Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mobile Participation in the Public Sphere: Accessibility and Privacy

After my presentation of polltogo at Mobile Monday in Paris last week, I was invited to write a short article for the Journal du Net about the topic of the evening: Participation in public spaces. I decided to focus on some of the issues around mobile participation, namely accessibility and how to balance the right to privacy with targeting.

Link: Comment contribuer publiquement et anonymement dans l’espace public virtuel? [in French]

Brief summary in English:

As we have all noticed, paper as a medium is dying and communication in the public sphere is changing. Increasingly, this communication is occurring on mobile devices. In the last two years we've seen the potential impact of this trend on democratic movements: Arab spring, anti-SOPA, Occupy Wall Street, Pigeons movement in France, etc.

But what if you don't have a smartphone? How would you announce to the world where you are, participate in QR code mediated interactions, bear witness using Instagram, etc. Though most developers ignore them, older phones and more economical "feature phones" are still surprisingly common: 50% of the penetration in the US [Nielson Mobile Insights, March 2012] and 82% in Africa and the Middle East [VisionMobile, July 2012]. This is causing another form of the well-documented digital divide: A stifling of the participatory potential of a large proportion of citizens. One could argue that this is a temporary issue, since smartphone sales now dominate (at least in certain parts of the world), but with the incessant pace of innovation, constantly pushing the high-end higher, isn't there the potential for a constant gap? In any case, at the very least, we should be aware and make our web/mobile tools accessible to older devices.

When we are on the ground, communicating via a mobile device, how do we effectively communicate with strangers to organize/collaborate/meet, on the spot, with little delay? Contact lists and instant messaging are for communicating within our existing networks. How to we target our calls for action to strangers without knowing who it is we are targeting? If we assume that people desire some level of privacy (or anonymity), this is a tricky problem. One way to strike the balance could be the use of geolocation data. Already we can search for public tweets nearby with Twitter, or find public polls nearby using polltogo, but it's still early days...

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