Mobile Apps and Urban Commuting: Field Observations from Bangalore

Mobile Apps and Urban Commuting: Field Observations from Bangalore

This post is authored by Sreelakshmi R., who is a final year student of the Master’s Programme at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, majoring in Development Studies.

I am currently researching for my MA Dissertation on the impact of mobile applications on urban commuting in Bangalore. This is an extension of an HCI market research study I conducted for the Xerox Research Centre India, where I was required to map the daily commuting needs in Bangalore, which served as the pilot study for this research. This project aims to tease out the various actors and artefacts in the urban commuting technological system and attempts to understand the impact of new tech- based services. Fieldwork was undertaken across the Outer Ring Road for three months and semi- structured interviews were conducted with passengers in BMTC buses, OlaShare and UberPool, mostly within the context of rideshare. Through the process of participant- observation, I was able to arrive at a number of factors that apparently contributed to the decision-making process of commuting. Aside from a strategic prioritisation of the three factors- time available, cost of transport and the level of convenience, the very space of commuting involving the physical infrastructure and the virtual/ real distances, the time of the day and the range of commuting reasons, formed a part of the analysis.

Selecting, Designing and Accessing my Field Site

When the idea to study the city as a commuting space came up, choosing the busiest route rendered thus because of the target demographic came almost naturally. The Outer Ring Road connected the Central Business District, the Airport and the peripheral city that had sprung up thanks to development of tech-parks and real estate. The infrastructural advancements that enabled the Marathahalli- Electronic City range also meant access to previously unavailable resources such as water and electricity. An entire set of services were made available post the IT- Boom of the 1990s and had much to do with the influx of white collar labour from all over the country. The target group for this study are those who live in this infrastructural corridor currently in their 20’s and 30’s. A rather tech- savvy population that works in the services industry, the dynamic citizenry have a lot to offer in terms of field insights about their patterns of commuting and what factors govern their decision making.

It is the very fact of the demographics’ familiarity with new technology and allied services that made them the perfect subjects for studying what can be constructed as an Internet Mediated Interaction. The interaction between the corporeal user and the virtual app proves as a starting point for this IMI. This bringing together of two seemingly remote worlds was the first challenge I encountered in my research, specifically the question of materiality. While the material nature of the act of commuting or the app (through the phone/ device) could not be doubted, the constant reminder that there were many invisible interactions and data transfers between black- boxed systems that occurred in order to enable this particular kind of commuting was unsettling. Thus, apart from the simple Human- Computer Interaction studying of the app and the commuter, this study can be reconceived as an IMI, more accurately, and will decidedly take a look into the materiality and virtuality of the apps.

Obviously, the social scientist is able to access the social field alone to conduct research; the participants she meets are typically a function of the type of residential area which meant a differential valuing of time vis-a-vis cost. The technical details of the IMI itself were only available to the engineers who produced the app, access to whom were denied due to Corporate Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Doing the Study- Insights from the Discussion

Set notions about ethnographic methods pervaded my first attempts at studying the field— therefore participant- observation and semi- structured interviews were my methods and the attempt to map everyday commuting practices of either gender justified the methodology. Admittedly the project has moved forward a great deal from the initial idea which was to understand what the urban mobility needs were, and what prompted people to use a particular mode of transport. The study now addresses the very basis of what constitutes commuting in the city, adding layers to the decision- making process by understanding the role space, time and the body had to play in it, and how these physical aspects are reconciled with the virtual set of interactions which constitute the app. This understanding of distance as constructed through the time of commute results in the acceptance of a socially constructed time.

Thus, the IMI in question here, that a material app and its allied services are being provisioned to the corporeal user, uses the interface of a physical technological artefact, which is the smartphone. The phone mediates the interaction between the two entities and it is almost impossible to study the set of interactions that occur between the hardware and software of the phone—those interactions that allow for the setting- up of the virtual meeting-place (the app) and the exchange of services for money (a ride booking). The interaction between the user and the phone is almost over- researched, it becomes redundant to study it. And the interaction between the user and the app is mechanical at best and like already mentioned, difficult to map out exactly. While studying this as an IMI, it became evident that ethnographic methods alone would not suffice, and there were more questions unanswered in the end, such as how exactly are these interactions simultaneously virtual and real.

Another aspect of the study that came up during further analysis has a relation with doing the study itself—there seems to be a level of black-boxing of information that makes it inaccessible to the stakeholders in the data- exchange. The high degrees of specialisation found in the engineering of the apps itself shows how a diverse number of job- holders collude in elusive ways, often without their own full awareness, to bring together an app that acts as a node for multiple data-points to converge in, all hidden behind a beautiful user interface. This kind of compartmentalization, and the very fact that there are tools available that can generate lines of code that make up the app, means that there exists alienation of the makers (engineers) from the artefact (apps). Therefore, it led to the conclusion that as users, both the producers (designers/ engineers) and the consumers (users) could be imagined at the same level of awareness about the apps’ functioning. This is related to the debate about inclusivity of IMIs.

From the discussions post- presentation, an interesting point about seeing data collected to study IMI as the Truth emerged, which led to a re-assessment of the claims made by my fieldwork. While it is questionable whether data obtained is accurate, ethically sourced or owned, it is imperative to note here that the researcher sees their truth in the data. Hence, while due importance is given to data privacy and talking issues regarding piracy, one must not lose sight of the fact that there is truth in the data being interpreted by the researcher, as it forms the methodological basis for doing IMI research. What however is useful is to examine the text and the context in this situation—all data is text that emerges from the particular field context, and hence seeing it within the setting of the field will help in situating the Truth in the data. At no point, must data in itself be treated as the Truth; material cultures have a rich history of information (which is characteristically different from data) and this information have been attributed with importance only by the users/ researchers. It would be useful to trace that trajectory where historically squaring the information has materialized in data.

While we often do not have any worries about recalling/ archiving/ accessing a social interpersonal interaction, there is some obsession with being able to archive digital data. This can be attributed to the fact that digital data is easier to share via online media to an unprecedentedly large audience with/ without editing/ consent of the concerned parties. This is a method that doesn’t create new sources but sends the data into an endless cycle of reuse/ abuse. Hence proper and safe archiving is often a concern when it comes to documenting digital interactions.

Ethical Concerns

Studying IMIs pose a peculiar problem: neither the researcher nor the observed are aware of the extent of their involvement in the field. While it is a different issue that researchers can identify an IMI only after spending considerable time on the field, it does problematize the notions of unbiasedness and researcher independence. In this specific context, collecting information about commuting habits was a purely oral exercise, one which did not involve attempting to access user information from the app- servers, for instance. However, huge amounts of data are available to the corporations that peddle these apps and have access to deeply personal information about users. This is often employed in order to customise ride experiences further, and results in private data being used to provide a public service. Since the apps are provided by the tech companies free of cost to users, they could claim access to personal data in exchange for their services—however there is very little knowledge about how exactly this data is being used.

Since Google servers, thanks to Android phones, are now the largest reservoirs of private data, these companies typically just lease data from Google. Therefore, since most users have waved their rights over personal data to Google, this policy might be extended to third- party users like Uber and Ola, and hence tread the dubious ethical and legal path. Since being a researcher requires using the same apps and services as a participant, the same IMIs are replicated in both the scenarios, rendering both the researcher and participant to be a mere app- user in the larger scheme of IMIs.

Conflation of the Online and the Offline, Inclusivity of IMIs

Internet Mediated Interactions point at a conflation of the real and virtual in this field; the physical meeting place was orchestrated by the virtual space of the app that matched riders with drivers, the physical transaction was carried out through the virtual money transfer via e-wallets and the physical distance of commute was covered using both physical (road/ car) and virtual (internet) infrastructure. In short, the confluence of such aspects and the capability of technology to effect change is the basis of this IMI.

The IMIs are interestingly, created and used by a similar class and age of people—there is a shared imagination at work here that enables the designers and users to relate with each other almost perfectly. The engineers building the app and the people the app is being engineered for, are typically in their 20s and 30s currently. Thus, an exploration of this shared imagination is an exercise in the study of the history of the app, as well as a story of adoption, action and reaction. However, we do need to look into the question of who the design of the apps excludes.

The obvious inference as to the group excluded from access to the apps would be the technologically illiterate, but this includes those who have the exclusive privilege to afford to be illiterate about technology. It is not uncommon that people of a certain upper class and age do not need to know about these new technologies. Those who want to be excluded from the use of the technologies stand in stark contrast to those who would tremendously benefit from these advancements, but do not feature in the design target group. Usability of these apps predicates a certain level of linguistic and technological literacy which, when unavailable, only further alienates the already dispossessed.

To borrow from the provocations of Warschauer and Toyama on digital inclusion, technology to help address problems with systems of power does exist, but the human will to use it in order to make it more accessible is perhaps absent. Toyama (2011) goes on to comment on how designing for particular groups is important: designers of technology decide those who will be worthy of using their technology and design it for those who can afford it. Once this is systematised, those who were initially excluded will never make it back into the fold of technology- users, as being unable to afford it at the start, they now cannot move upward in ranks as they do not have access to the technology.

References:

  • Toyoma, Kentaro (2010) “Can Technology End Poverty?” Boston Review (Nov/ Dec 2010, )
  • Warschaeur, Mark  (2002)  “Reconceptualising  the  Digital  Divide”  First  Monday University of Illinois.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CITAPP and IIIT Bangalore.