In January the Associated Press had a widely run article entitled “For minorities, new ‘digital divide’ appears” by Jesse Washington. On the Digital Inclusion Network commenter Jeff Smith wrote of it:

For me, this article perfectly frames a long-standing problem in public policy: understanding access vs. use, and making judgments about those uses.

Following trends in public policy, academic study and government services, most practitioners measure access, delivery speed & delivery accuracy. Usual questions in need of answering are: What percentage of eligible persons have access to this program? How quickly did they receive services and Did the right person(s) get the proper amounts according to his/her eligibility?

A perfect example comes from the perfect example comes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. For years, government simply made food stamps available to those who were eligible and knew about it. Then a concerted effort was made to increase the amount of people who knew about the program. Metrics being monitored were about access, delivery speed and delivery accuracy. It’s not that these metrics do not make sense, but they’re inadequate to understand efficacy. Until recently, very little has gone into designing a SNAP system that can measure a person’s well-being after having used food stamps. This problem spans many human services programs, but a lot of work is going into better-understanding how aid is used.

Turning to mobile phone access versus use, my own research indicates that access only tells a fraction of the story. In a 2005 study, Leonard Waverman, Fellow at the London Business School and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, found that, “A developing country which had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59 percent higher than an otherwise identical country.” After updating that study with data spanning to 2008, I found that increasing mobile phones by 10 per 100 people had a far smaller affect on per capita GDP growth (around four times less impact that the 2005 study indicated). This was in line with intuition. Dramatic increases of mobile phone use in the world’s poorest nations (The Gambia saw 0 per 100 in 2000; by 2008, the country had over 70 mobile phones per 100 people) did very little to translate to actual gains in per capita GDP growth in those nations.

Does this mean that cell phones in poor countries have had no effect on making lives better or enhancing economic growth? No. But it means that simply giving access to technology will yield similarly simplistic results. In fact, a study about fish markets in India is a great example of how cell phones have had significant dividends for communities (users and non-users alike). See study pdf at:

As more people look to delineate access and use, as Pew and others are trying to do, especially among different socio-economic classes or races, policy questions must try to capture some measures of well-being - not simply access and speed.