Global Voices talks with Kenfield Griffith, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of mSurvey, which recently completed a nationwide mobile survey for the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT), which assessed the scope of the country's digital divide.
Kenfield obtained his PhD in Design and Computation at MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and was always interested in how information can improve access and resources with appropriate technologies in difficult-to-reach communities. While working on research in Kenya, looking at computer numerically controlled and computer aided design technologies for the automation of low-income housing in emerging markets, he could not find current data, often having to resort to traditional paper and pen to do surveys. Knowing that he needed a massive amount of data as part of his research, Kenfield developed a simple, ‘crude’ mobile phone-based technology that enabled feedback directly from community members at a fraction of the time and cost, which allowed him to complete his survey work and record the data collected for analysis in real time. This basic idea has become the engine behind mSurvey.
Global Voices (GV): Tell us about the decision to establish mSurvey in the Caribbean. What sort of regional potential did you see for your business?
Kenfield Griffith (KG): mSurvey's first foray in the Caribbean began in 2011 with a project called mFisheries, in which mSurvey collaborated with the University of the West Indies’ Department of Computing and Information Technology to develop a suite of mobile applications for people involved in the local fishing industry (from fishermen to consumers). Traditionally, the region is cited as being one of the lesser developed in the world, but since I have strong familial ties to the region (I'm originally from Montserrat, and my father is from Barbados) there was an innate draw for me to implement the technology as an agent for change and development.
(GV): You had 4 main objectives to the Digital Divide survey – to figure out which communities were underserved, to determine where T&T stood with regard to ICT as compared with other countries, to determine the telecommunications needs of the differently able and to determine what portion of the population could afford assistive technologies. Let's address each one. First of all, which areas of the country were without internet access and what was the landscape like in those places? How does TATT plan to rectify the situation?
KG: According to the aggregate calculated regional indices, Tobago [the smaller of the two islands that make up the twin island republic] lags behind Trinidad in terms of access. The regions of St. Mary, St. John and St. Paul lag in digital access due to poor infrastructure, which is attributed to a low number of fixed telephone subscribers per 100 inhabitants.
Three regions (Penal/Debe, St. John and St. Mary) [in central and south Trinidad] have a usage sub-index that is below 0.9, unlike all other regions. Usage has only one indicator, Internet users per 100 inhabitants. A low sub-index value for usage thus means that the number of Internet users in these regions is relatively low compared to the ideal value of 85%.
South Korea, noted to be the leading country in bridging the digital divide, has put in place different measures to avail Internet accessibility and increase usage through Korea Agency For Digital Opportunity & Promotion (KADO). In an effort to reach people in remote areas, KADO partners with local governments and civic associations. Additionally, KADO holds classes on computer/Internet use in private homes. Along with Internet infrastructural improvements, an approach like this could be investigated to be implemented in Trinidad and Tobago thereby increasing usage and immensely bridging the divide.
Regions such as St. Paul and St. John trail the rest of the country in Digital Opportunity due to poor infrastructure. The non-constant indicators of this sub-index are the number of Internet users per 100 inhabitants, proportion of households with a fixed line telephone and the proportion of households with a computer. Much as the regions of St. Paul and St. John have better infrastructure than the country average as of 2007 (0.39)17, the disparity between them and the best performing region in this sub-index is quite high. The [capital] city of Port of Spain has a DOI [Digital Opportunity Index] of 0.7748 and this is partly due to good infrastructure, whose index is 0.6816. Interventions should be put in place to implement infrastructure in all regions to a comparable standard of Port of Spain.
GV: How does T&T's tech status compare to other Caribbean territories as well as to developed nations? Can you take us through what factors go into determining the globally accepted benchmark and why?
KG: mSurvey used a few factors in measuring the digital divide. The ITU [International Telecommunication Union] standards, secondary data from other regional islands, and from countries which are identified as emerging digital access countries. As noted, Trinidad and Tobago has a very high mobile penetration compared with other Caribbean territories, but has less defined areas of Internet (wi-fi) access points as seen in other regions. Countries used were Estonia, Kenya, Ghana, Barbados, and the US which all offered insight to successful steps been taken to bridge the digital divide.
GV: It's heartening that TATT wanted to focus on the tech needs of people with disabilities – do you know why this was mentioned specifically and what plans the authority has to improve assistive technologies and other services in this regard? Do you see this as a pivotal move that will inform the way the differently able are viewed in our society?
KG: We also found it quite commendable that TATT decided to incorporate questions related to (households with) persons with disabilities so that they (TATT) could gauge the level of need of ICT [Information and Communications Technology] services for this segment of society. One of the challenges of collecting data about the number of persons with disabilities is how to define, and in some instances how to identify, a person with disability. For instance, an elderly person with diminished vision may not be considered to be a person with disability by his/her family members, although [he/she] may be legally blind.
We relied on the Consortium of Disability Organizations (CODO) for guidance on definitions and determining what information would be pertinent in determining the ICT needs of persons with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago. The Disability Survey amounted to eight discreet questions which focused on the nature of the person’s disability, that person’s affiliation with local disability organizations, whether that person currently uses/needs special equipment to access ICT, and from where they receive financial support.
We recorded 1197 households with persons with disabilities, and a total of 1329 persons with disabilities. The San Juan region cited the most number of persons with disabilities, which is not surprising because this region also has a high concentration of organizations which cater to persons with disabilities.
KG: The DAI, DOI, and IDI are the foundational indices which comprise the DDS [Digital Divide Survey].
DOI as composite index that measures ‘digital opportunity’ or the possibility for the citizens of a particular country to benefit from access to information that is ‘universal, ubiquitous, equitable and affordable'. The DOI involves new and innovative technologies such as mobile Internet and broadband. It can [therefore] be used to assess the growth and take-up of new ICTs [and] will remain relevant for some time to come, unlike more traditional connectivity indicators (e.g. fixed lines), which may become less relevant for developing countries through the expansion of mobile telephony networks, advanced wireless connectivity and own technology ‘leapfrogging'.
The DOI measures the ICT penetration of households and individuals relative to 100% ownership, to measure growth in the ICT development of the country’s economy over time. [It] is based on eleven ICT indicators, grouped in three clusters:
Opportunity — measures the basic access and affordability needed to participate in the information society in mobile population coverage, Internet access prices and mobile prices.
Infrastructure — includes measures of different networks (fixed lines, mobile cellular subscribers and household Internet access) and devices (households with a computer and mobile Internet).
Utilization — evaluates ICT usage in Internet users and broadband subscribers (fixed and mobile).
The Digital Access Index reflects the ability of a country’s population to take advantage of Internet communication technologies. This index follows the same methodology as the DOI, [grouping] eight indicators into five categories – Infrastructure, Affordability, Knowledge, Quality and Usage.
The ICT Development Index is a tool used to benchmark and track the progress the different regions in a country are making towards becoming an information society. This is then translated to the country as whole and comparisons done with other countries, at the same level of development and otherwise. The IDI is a composite index made up of eleven indicators covering ICT access, use and skills.
GV: What were the main challenges in conducting the survey?
KG: Well, with the Digital Divide Survey being the first national mobile survey in Trinidad and Tobago, we had to connect our platform with the locally operating telecommunications companies – bmobile and Digicel – and with every new market in which we [operate], that is one of our main challenges.
After this, the next hurdle to overcome is gaining trust from respondents. With mobile surveying…being a new technology to the [local] market, there is of course some degree of skepticism and paranoia: Who is asking these questions, and why? Are respondents really not going to be charged for the responses they send via SMS? Will respondents really receive $10 top-up credit upon completion of the survey?
GV: In a nutshell, what did the survey reveal? What measures can the authority take to help decrease the digital divide in T&T? And what factors contribute the to equation from the public's point of view? In other words, tools are no good unless you know how to use them – have you found the population tech-savvy, literate and largely able to use the tools if available?
KG: Many (five out of seven) of the regions in Tobago (namely, St. Paul, St. Mary, St. John, St. George, and St. Andrew) performed below national average across all indices, and two regions in Trinidad had similar performances (Mayaro/Rio Claro and Sangre Grande).
Trinidad and Tobago shows an impressive calculation of the indices determined by the metrics provided by the International Telecommunications Union. Significant focus was given to the definition of ‘access', [which is] somewhat defined…as inclusion and acts as a determinant in shrinking the digital divide. Greater consideration should be given to further develop the analysis of access from one which defines a person who has physical access to technology, to a definition that focuses access to services that improve utilization, efficiencies and overall production. Consideration should be given to the metrics that define access to include utilization criteria. Suggestions would be to develop follow-up questions focused on monitoring how persons with access utilize the technology, [in order] to gauge what kinds of services would allow them to use such technology more frequently and gain more familiarity.
Looking at a comparative analysis of Trinidad and Tobago and other countries, these countries have taken a shift to use technology access as leverage for introducing additional services to the public, beyond the physical device. The additional services however are not the sole responsibility of the government or regulatory bodies, but can be introduced as a technology challenge for young, eager entrepreneurs to develop solutions for the population of Trinidad and Tobago to utilize.
The definition of education literacy does not have a one-to-one mapping with one’s ability to utilize a given technology, and should therefore be reconsidered as a metric for technology literacy. As seen with the indices, enrollment does not adequately capture technology utilization by an individual, also taking into account the high mobile phone penetration. Other metrics that offer a clearer indication about technology literacy, such as the ownership of an email account, the frequency of use of email, the access to tools such as Google to search for information, the ability to attach media (images, video, music) to electronic messages, the utilization of VoIP such as Skype can all be used as questions to quantify someone’s technology literacy.
Through ethnography with enumerators on the ground and some insights from the replies of some users who participated in the Digital Divide Survey in Trinidad and Tobago, we deduce that some people had difficulty with some features of the technology, which implies the limited familiarity with mobile phone features beyond voice communication. We conclude that more ways of interaction with mobile phones would increase the familiarity and improve utilization of technology beyond traditional voice, and will continue to shrink the digital divide. Mobile phones can be optimized for more than voice and should be considered to make ‘communicators’ into ‘users'.
We believe Trinidad and Tobago is in a very strong position to change the technology landscape as a global leader. With a mobile phone penetration of 140%, we see this as significant leverage to offer additional services to increase efficiencies, production, and utilization in the market. Trinidad and Tobago can offer Internet solutions through mobile phones as a result of the high mobile phone penetration. However, solutions to provide access and utilization can be challenging without design and creative means outside limited, conventional processes. By supporting an entrepreneurship culture and incentivizing technology enthusiasts, there is a possibility for entrepreneurs to develop solutions as businesses to solve some of the connectivity and access problems in Trinidad and Tobago. Some potential services can include renewing a passport online, signing up for new services from a mobile phone, integrating carnival activities with mobile devices. We deem with local resources, there are many opportunities to increase utilization of technology in Trinidad and Tobago to continue shrinking the Digital Divide and becoming a technology leader.
There are opportunities to offer solutions that seamlessly become part of the [country's] lifestyle [e.g.:] Triniberry, which gives Trinidadians access to movie show times on demand on their mobile phones, and mFisheries which offer fisher folk the ability to buy and sell fish using their mobile phones, [and includes] other valuable features such as capturing crime, and emergency services. These services do not require a physical line (which can be cost prohibitive for the providers) to connect to the Internet, but a solution that makes the user want to access the Internet (service) from a mobile device. The University of the West Indies has conducted research on wireless technologies, which can be a fruitful resource to the possibility of broader wireless access points and applications throughout Trinidad and Tobago, such as Long Term Evolution technologies for high-speed wireless data developed for mobile phones.
The data [collected from the survey] [puts] TATT in a position to observe communities and regions that can significantly benefit from technological intervention. Once interventions are developed at a small, manageable scale and tested for general utilization, TATT will be [better able] to do quick and valued assessment using the methodology defined in this report, seeing what works and what does not before scaling to other regions.
GV: What impact do you think this survey will have on actually shrinking the digital divide? Where do you see T&T in the next five years?
KG: The results of this survey are intended to help guide policy and investment decisions by TATT to improve ICT services and accessibility throughout [the country]. What is key, however, is not only relying on the results of this one survey, but executing either the same or similar surveys periodically to track the progress and impact of the interventions implemented to assist with closing the digital divide.
GV: What is your vision for how your company can be part of the digital transformation taking place across the region?
KG: The digital transformation has already begun in the region. However, while there are many entrepreneurs and brilliant minds developing tools to improve livelihoods, there are still many obstacles in getting these tools to market and adopted by the end-users the developer had in mind. mSurvey sees itself playing the role of facilitating market research, customer feedback, and evaluation and monitoring over time – these are all necessary activities in the journey from the creation of a new technology from an idea, to having successful dissemination and adoption in the market. At its core, mSurvey is in the business of providing insights by honing in on relevant answers to critical questions.