‘Develop apps and services to make a social difference’
Emrys Schoemaker is a communications expert in the consequences of technology adoption in societies and democracies, particularly communication technologies such as mobile phones and social media. He is the Director and co-founder of iMedia Associates, a UK-based firm that specialises in supporting communication for social change in countries including Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Emrys is also currently a PhD candidate and researcher at the London School of Economics, where he is investigating mobile internet in development. He has previously worked in Pakistan during 2004-2006 as a media advisor for DFID, the UN and civil society organisations.
BR Research recently sat down with Emrys in Islamabad to discuss ICT industry issues. Some of the thematic excerpts, relating to technology and democracy, appeared in Business Recorder’s pioneering ICT publication, the ICT Review 2014 (released on December 16, 2014). Other equally insightful excerpts are shared below:
BR Research: Is it unique to developing countries like Pakistan that rural areas are not on priority while introducing new technologies when in fact intuition suggests that those areas could benefit the most from technologies like mobile broadband?
Emrys Schoemaker: It’s not unique to developing countries. Even in the United Kingdom, there are places where you barely get signals or data connection. That’s mainly because usually there aren’t enough people buying the airtime or paying for data charges that it makes sense for the telecom companies to invest in the towers there.
But having said that, a mature market like the UK has much greater coverage. The problem in developing countries like Pakistan is that there are more places where it does not make commercial sense to invest in towers than there are places where it does make sense. So the main metros would be covered but a place like Thar Desert will take a long time to get service.
One way the rural access issue can be addressed in Pakistan is through the organisation of Universal Service Fund (USF), which has billions of rupees and which has the mandate to promote rural access. USF’s funds are intended to be spent for that purpose. There are difficulties in the USF model, but again, Pakistan is not unique as other telecom markets have also faced issues in spending USF funds.
BRR: There is a lot of debate surrounding relationship between technology and inequality. Is technology inherently neutral or does it exacerbate existing inequalities? Please frame your answer in a developing country context, preferably Pakistan’s.
ES: I don’t think technology causes or prevents inequality by itself – but it reflects the intentions of those who use it. Of course, inequality in access to technology can reinforce inequality. The development community is excited about mobile phones because everyone has them. Now many people’s hopes are attached to smartphones and a mobile internet, but the handset and data prices need to come down to a level where the poorest can afford them.
But access is just one part of the puzzle – there is also a question about “what kind of access”. Access to a smartphone is nothing like access to a laptop: you can’t write code, letters, and reports or make apps on a smartphone. So inequality in access to a technology might reinforce existing income inequality.
BRR: “Content development” is the buzzword in tech quarters. How does it affect a lay user in a country like Pakistan?
ES: People need to have the capability to access content as well as the literacy to be able to tell the difference between excellent and mediocre quality content. I call that ‘digital capability’. People need to have the basic critical thinking skills to be able to identify the background and the legitimacy of organisations, so that they know which content to trust. Without these skills, or without developing these skills, new internet users may struggle to tell the difference between reputable media organisations. So it is important to develop digital capabilities of the layman.
BRR: As the world moves from broadcast-centric content to digital content, little has changed for developing countries like Pakistan: they continue to heavily consume mostly external, western content. Is there strong evidence that such external content has an impact on local values and attitudes?
ES: This is a very complicated and contested debate. What impact do the media have on society? There is a lot of research on this – how media affects violent behaviour, political attitudes or more subtle social attitudes. In general it is contested that any linear or predictable relationship exists between, let’s say, cable TV content consumption and modernisation of a society’s underlying beliefs. So, it is contested that content somehow brings out cultural change. Another common belief that has little evidence behind it is that the greater the penetration of newspapers, or access to TV channels and the internet, the better the electoral outcomes and more accountable the government.
Those arguments problematically assume that there is a predictable outcome from being exposed to content. They assume that people are very passive. They assume that with exposure to content, there will be promotion of liberal, secular and democratic values. More interesting, and important, is how people perceive, interpret and understand the content they consume. People’s existing beliefs are a better guide to the impact of content than the content itself.
BRR: You are a keen observer of Pakistan for last many years. Do you think ICTs can help to bring state and society closer on agreeing to values that favour progressive over reactionary mindset?
ES: At the moment, the strongest voices and the strongest set of values in Pakistan are those that support social and religious conservatism. Reports from organisations such as Bytes4all, Digital Rights Foundation and Bolobhi have shown how conservative voices have marginalized minorities and women. Those voices are also able to keep YouTube banned. They are able to punish certain content that is put online with charges of blasphemy.
It seems that those are the voices of the majority – certainly the voices that challenge them, have little support or traction. If the government wants to challenge that and push a more inclusive or liberal perspective, it will have to build the capability of the liberal or progressive demographic to produce content that counters that narrative.
BRR: We are witnessing a refreshing trend where young Pakistani men and women are launching online start-ups. Some of them have even made it globally. How do you see Pakistan’s growing tech-entrepreneurial ecosystem?
ES: Pakistan’s tech entrepreneurial ecosystem is growing, but it has many issues to overcome. The first is, I think, that very often in places like Pakistan with struggling economies, we look to the idea of individual success stories – the heroic entrepreneur who overcomes all odds to achieve their dreams. But the truth is that most employment is likely to come from existing businesses and the state. Building the quality of existing employment, and strengthening workers rights and unions, will do far more for employment.
Having said that, entrepreneurs are important drivers of innovation and change. The Pakistan ecosystem has never had a robust and comprehensive ecosystem diagnostic – though there have been some initial work in this areas, such as i2i’s work.
BRR: So do you have any specific recommendations for start-ups and their incubators and accelerators?
ES: There are three things I would personally be interested in seeing. The first is support to social entrepreneurs to develop apps and services that make a difference and to do this, entrepreneurs need to understand technology as well as social issues. Designing ride-share services is great, but that won’t address the more challenging issue of mass transit for people who can’t afford a car.
Of course, not all entrepreneurs need to be social-change activists. So the second thing I’d like to see in Pakistan is something that has been described as value-retaining entrepreneurs. For many entrepreneurs success is being bought out by a larger company – and in the absence of significant venture capital in Pakistan, very often that larger company is a foreign company. So entrepreneurs design products for foreign markets. In some ways, then, this is like the textile industry of old – productive development outsourced by rich countries to poor countries. I would like to see an entrepreneurial ecosystem that has indigenous venture capital, which can incentivize entrepreneurs to develop products that solve problems for Pakistani users.
Finally, I would like to see industry, and particularly the mobile industry, open themselves up to entrepreneurial efforts. Mobilink’s parent company recently committed to supporting youth-led mobile entrepreneurs – but this will be most effective if the effort is both a corporate social responsibility as well as a commercial effort. I would like to see a mobile innovation centre with close relationships to the mobile industry, the development sector and venture capital to really strengthen entrepreneurial innovation that can generate value and benefit for Pakistan above all else.