Tuesday, October 1, 2013

From Street to Satellite: Methods for Mobile Money Research

By Erin B. Taylor and Heather A. Horst

What is mobile money as an object of research? And how do we best design research programs and methodologies for it? These were the topics of a paper that Heather Horst and myself presented at the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference in London in September.

A closer look at monetary practice. Photo by Tcho Tcho Mobile
Designing mobile money research is complex because mobile money is itself complex. Simultaneously a commodity and a social good, mobile money is applicable to a broad range of uses and users. It incorporates the qualities of money, as a store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account. And because mobile money depends upon mobile technology, it cannot be readily separated from practices of communication, at least insofar as we want to understand how users incorporate it into their everyday lives. Mobile money therefore lends itself readily to both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Like mobile money itself, mobile money research is in its early days. To date, research has primarily consisted of single-country studies that deploy qualitative methods and/or surveys with a few dozen to a few hundred people. A smaller number of multi-country studies have been done. Collectively, these studies have generated significant insights into mobile money users, challenging common views of mobile money as simply a remittance service or a “product for the poor.” They show how mobile money is incorporated into the everyday lives of a broad range of users, including individuals of different social demographics, microenterprises, larger businesses, NGOs, and governments.

More than remittances: An elderly woman deposits her savings in her mobile money account to prevent theft (stills from TchoTcho Mobil's "Keep Cash Safe" advertisement). Photo by Tcho Tcho Mobile.

The advances generated by mobile money research to date are fantastic, but there is much more to be done. Our research on mobile money in Haiti highlighted numerous problems that could benefit from strategic investigation. In our paper we focused on three of these: time, trust, and traces / trajectories.

The maturation of mobile money markets takes time. A mobile money market in the first few months of deployment is unlikely to resemble the same market one, two, or five years down the track. As we discovered via comparing official maps with our own explorations at street level, there are many things that can be misrepresented in official accounts, especially in the early days of deployment. We discovered illegal or quasi-legal uses of mobile money, such as the seconding of agent services to unregistered businesses. One year on, much of what we discovered had changed beyond recognition. These include the demographics of mobile money users, adoption by businesses, and services available. While “snapshots” of mobile money use can provide fantastic insights into current practices, longitudinal and repeat studies can give us a far better picture of trends in mobile money markets. They can also help us identify to what extent security issues are the result of “teething” problems as opposed to more entrenched difficulties.

Trust is a major factor in the successful scaling of mobile money. To sign up for mobile money and make transactions in an agent or on their phone, users need to be confident that the system will work as claimed, and that they will not be exploited. Social proof can go a long way in engendering trust and facilitating uptake. However, there are different layers of trust that affect mobile money use. A lack of trust can facilitate mobile money adoption in cases where people seek to store their cash with greater security, either because they fear they will be robbed, or because they fear they will spend it if they keep it in their pocket. A further issue is whether companies are replacing states as the trusted providers of social goods. What are the implications of mobile money as part of a shifting trend of governance? A comparison of our interviews with external survey data helped us gain a picture of how states, companies, and citizens negotiate issues of trust in Haiti.

With regards to traces / trajectories, we suggest that research into how mobile money facilitates the circulation of cash would benefit keeping in mind that money does not move by itself. It moves via the actions of people, it moves through the mediation of technologies, and it moves with people and other goods. Given that money, people, and objects often travel together along similar trajectories, tracing how they accompany one another can give depth to our understanding  the trajectories of cash. While we are excited about the possibilities of “big data” to visualise circulation, qualitative methods and mapping will add depth to our understandings of how these trajectories work in practice.

There are now mobile money deployments in 75 countries (map from GSMA Mobile Money Tracker)

We argue that mobile money research can be taken to the next level in four key ways: by integrating mixed methods, building multidisciplinary teams, conducting comparative global studies, and investing in longitudinal research. We would like to see more mobile money research that plans an integration of methods from the outset–how will different methods complement each other, compensate for blind spots, and so on? What are the barriers in terms of accessing insider information for different methods? What kind of partnerships and collaborations may need to take place to gain a richer understanding of mobile money in practice?

Finally, we propose that in order to choose the right methods and approaches to mobile money use, we need to take a broad view of what mobile money is. A view of mobile money as a socioeconomic development tool could benefit from understanding mobile money as part of material culture as well as financial practice. Understanding its broad nature will help us specify the right questions and choose an appropriate combination of methodologies.

Click here to see more on mobile money by the author, and click here to see her book, Materializing Poverty. Click here to see previous IMTFI funded work in Haiti.

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