[COLUMN] Access and beyond (1): Navigating the gendered cyberspace

12 April 2017

A world map colored to show the level of Internet penetration (number of Internet users as a percentage of a country’s population). Updated June 2013. Source: Wikipedia

Affordability is one of the primary barriers to internet access, and particularly to optimal use. Knowing this fully from our previous research, Research ICT Africa (RIA) conducted focus groups in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Rwanda in November 2016. The task at hand for this Mozilla-funded research, part of the Equal Rating project, was to obtain qualitative information that reflects the perceptions of female and male internet users, new users, and non-internet users – from different (urban and rural) locations. The study focused on how people used the internet when they had their data subsidised, and when it was not subsidised.

Subsidised data refers to when one has the option to use or access data without paying for the service or purchases a service and receives extra data for complete Internet use or a specific service. For example, zero rated free basics would is full subsidisation of data; receiving free data after purchasing credit/airtime from your network operator as a reward; or purchasing internet data and getting extra data for free only for WhatsApp for example.

Before I can even begin to dissect the findings, the first question that comes to mind is why this particular methodology? Why did we choose to go with a qualitative approach over a quantitative approach? The purpose of our study was to collect information that reflects local perceptions about how people use the internet when they have their data subsidised and when they do not. In this instance we wanted to let people tell their stories and gain understanding into their reflections. Secondly, there was a need to further understand, from their perspective factors influencing internet use and the strategies employed in order to be able to access and use data for different purposes. We wanted to hear people’s thoughts on the question at hand and with this in mind, we settled on a qualitative approach.

In studying human subjects, one can take two approaches- the quantitative way or the qualitative way. The quantitative way, with time and resources, allows us to measure the properties of social phenomena, to control and test different variables. Such studies, that often take the form of surveys, provide data that can be generalised. It provides responses to close ended questions or predefined choices. This methodology works well in different projects determined by the scope, purpose and subject.

Why did we choose to go with a qualitative approach over a quantitative approach? The purpose of our study was to collect information that reflects local perceptions about how people use the internet when they have their data subsidised and when they do not. In this instance we wanted to let people tell their stories and gain understanding into their reflections.

In our instance we were looking to perceptions, experiences and a more nuanced understanding of an issue. So we opted for a qualitative approach using focus groups. In fact, these focus groups formed a pre survey inquiry on issues to include into the RIA 2017 household survey. A qualitative approach lets us get those perceptions and insights that might not come out of a survey because it is possibly missed by the design of the questionnaire. Denzin and Lincoln (2005, p3) stated “…qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.” While we cannot generalize results to the whole population, we are able to report on behavior base on the people interviewed.

There are several approaches to qualitative studies such as ethnographic studies, in depth interviews or focus groups. We settled on focus groups. These provide information on both individual and group opinions and perceptions on a particular topic. Through the focus groups, we would be able to shed light on factors influencing Internet use and the strategies that people employ in order to be able to access and use data for different purposes.

Qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.


Focus group taking place in Nigeria. Photograph by F.Odofuwa

To understand perceptions from different intersections, we purposefully designed the focus groups to be mixed, women only and male only as well as divided by geo-location. The locations were categorised as ‘urban areas’ focused on metropolitan areas, ‘peri-urban’ focused on areas on the outskirts of metropolitans and ‘rural areas’ focused on sparsely populated areas distinctively distant from the metropolis. Deeply rural, remote areas were additional focus area. We also sought to have a mix of individuals with different levels of education, age and income.

We designed the focus groups to test the following hypothesis:

  • The use of subsidised services only forms part of data use;
  • People do not move beyond the use of subsidised services;
  • Using the Internet first through subsidised services leaves people with a lesser understanding of the Internet.

Table 1 shows the distribution of focus across the four countries. In the project design, there were meant to be between nine and 12 focus groups distributed across the three geographical areas, with mixed male and female, as well as male- and female-only focus groups.

A total of 41 focus groups were conducted, with 409 participants all together. There were 11 female-only focus groups and 9 male- only focus groups distributed by location. In Nigeria, which has the largest population, we had 12 focus groups. With the exception of Kenya, all other countries had deep rural focus groups. We chose the locations of focus groups based on their location within a country; accessibility to research partners, including knowledge of context and language; and whether the location met the geographical requirements.

We chose the locations of focus groups based on their location within a country; accessibility to research partners, including knowledge of context and language; and whether the location met the geographical requirements.

In my next column, as we look into access and beyond from a gendered perspective, I will discuss the motivations between men and women in these four countries to go online. Will we find differences between men and women? Does location have anything to do with these differences?

This article is part of a series of GenderIT.org columns. Four columnists, two in English and two in Spanish, will open up topics and themes that we want to learn more about. In English, Chenai Chair from South Africa looks at accessing internet in Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa; Varsha will examine the intersection of digital atrocities based on caste and gender in India. In Spanish, Evelin Heidel from Argentina will share her experiences in gender, technology, programming and access; and Angelica Contreras from Mexico will write about young women and their lives immersed in technology.

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