Post Conference thoughts: Mobiles are where it’s at

Having had a few days to chew on last week's conferences the theme inclusion or its evil cousin the digital divide keeps bubbling up in nearly every presentation.

Those of us in this webby e-democracy aware world are getting a little better at realising that we're unusually connected and ahead of the curve. So presenters are looking over their shoulders – looking at those barely or not connected. We realise how empowering much of the Internet can be and we want everyone to be invited to the party, whether out of altruism or because it means more potential customers!

Inclusiveness is difficult to argue against, but we do need to remember that some people just don't want to use the Internet. But perhaps they want to use a phone? Tom Hume's presentation at d.construct [PDF] re-aligned my thinking when he reminded us just how pervasive mobile phones are by starting his presentation with:

“There are twice as many mobile phones, than there are internet users of any kind. There are three times as many mobile phones than there are personal computers. There are more mobile phones than credit cards, more mobile phones than automobiles, more mobile phones than TV sets, and more mobile phones than fixed/wireline phones… 30% of the global population carries a mobile phone… Over 30 countries have achieved over 100% cellphone penetration rates…”

Many of us are ignoring the mobile medium – but Tom reminded us that the massive lack of standardisation in software and form factor along with the necessary role of the network operators does make developing for phones extremely tricky. Yet there's a huge market there – SMS gateways ahoy!

So whilst mobiles are getting people connected to a network of sorts, until we see improved standardisation we're going to need to be very creative in providing simple usable, inclusive services through mobile phones.

One e-voting nugget, from e-democracy '05, was Stephen Coleman's hilarious and spot-on comment that to see improved turnout government money would be better spent putting kettles and buns in polling stations rather than lining technology vendor's pockets!

Comments from the previous version of this blog:

Kettles or mobiles?

Hi Jason,
I would fund the kettles. Did you know kettles have a remarkable level of penetration in UK households – more even than mobile phones.

People bang on and on about mobiles for e-democracy access, but if you are motivated anough to want to interact somehow with government, you almost certainly can access a computer somewhere (eg a library).

What on earth do people think users will actually do with their mobiles? How much deliberation or debate can you get on a mobile phone screen? I think the ‘mobiles as solution to access’ idea is overstated.
17:16:01 GMT 17-11-2005 Lee Bryant

Overstated?

I don’t know how far some are going with mobile rhetoric but I don’t see massive textual deliberation through phones.

But I do see lots of simple services being deliverable via SMS and/or WAP which aren’t now.

Within the context of the conferences I attended last week mobiles just weren’t on the agenda at all – it was so web-browser centric that I thought discussing mobiles was a useful reality check.

Hurrah for the kettles I say!
12:34:30 GMT 19-11-2005 Jason Kitcat

Democracy and SMS

Jason: +1

Why don’t my utility providers text me when a bill goes overdue? It’s cheaper for them than sending stamps, and quicker. Why can’t I report in electricity meter readings over text? Why can I get my bank balance whenever I want? Or find out when the bins in my street will be emptied? Or report vandalism to the council? Get alerts of local building plans which affect me? And so on.

There are a million beautifully mundane uses for even the most basic connectivity that SMS provides. I’m not sure I’d be in favour of voting-by-text if it were possible… but it looks to me like participation in a democratic society involves way more than just popping into a polling centre every 4 years to scrawl your X.
19:27:46 GMT 21-11-2005 Tom Hume

Tom – spot on!

I agree absolutely…

Out of interest LloydsTSB do offer a weekly balance SMS which is fairly useful when out of reach of the Internet banking. But as you point out, there are so many useful, simple services that could be run through SMS.

The one I love is from somewhere in Scandinavia (Sweden or Denmark I think). Every year you get an SMS saying how much income tax the gov believes you owe. If it looks totally wrong then you can log on, visit the tax office etc and sort it out before the deadline is too close. Most of us know roughly how much tax we should pay but in the UK we have to pro-actively go onto the Inland Revenue site to get any sort of calculations done.

Tom – there’s loads of work for you Future Platforms lot there if only people could see it!
22:37:27 GMT 22-11-2005 Jason Kitcat