What Does a Smartphone Mean to a Refugee ? | NDTV Gadgets360.com
In an increasingly digital world, after food and shelter, the next necessity that people have is an Internet connected smartphone, says Mark Latonero, PhD, Lead Researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York. Latonero’s work focuses on the implication of new technologies in the human rights space and speaking at the Cornell Tech Law Colloquium last month at Cornell University, he discussed the tensions between emerging technologies and the law, in particular the inadvertent ways in which tech companies have made interventions in the refugee crisis.
“There are challenges and opportunities and technology can make a positive impact,” said Latonero. “It’s complicated. How can you think about technology, not as a thing in and of itself, but an intrical part social context. Digital infrastructures are facilitating the movement of people on a mass scale, but also serve as a mechanism for social control.”
Like the rest of us reading this at home, the refugee populations also turned to Facebook and other social media, often to keep track of their friends and family.
“So in the same way that we use Facebook or WhatsApp to coordinate with our friends or loved ones, to find directions, those kinds of uses are also for people where - finding people, or finding directions, could be a matter of life or death,” Latonero explained. “But there’s also a negative impact - while Facebook can be used to connect - it is also being used to exploit. So, the advertising of human trafficking and human smuggling is also being done through social media.”
One of the questions that the survey wanted to clear up was where people get their information from. “Normally, a lot of the information you receive comes from talking to people, even here [in Cornell] where you’re all pretty digitally connected,” said Latonero. “But the mobile Internet - through free Wi-Fi, or with a data plan - accounted for 75 percent of news and information for the refugees. And 40 percent of the people told us that they use it to keep track of their friends and family, to stay connected to people who are left behind, and 24 percent of the people also said they used social media to track down people who had gone missing.”
Beyond that, the research also found that 95 percent of men owned phones, while only 67 percent of women had a smartphone. This is in some ways in line with what you see in rural India, where in many cases, there is one phone for the family, held by the man of the house. “The ownership issue became quite significant,” said Latonero. “Imagine if you’re an NGO that wanted to get information to women who faced domestic violence. Your idea was to use mobile phones to send information etcetera, but then you realise that less women own phones than men, then it would change how you would design your intervention.”
Another example he gives is that the vast majority of the refugees surveyed used WhatsApp (95 percent) while only 10 percent had Skype on their phones. As a result, many official interventions, and even private interventions, such as Coursera and Skype having educational courses for refugees, would not be accessed.
“Essentially we need to really think about how to responsibly innovate in these very complex issues,” Latonero said, ending the chat, “A straight-up tech solutionist approach doesn’t really seem like it would work, given all we know about the challenges with technology itself.”