Smartphone as Lifeline: Designing Technology for a Changing World

6 minutes read | First published: June 22, 2020

A new research study from Tactical Tech, 'Smartphone as Lifeline: Designing Technology for a Changing World' considers how data-driven technologies can be designed for the real world. You can read the full study here, or start with the Executive Summary:

Executive Summary

The global community is undergoing unprecedented political, environmental and social changes. In this context, smartphones provide essential access to resources, services and vital connections to friends and family, either temporarily or in an ongoing way. This research study asks: How can we design data-driven technologies for the real world, not the ideal world?

The core functions of smartphones have become normalised. They are now extensions of the self, allowing us to move through digital environments seemingly with ease and to an increasing extent, as emotional support devices to which we are habituated. Whether we value them for passing time or self expression, we also rely on them practically to a greater and greater extent; for coordinating with others and getting around, discovering information about or controlling our environments, or utilising them as identifiers, ‘passports’, ‘tickets’ or ‘credit cards’.

However, what would it mean to design smartphones not as consumer goods – for shopping, finding a restaurant or controlling your other smart devices – but rather as essential lifeline devices? What design principles and factors would need to be considered if smartphones were to be designed for those who use them for support, services and survival?

For those living in vulnerable, disadvantaged or transitional contexts, smartphones are essential. When people have restricted access to funds, unstable environments, and poor internet reliability or disrupted access, it does not reduce the value or central importance of smartphones. On the contrary, living in precarious, shifting and volatile contexts may even increase the value of such tools – acting as an indispensable means of communication for safety, coordination and survival. They are also ‘gateway devices’ – a central means through which almost all other resources can be accessed. As such, they are also devices that can amplify vulnerabilities. These new forms of dependency simultaneously create new sites of struggle; assets which become open to inequitable exposure, control and manipulation. In vulnerable contexts, smartphones are often a lifeline but they can also be a liability because of the way they are currently designed, in that the data traces they produce can also lead to ongoing scrutiny.

The framing of this study is neither for nor against technology use, but rather treats it as an inevitable development: technology amplifies existing structural issues rather than creating new problems.

The first part of the study, SMART TECHNOLOGIES AND PRECARITY, examines how personal technologies are currently utilised by and for communities living in precarious situations. It focuses primarily on people living through natural disasters or in crisis situations, refugees and migrants and those living in poverty. The study focuses on the Global North out of recognition that such precarity is normally studied in the Global South and that there is a distinct lack of synthesis of information on how this impacts communities in other parts of the world, such as North America and Europe.

The second part of the study, IDENTIFYING THE ISSUES, looks across communities and groups and identifies four common themes that are currently under explored when designing for such contexts. These are identified as:

  1. dependency – in what ways do personal technologies act as an essential lifeline?
  2. identity – how are digital identities currently formed through personal devices and related technologies, such as biometrics?
  3. agency – what is the user's experience of control over and choice related to their devices and how does this relate to social and cultural power dynamics?
  4. multipliers – what are the other dimensions, such as changing circumstances over time and scale of solutions, that can exacerbate problems and should impact design decisions?

A user’s digital identity is complex and multi-faceted. It is often a highly curated connection (whether the user is aware of this or not) between the individual, the device, platforms and communities. The fluidity of a single device in contexts where devices are often shared has repercussions for device ‘ownership’ and goes against ‘smart’ or learning-based models for service delivery based on the principle of optimisation for a single owner. Design assumptions about identity are mainly driven by the desire to facilitate authentication, device or service operation and at times self-expression but overlook the multi-faceted ways that identity works bureaucratically, culturally and for different communities.

The final part of the study, REFLECTIONS AND WHERE TO START, synthesises the challenges in designing technology for a changing world, in terms of both design process and next steps.

In order to advance the design process, technology needs to be recognised as holding up a ‘mirror’ to society, amplifying and extending existing social, cultural and political trends. Starting from this point it is possible to see design as both problem-solving and problem-making. As technology designers and engineers become the architects of the new built environment, more needs to be done to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and tools they need to make the right decisions and that they have appropriate methods that help them design for the ‘real’ world not just the ‘ideal’ world. Having more varied design teams with different lived experiences may by its very nature lead to shifts in processes or product outcomes, or perhaps even in the identification of the core problems that need to be solved. Society, industry and the institutions that regulate and control them are only at the beginning of this journey.

In terms of next steps, use of personal devices in these contexts desperately requires more research in order to develop a deeper understanding of needs, investment of time and energy to ensure that we have design models and methods that work for ‘society as user’ not just individual users. There is also a need for increased capacity building for governments, regulators, funders and civil society groups to help them engage in the political, social and cultural challenges brought by the widespread integration of and dependency on such technologies. Cross-sectoral collaboration is necessary in order to understand how technologies are tested across sectors, for example how technology for tracking the movement of migrants can be used for tracking human mobility in public health outbreaks.

The widespread use of mobile phone technologies to track and trace the spread and control of COVID-19 has shown how essential personal devices are for mitigating, solving and supporting global problems for a vast range of communities. Mass tracking and analysis of mobile phone data under lockdown has shown who can afford to stay at home and who cannot, amplifying existing inequalities. Now, more than ever, we need to understand how smartphone technology works not only as a lifeline but also as a magnifier, and the trade-offs it forces us to make in a changing world.

Read the full paper here.

by Stephanie Hankey, Cade Diehm, Rose Regina Lawrence and Marek Tuszynski

Illustration: Ann Kiernan