic adults (at 15% total last year). Certainly this has implications for mobile information as more devices come with 3G/4G built in and bring a more computer like experience for roughly $20 a month. It also means there will be hunger for content - so packaging content in book-like form for e-readers will be fertile territory (not to mention the growing number of e-publishing formats).
At this point it is important to highlight work underway by the Federal Communications Commission which sponsors Lifeline and “Connect to Complete” programs to offer phone service, cell phones and high speed broadband to low income and/or unserved communities (e.g., where broadband service is incomplete). While this helps close one aspect of the digital divide, it may be exposing another: those who have mobile web and those who do not. Because the move to mobile web is occurring quickly, this is where the prepaid plans are patching the divide by offering low cost smart phone plans and broadband.