BlogDigitisation & Mobilities

Digital Sidewalks: Using Urban Theory to Understand Technology Use Among Migrants in Bogota

Dr. Charles Martin-Shields

Political Scientist, German Development Institute

19. May


Key Words:

digital sidewalks

Further reading:

Martin-Shields, Charles, Sonia Camacho, Rodrigo Taborda, and Constantin Ruhe. (2019) “Digitalisation in the lives of urban migrants: Evidence from Bogota.” DIE Discussion Paper 12/2019. Bonn, Germany.

My colleagues Sonia Camacho, Rodrigo Taborda, Constantin Ruhe, and I wanted to learn how arriving in an urban area affected migrants’ access to and use of digital technologies. In 2018 we organized a survey that would capture technology and e-government use across neighborhoods in Bogota, not only among migrants but also among their long-term resident neighbors. Once we had the data and did an initial round of analysis, we found something interesting: By the twelfth month of residence, migrants who spent at least a year living in the same neighborhood had a statistically significantly higher probability of accessing digital technologies and the internet compared to their long-term resident neighbors. This was true for both internal and cross-border migrants. We recently published a policy-oriented working paper on why this is, so I will use this post to explore an urban theory angle: does the physical and social nature of a neighborhood help explain this outcome? The caveat is that we did not collect data on this – this is a purely theoretical exercise, but one that I hope points to new ways to empirically explore the topic.

When we look at how and why migrants access and use digital technology, there are two sides to the story. One side is the external factors: costs and regulations. These factors tend to consume the focus of development practitioners. Indeed, someone has to be able to purchase, either individually or as a household, a smartphone in order to use internet-based apps and tools. Once they are over the cost hurdle, they also have to be able to set up an account with a cellular provider. National telecommunication policies then come into play – does this person have the correct ID to set up an account, and a phone that can be used on local networks?

Background: Access Inequalities to Digital Technologies in Columbia

In many countries the regulations requiring identification, both for the person and the phone, to set up a mobile phone or internet account is often meant to prevent crime, with the negative side effect of preventing poor or vulnerable communities from accessing the internet. For example, in an effort to depress the market for stolen phones, the Colombian government passed Decree 2015/2025 which made it harder to mail phones into Colombia, and Decree 2142 which required foreign phone’s identification number to be registered with a carrier within 15 days. While this makes it harder to move and sell stolen phones across borders, it also means that a migrant who brings a phone across a border but cannot register it has to acquire a new phone. For someone who has been displaced this can present a high economic burden.

This is the supply side of digital behavior; you cannot go online without the hardware and an account with an internet provider. The demand side of the story is how people relate to the physical and social space around them, and the role technology plays in facilitating these connections. It is not enough that I have a smartphone connected to the internet; I also need social reasons to use it.

So why would an urban migrant use technology after arriving in a new neighborhood? The most basic reason could be to make the space around them legible – with a smartphone and GoogleMaps I can see how my house connects to the city block, and how my city block connects me to the wider physical city space.  For a migrant who did not grow up in the neighborhood they have arrived in, this can be a useful starting point for getting to know the terrain of the city. However, our data showed that migrants’ probability of using digital technology and internet continued increasing long after they would have figured out how to navigate. For those who have read Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the answer to this question of continued digital integration could be that neighborhoods are inherently social networks. As a newly arrived urban migrant learns their way around the physical space of a neighborhood, they get to know the characters who inhabit it. Jacobs talked about the importance of sidewalks as the space for building social networks among the characters in a neighborhood. While we still have physical sidewalks, stoops, and storefronts, digital technology creates a range of new opportunities to connect to the neighborhood’s characters – digital sidewalks, so to speak.

How could Jacobs’s description of a neighborhood help us understand a migrant’s digital urban integration? Our data shows that after 12 months the probability that a migrant will be use digital technologies and the internet is higher than their long-term resident neighbors’ probability. At the start though, it is much lower. For a newly arrived urban migrant in Bogota, the initially low probability of using digital technology is likely to be based on a supply problem. Perhaps the phone one brought cannot be registered with a local carrier, so it takes a month or so to get a new one. Once a migrant has a working phone though, they are likely to have a wide translocal network of family and friends to stay in contact with, so the probability that they will use digital technology and the internet quickly goes up in comparison to their long-term resident neighbors. Over time, a migrant will get to know the characters and institutions in the neighborhood – these connections allow them to take an increased role in local social, administrative or economic life. This is likely to be facilitated through tools like WhatsApp, further increasing their probability of using digital technologies.

This trend quantitatively reflects Andrew Wong’s Urban Footprint model of technology use among urban migrants. A mobile phone is not just a communication tool; it is a connection to urban society. At the start, it is a connection to home, and perhaps a tool for navigating – its footprint in daily life is narrow but important. However, over time, owning a mobile phone not only keeps the owner connected to translocal networks, it signals to neighborhood characters that the owner has the tools to become involved in local activities that require mobile connectivity. This leads to a broadening daily digital footprint, and consequently the probability that an urban migrant will use digital technology goes up.

When we think about how digitalization and the internet affect the lives and opportunities for migrants, it is important to think beyond the supply side of having a smartphone and affording mobile data. For development agencies and municipalities who want to use technology in their work, they also have to think about demand. The meaning that people find in the neighborhood around them, through connections to the characters that make up the community, drives demand for digital connections. If development practitioners focus on creating the social, political and legal space for migrants to live full urban lives, migrants’ use of technology to augment that urban life will follow.

A mobile phone is not just a communication tool; it is a connection to urban society.

This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.
Charles is a political scientist at the German Development Institute in Bonn whose research focuses on the relationship between technological change, migration, and economic development.

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Charles Martin-Shields

Political Scientist, German Development Institute

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