At the Vermont Digital Economy Project, we're passionate about using new technologies to improve disaster resilience and spur economic growth in Vermont. Mobile technology, from the ease of accessing the Internet on a smart phone to using text messaging to donate to an organization or pay your bills, is playing a huge role on both of these fronts, and in so doing is helping to lessen the digital divide between those who understand and have access to technology and those who do not. However, we should also be wary of embracing mobile technology at the expense of other technological advances.
Mobile technology has been a huge boon for developing countries, particularly in Africa. Several papers, including one by the World Economic Forum have been written about what scholars have termed "technological leapfrogging." People in countries with poor infrastructure are now able to get online and access information via mobile devices, and are therefore still able to join a global conversation, despite the lack of physical broadband. This is great news for reducing the digital divide.
Mobile phones are changing the way we use the Internet in America too. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that 89% of American adults currently have a cell phone, and 47% of American adults own a smart phone. Furthermore, more than half of all cell owners use their phones to go online, and three-quarters of smart-phone users use location-based services, such as maps to find their way around, or Foursquare to "check in". In particular, this has allowed families and individuals with lower incomes or in minority groups to access the Internet where they might not be able to afford a connection otherwise. It also means that there is a huge shift in the ways in which Americans use and access information, from restaurant reviews to social media.
This new means of information access can be helpful in spreading the message of a business or nonprofit. From finding ways to text reminders for events or text-to-give options, to creating extra coupons for people who check into your establishment, there are a myriad of ways in which to use this technology to your advantage. (Many great ideas are listed here.)
Increased access aside, however, it is also important to remember that there is a stark difference between using the Internet on a phone, and using it on a computer. There is less space for storage on a phone or mobile device, and download speeds often lag behind PC connections. In addition, although many sites are making an effort to incorporate responsive web design, there are still currently very few sites that are optimized for mobile consumption, and so gathering information on a mobile phone can be much more tedious and difficult. In other words, you can have a "second-class" online experience when accessing the Internet on a mobile device.
Does mobile phone technology, then, help us to bridge the digital divide? Absolutely, but it is only one aspect of a much more complicated issue. In the meantime, however, mobile technology is changing the way we interact with each other, and it is important to understand and use these new opportunities to help grow engagement and knowledge sharing, and ultimately, to help even small businesses and nonprofits in Vermont access their fullest potential.