Actual comment sent to Textocracy.org re: communicating with local government

Tech 4 Good and the new Nokia 3310

Why building usable simple tech means good business, better democracy, and a more equal society

My facebook feed is filled with posts of all kinds about the launch of the Nokia 3310. You know, the new revivalist phone put out by Nokia to provide a low-tech, battery-sipping simple phone to appeal to a range of users- those that haven’t embraced technology, those of us rethinking our relationship with data-munching algorithms and concepts of privacy, those on tight budgets, or trying to cure ourselves of the mobile screen hunch, and so on.

[The Nokia 3310] exists for you to make phone calls, send texts the way you did a decade ago (T9 FTW!), and play Snake. -David Pearce, Wired magazine

For me, and for my company, Textocracy, the accessibility of the simple mobile phone means something much bigger.

In the modern world, the simple mobile phone can be a great leveller.

More people than you may realise do not have a smartphone or access to the internet

Here in the UK, 93% of people have at least a dumb phone. But 29% don’t have a smartphone, and 34% of those don’t use their handset devices to access the internet. What’s more, 19% of adults don’t have either a landline or mobile internet connection.

These days, limited access to smartphones and the internet mean limited voice, limited opportunity, limited power

To me, this means that around a quarter of the population have no or limited access to online communication with and about their local public and democratic services. These include essential health and social services, as well as government processes. Consulting with the public about all of these is a fundamental duty of all public sector and government agencies.

For instance, these days most consultations and surveys are internet-based. You must go online to access a link, or questionnaire, or download an app. At best you may get sent an old-school postal questionnaire requiring good English literacy, or get invited to an intimidating or inconvenient Town Hall-type gathering as an alternative chance to have your say.

Of course, the majority of the people who fall into the orange slices of the pie chart above (those “without”) are older, have low literacy, or are otherwise the poorest or least socioeconomically powerful groups.

“There are currently 10 million adults in the UK who cannot get the basic benefits of being online — communicating, searching, transacting and staying safe. And guess what? They are heavily skewed to the lowest socioeconomic groups.” -Martha Lane Fox of Doteveryone.org

This also means that those people who are the most socio-economically disadvantaged are often the most voiceless, and our public services are designing this additional layer of disempowerment into their processes.

Bridging the digital divide and building tech that is usable is also good for business

But, there is an average of 107 text messages sent every month for each and every one of the 95.1 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK. That is ten billion one hundred seventy-five million seven hundred thousand texts sent each year in the UK alone. I don’t even know how to write that out in numbers. 10,175,700,000? It’s a lot- a lot of people easily using SMS every day.

When digital services and access are designed with SMS in mind, accessibility becomes near-universal. To say that 93% of your population has a free and simple way to be heard is a big step toward true equality in democracy. As taxpayers, as citizens, it should be everyone’s right to have the best chance at being able to input into and interact with those services we are paying for and that we rely on.

But Nokia is getting something else right- near-universal accessibility means more demand for those phones. More people having access means more customers, more business opportunities. Whether you are a private company or a public sector organisation, you want the most people possible to be able to engage with you with as little effort on your part as possible. People being able to speak to you mean data and information that is invaluable for designing and delivering better products and services.

In India and Africa, a substantial proportion of business transactions are done by SMS. Booking train tickets, keeping up with market prices for agricultural products, doing your banking, can all be done with a dumb phone. That’s a lot of people relying on and using your simple mobile phone.

Universal tech is tech for good, good for equality and democracy, good for business

I worked for 20 years in public health. The basic foundation of good public health is a fair and equal society. Equality in opportunity, education, employment, in housing and security has a big impact on all aspects of our health and well-being. And we are now seeing the impact this inequality has on social and political stability unlike we have seen in decades.

That is why I built Textocracy and why I feel so passionately about SMS being adopted by public sector agencies. At the moment, local government services in particular seem to be racing to invest big money into the most high tech and whizzy methods for appearing as though they are doing the most to engage with the public they are meant to serve. Tens of thousands of pounds are going into online consultation software, social media monitoring software, high tech gadgets for people to interact with to get meaningless averages in 1 to 5 scales or emoticons. And they are hearing from the same 2% of white, educated, 30–64 year olds who are always the most vocal in local issues.

We chose to build a service using SMS, so anyone with a simple mobile phone, even the oldest Nokia (or the newest 3310), can text what they want, when they want, in their own words, anonymously, immediately, without getting in spam loop, without needing an internet connection or data package, and it is free for them within their standard mobile package. It doesn’t matter if your spelling and grammar is poor, if English is not your first language. Nine times out of ten you can be understood even with the most basic of efforts.

This for me is equality- equality of voice, of access, of being heard, of having a say in how tax money is spent on essential public services, how they are designed and delivered so that they are most appropriate for most people.

So I’m really pleased to see the launch of the new (old) Nokia and what it stands for. SMS and the dumb phone are not dead. The opportunities for them as tech for good yet business-savvy tools are immense. I also believe they can be powerful ones for democracy and equality in our society.


I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.