“Will you give us a phone if we do this survey?” Surveying digital gaps through digital means

20 April 2022

Sheena and Ekta are the best of friends, both 18-19 years old, living in Dakshinpuri, a low-income neighbourhood in Delhi, India.

I met them while conducting pilot surveys on gender gaps in digital literacy, access, and use, in India in collaboration with Nirantar. I was at one of Nirantar’s centres, reading out questions from the online survey I had developed, and recording their responses on my iPhone.

As I asked Sheena about the apps she most commonly uses, she unlocked her smartphone, and swiped across the screen. She showed me a privacy app that locks all of her other apps, blocking out potentially prying members of her family. Ekta, on the other hand, had not bothered with such privacy settings, accepting that her phone was subject to surveillance and use by other family members.

As we completed the survey and I hit the submit button on my phone, Sheena asked – ‘What happens now? Will we get phones?’

Although both Sheena and Ekta were holding phones in their hands, it became clear that these were shared with others in their households.

One of the main findings of the survey is that women are disproportionately sharers, rather than solo owners, of smartphones.

This restricts the extent and nature of their use. Indeed, almost two-thirds of the people I met while conducting pilot surveys in Delhi asked the same question. Having helped me with my research, could I now help them with personal smartphone ownership, so they no longer had to share access with their family?

As my study progressed, I became acutely aware of the ethics of studying digital gaps with those who have digital restrictions. How might methodological approaches need to be adapted to engage and reward participants with these restrictions?

Adapting research methodology to accommodate digital restrictions

The Covid 19 pandemic prompted an expanded and creative use of digital tools in undertaking research interventions. However, in using digital tools for research, this has also limited research reach to people who have access to and/or know-how of digital technology.

In the UK, at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, only half of the households in the annual income bracket of £6,000-10,000 had internet access at home, compared with 99% of those with annual household income over £40,000. Such digital inequalities are exacerbated in countries with weaker digital infrastructures. In India, 41% of the population had access to the internet in 2019, but this proportion varies significantly by location (urban vs rural), gender, caste, and income.

In collaboration with Nirantar, I set out to study precisely such inequalities in three areas – digital literacy, digital access, and digital use – as experienced by youth in India. I designed and hosted the survey on Qualtrics. Circulating the survey link via social media would have made data gathering easier, but with not all able to access this, we asked teachers at Nirantar’s centres in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar to become our digital ‘nodes’. The teachers were fully briefed on the study aims, they already had smartphones and internet access and could reach those without digital know-how or facilities. Where internet access was unavailable, they conducted interviews using pen and paper and later uploaded the answers.

Adapting the methodology to benefit the participants

Survey fatigue is a common obstacle that researchers encounter, but in the case of this particular survey, participants’ questions also reflected the frustrations of young people with limited or no access to digital technology in Digital India.

What will we get out of this survey? What will happen next? Will you give us phones? Will you tell the government to give us phones and laptops? Participants were prudent in making these demands; researchers were asking them questions with no immediate or apparent benefit to the participants. It was clear that we needed to better understand participants’ views on where government and non-government interventions to promote accessibility were needed.

In our second round of interviews, we asked surveyors to discuss this with participants and then write some notes into a blank text box on the survey. This generated qualitative data, and informed future methodological decision-making. For example, in a further phase of research, using digital diaries, participants were offered data top ups as an incentive for their participation. This addressed the issue of ‘what do we get from this?’ that had arisen during the survey exercise.

Our experiences in this project highlight how, in the study of digital futures of work, the use of digital tools for researching digital restrictions needs to be carefully considered. Where participation in research may be limited by social inequalities, or motivated by participants’ desire to see their access improved, researchers have a certain obligation to consider the ethics of their approach, and find methodologically novel ways of engaging and rewarding participants.

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