Phones: The Key to the City

The ordinary telephone is among the most important and ubiquitous technologies in the world.

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at inciteXchange – an annual conference organized by the Center for Design and Innovation at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. The focus of the event was to bring together speakers on a diverse range of topics to present short talks aimed at inciting collaboration and innovation.

I gave a talk at this event entitled “Phone City,” which underscored the importance of telephones and mobile devices to our everyday lives, and – I believe – to the future of our cities.

A healthy obsession

I’ve always been fascinated with phones.

Toward the end of my time in state government, about 9 years ago, I helped initiate a project that used previous generation cell phones and standard household phones to help people without Internet access find a public access point (usually a public library) close by.

The project went on to win a national award, and is still active today – but that’s not what I think is most notable about this small project begun almost a decade ago.

What I find interesting is that as we develop increasingly sophisticated tools for people to connect to, interact with, and get services from governments, we continue to struggle with the seemingly intractable problem of the digital divide.

And despite all the changes in technology we’ve seen over the last decade, we still rely on the humble telephone in our quest to bridge this divide.

Surrounded by phones

The penetration rate for mobile phones is better than 80 percent, while in some cities (like Philadelphia) traditional access to the Internet can be as low as 60 percent.

And while Internet use on mobile devices is rising, for some services provided by governments and non-profits, having access to a mobile device is an inadequate replacement for traditional internet access. It’s been noted before how certain activities, like filing out a job application, filing for unemployment or paying taxes are simply not practical tasks when using a cell phone, regardless of how advanced it is.

However, one of the things that mobile devices are very good for is determining a user’s location – this is true both of newer smart phones and (increasingly) older feature phones, using both voice and SMS interfaces.

In light of these factors, phones are an ideal “bridging” technology for getting people who don’t have access to traditional internet devices in their home or at work to a location nearby that does.

Variations on a theme

It comes as no surprise then that we see an abundance of useful applications built for telephones that direct us to all sorts of locations of interest. And I’m not just referring to smartphone apps that leverage the geolocation features of more modern phones.

Increasingly apps like SNAPFresh, TechnoFinder and PhillyVoter to name just a few are using the ubiquity of SMS to provide location information to users, directing them to retailers that accept SNAP benefits, locations in their neighborhoods with free Internet access and polling places.

These applications are the building blocks of the bridge over the digital divide.

Phones have always played an important part in how we communicate with each other, and with our governments. As the cost of telephony services continues to erode, and as the tools for building phone-based apps become more widespread and more powerful, we are bound to see more innovative uses of this very common technology.

Phones are the key to our cities.

Government leaders and civic developers would be wise to consider the long and productive history that phones have played in connecting people to the places of importance to them.

2 comments

  1. Dan Bevarly (@dbevarly) · April 4, 2012

    Simple equation: Phones + Libraries + Internet Access = Citizen connectivity to government

  2. mheadd · April 4, 2012

    @Dan – agreed!

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