2 abr. 2014

Gender differences in access to Information in farming communities

The discussion I bring here today is to what extent a deep insight on user behaviour regarding information access in farming areas may still be relevant after ten years of technical progresses. But before answering to this, allow me to introduce you the context, the insights and the solution.

It was 2003 and I started working for the Government of Catalonia, Spain, to bridge the digital divide in those rural areas where agriculture was the main economic activity. In the light of the insights gathered during fieldwork research, instead of building another static digital newspaper, we built a dynamic virtual community where mobile based services and quality e-learning contents were also provided. In a nutshell a 2.0 approach quite before this term was coined.

The reason of this was that fieldwork research revealed significant differences between men and women in terms of channels and informations sources preferences. While men relied mostly on mobile phones and face to face conversations with peers or advisors, women find computers more convenient.

We find that mobile phone usage by farmers - men - was pretty high (over 95%) but broadband internet access at farms was low (less than 40%), but it wasn't at those families with children where, again, the percentage was pretty high:  over 80%. Together, all this data had several implications in terms of user behaviour. Let's summarise this differences.

Ladies first:
  • They tend to be in charge of the administrative work as well as of any complementary businesses such as rural tourism or artisan food. They are responsible for the housework and for the children. Therefore and although they are also mobile workers their activity happens basically at home.
  • Women tend to be younger than their husbands and more open to technology. 
  • Children in 2003 were the main reason for families to have internet at their homes. Further, they were responsible for introducing their parents (mainly their mother) and grandparents (who usually live in the same unit) in how to use internet.
  • Women usually start using internet to help their children with the homework but, later they realize the potential and use it for themselves to learn and become better professionals. Therefore they are quite interested in eLearning solutions.
Now men's turn:
  • Men are basically mobile workers: they spent most of the time out. That is at field, at the cooperative at farming fairs or also in the evening when they meet their peers at the cantina.
  • They need specific information for decision making, specifically at field level. 
  • Over 95% use mobile phone and carry it with him all the time. Their command of this pocket technology is limited, hence any information provided through this channel must be simple, easy to read ( average age is over 50) and must enable better decision making. 
  • Finally, they arrive pretty tired at home so if there is a screen to watch it won't be the computer but the tv.

So this was in 2003 and this was the answer:

  • A virtual community where people could engage in conversations and share information.
  • Many mobile services delivered by SMS & email (now also by twitter) to ease decision making at field.
  • eLearning products to provide quality training in contents relevant to their economic activity.
  • Many e-magazines and communities of practice for specific production.

Are these differences in user behaviour still relevant afler eleven years?  Well, although the project, RuralCat, it is still a reference for rural areas in Europe and Latin America my answer is: probably not.

It is true that tech advances have been so intense (many farmers are using smartphones and tablets instead of feature phones and PDA and broadband internet access is available instead of dial-up connections) that many barriers can be now overcome to provide more and better services, but what it was relevant in 2003 and it is still now is that in order to answer appropriately to this question you must forget technology and talk to the user.

Technology provides us with more options, more flexibility more capacity but still is the user and engage them in the design process, that will elicit not only the answer to this question, but also the possible new services to deliver.

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