Digital Economy

Mobile Financial Services for Developing Communities

Guest Authored by: Srihari Hulikal Muralidhar, Aarhus University, Denmark

ICTD research has been grappling with the question of how to harness the potential benefits of technology towards various developmental goals in the contexts of education, healthcare and so on for a long time. Technology’s ‘reach’ gets extended through the diffusion of smartphones and internet, as they enable new possibilities in terms of designing suitable products, services and targeted interventions. The Government of India, taking note of this trend, charted a ‘Digital India’ vision, wherein it wants to enable citizens to avail certain public services via their smartphones[1]. As a first step, under the Prime Minister’s Financial Inclusion Mission, banks were mandated to open at least one account for every household in the country. The next step in this process was linking the beneficiaries’ unique national ID and tax number to their bank accounts. Subsequent to this, the government moved welfare payments (pensions) and subsidies (such as fuel subsidies to poor households) from cash to digital, where the benefits were transferred electronically to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. Some estimates claim that this reduced corruption and pilferage by more than 40% (Business Standard 2018). The biggest challenge, however, has been with the ‘last mile connectivity’ i.e. making certain essential services accessible to citizens. It is here that smartphones and affordable data are expected to offer novel opportunities.

One of the biggest problems with mobile money usage in India has been the siloed use. Mobile money services have been used only for particular activities because of a lack of adequate support, training, and proper integration with the larger ecosystem within which the technologies are embedded (O’Neill, Dhareshwar and Muralidhar 2017, Nandhi 2018). However, with app-based services becoming increasingly prevalent (such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy), some changes have occurred. One positive spillover is that they have enabled gig workers such as delivery executives and drivers to acquire a certain level of digital literacy wherein they have learnt to use smartphones and become familiar and comfortable using the internet[2]. Rickshaw drivers and Swiggy delivery executives, for instance, now use Google Maps as part of their everyday work. Previous studies on digital payments adoption have shown that there’s a path dependency exhibited wherein people already familiar with and using technology are more likely to perceive digital payments as beneficial and adopt it, and those unfamiliar might be hesitant because of concerns over trust and security (Pal et al 2018). However, with technological innovations changing the socio-economic landscape, benefits from technology use are enabled even for those who might not be comfortable using it through intermediated use (Sambasivan et al 2010), often by family members. 

In this context, certain initiatives such as the BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) app launched by the Indian Government, which is based on UPI (Unified Payment Interface)[3] show some initial promise. For instance, with this app, a user can create a unique UPI ID (which can be something as simple as their mobile number@upi), link their bank account to the ID, and conduct financial transactions such as P2P transfers, bill payments, and so on. The user can also access their bank account balance on the app itself. In addition to the government-launched BHIM, private players have also entered the mobile payments market in the country, with PayTM, PhonePe, and Google Pay being the most prominent examples. Two important factors need to be considered in this context. First, urban low-income communities such as rickshaw and cab drivers in India have not used devices like desktops or laptops and will probably never use it. Consequently, smartphone adoption and use has been a case of technological ‘leapfrogging’ and enabled digital inclusion. It has also been their first ever experience with the internet. Second, a vast majority of internet users in India use WhatsApp; in fact, India accounts for the largest user-base for WhatsApp[4]. Realizing the potential that the mobile payments market in India holds, WhatsApp is set to roll out its Payments app soon[5].

The idea of a chat application with an embedded payment interface (which allows the user to directly access their bank account from the app, amongst other things) offers new possibilities in terms of development interventions even for low-literate, low-income users. That said, the point is not claim that access alone will be sufficient in achieving financial inclusion. Rather, interfaces built on top of chat-based platforms, with which even low-literate, novice users are familiar, can be a viable way of making digital financial services accessible for them. These interventions can take a variety of forms (such as assisting with accessing financial info, tracking of personal finances, and so on) and by no means need to only be about payments. It also makes sense to think about designing interventions around supporting users’ existing financial practices and not just replace them with digital technology. Previous research has also highlighted the highly collaborative nature of household financial management (Snow and Vyas 2015), and therefore, directions for future work could also include how to design for collaboration than eliminate it.

References

Nandhi, Mani A. 2018. Effects of Mobile Banking on the Savings Practices of Low-Income Users – The Indian Experience. In Money at the Margins: Global Perspectives on Technology, Financial Inclusion and Design. Bill Maurer, Smoki Musaraj and Ivan Small (Eds.). pp. 266-286. Berghahn Books. 

O’Neill, Jacki, Anupama Dhareshwar, and Srihari H Muralidhar. 2017. Working Digital Money into a Cash Economy: The Collaborative Work of Loan Payment. Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Vol. 26. Pp. 733-768. Springer.

Pal, Joyojeet, Priyank Chandra, Vaishnav Kameswaran, Aakanksha Parameshwar, Sneha Joshi, and Aditya Johri. 2018. Digital Payment and its Discontents: Street Shops and the Indian Government’s Push for Cashless Transactions. In Proceedings of CHI’18. ACM. 

Sambasivan, Nithya, Ed Cutrell, Kentaro Toyama, and Bonnie Nardi. 2010. Intermediated Technology Use in Developing Communities. In Proceedings of CHI’10. Pp. 2583-2592. ACM.

Snow, Stephen, and Dhaval Vyas. 2015. Fostering Collaboration in the Management of Family Finances. In Proceedings of OzCHI’15. Pp. 380-387. ACM.

Standard, Business. 2018. 190mn Indian adults don’t have bank account, says World Bank report. April 19, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.business-standard.com/article/finance/190-mn-indian-adults-don-t-have-bank-account-says-world-bank-report-118041900972_1.html  

Notes

[1] https://www.digitalindia.gov.in/

[2] Our own experience in the field has shown, however, that use of internet is often limited to most popular applications such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Google Maps and sometimes Facebook.

[3] Unified Payments Interface is a real-time payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) to enable multiple financial services such as P2P transfers, merchant payments, and so on to be availed through a mobile application. Unlike M-PESA (Kenya), which is a feature phone app only, or Swish (Sweden) which can be used only on smartphone, UPI can be used by both smartphone (via an app) and non-smartphone users (via USSD code). https://www.npci.org.in/product-overview/upi-product-overview 

[4] https://venturebeat.com/2018/07/04/whatsapp-says-collective-action-required-to-combat-the-spread-of-misinformation-in-india/

[5] WhatsApp had applied for a UPI license almost a year ago but the Government is yet to approve because of concerns over privacy and data storage. The Indian Government, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, was wary of user data from India being stored outside of the country and insisted on local data storage. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, only recently acceded to this stipulation. 


DIODE General

Chat as an Interface for Underserved Communities

The platform economy largely relies on smartphones to distribute work to workers (who are typically conceived of as independent ‘entrepreneurs’). In the India, many platform economy workers come from low income communities from the auto rickshaw drivers on Ola and Uber to the delivery riders of Swiggy and Zomato. In parallel to the growing platform economy, smartphone penetration has rapidly increased in low income communities in India (at least in the cities) – due to extremely cheap data and the increasing availability of economy handsets. WhatsApp is a major driver of smartphone adoption (O’Neill et al, 2016). In ICTD how to provide services – for work, health, education – to underserved communities in an appropriate way is an ongoing question. The increasing use of smartphones as a tool for work and community raises new possibilities when thinking about ICTD services. In our research, we meet plenty of auto rickshaw drivers with low or no literacy but who competently use Ola/Uber to get work and WhatsApp to maintain connectivity with their network: sharing greetings and other memes, or using voice messaging.

The almost ubiquity of chat amongst smartphone users raises exciting possibilities for thinking about chat as an interface to a whole variety of services and information designed for, with and by underserved communities.

To illustrate I will share some reflections from our recent experiences designing a FinTech service for auto-rickshaw drivers. In particular why we moved from a smartphone application to using chat as an interface. The FinTech service, Prayana, has been designed to give auto-rickshaw drivers information on how they are progressing through loans they have taken out to buy their auto-rickshaws. This service is part of an ecosystem consisting most importantly of people – field agents, drivers, back office staff and community organisers – supported by technology which helps provide timely information, accessible to those with low literacy by making use of iconography, colour coding, visualisations and numbers. The Fintech service provides information, motivators and nudges on loan progress  direct to the drivers as well as to the field agents who help manage their loans. In the field agents version it also provides workflow support for the agents.

For the drivers app we originally designed a stand-alone Android application, but our experiences with the stand-alone field agents app we had deployed in 2017 raised serious questions about the sustainability of a standalone application. The field agents app required intense development effort just to keep it running: in the 12 months after deployment of the ‘stable’ version  we released 39 versions and recorded over 900 crashes! Pretty much whenever Android updated something would break. How would our partners, Three Wheels United (TWU), a small social enterprise start-up with limited technical resources, manage to sustain it once the research was done? Let alone develop the new features necessary to keep the application in line with their rapidly growing business? Worse still, whilst we could control what phones the field agents use for their work, we have no such control over the drivers phones which consisted of a wide range of handsets and versions of android. Even building a standalone app that can work consistently across such a variety of phones is a difficult task.  Finally, a standalone app would be yet another interface for drivers to learn and in our iterative tests, even as we simplified and improved the design, this remained a barrier for many drivers.

User test of Prayana with Auto-Rickshaw Drivers in Chitradurga, India

We had been doing research in another project on how Kaizala, Microsoft’s chat app for work in emerging markets, was being adapted used by resource-constrained and innovative young enterprises to support their workflows (McGregor et al., 2019). Could this provide the solution we were looking for? The advantages of Kaizala is it works on a wide variety of Android phones, including most low end ones. Further the Kaizala team takes care of ensuring it works with new Android versions. Equally important is Kaizala’s easily programmable APIs meaning virtually anything can be built on top of it and even low resource organisations should be able to build new screens and update existing ones. And finally, the chat metaphor is easy to understand and use since the vast majority of smartphone users in India use WhatsApp. We therefore built Prayana on top of Kaizala. We used Kaizala’s backend APIs for message delivery to tailor the information delivered to each driver based on their loan performance. Visual messages are triggered to appear in the chat stream at different points in the loan, e.g. when a payment is due, has been made, or a driver is falling behind or has paid off a certain amount of their loan. Clicking on these messages opens a screen, known as a card, which gives more details about the loan in a colour-coded, visual and numeric way.

Drivers found the chat interface easy to use

The custom cards gave us a blank canvas and complete control over the way we represented information. In user tests we found that chat worked much better than we hoped and drivers had an almost instant grasp of the interface. Even though we used the same screens as we had in the standalone app, drivers understood more in this chat-based interface and were much more confident about using it. Even drivers who could not read and write understood some of the information in each card! This was very positive and an improvement on previous versions. On the downside the setup was complicated, as drivers often had never used Play Store, or did not know their passwords, and we had to set up gmail accounts for many drivers – even though they will likely never use nor need email. Some drivers did not have enough space on their phone for the app – which is likely to remain a barrier to adoption. Despite the downsides this seemed like a major improvement on a standalone app and the chat-based drivers app was deployed in January 2019.

We believe our experiences have a much wider applicability and we are currently excited about the idea of chat as an interface to underserved communities. Building on top of chat greatly reduces the barriers to building new services and apps, can be done by anyone with HTML skills and reduces the barriers for end-users adoption. We can imagine all sorts of services from healthcare to career development, from community action to workers platforms. The opportunities are immense, in India at least, where smartphone penetration is rapidly increasing even amongst low income communities. We believe chat may be a great interface to workers in the digital economy.

References

O’Neill, Jacki, Kentaro Toyama, Jay Chen, Berthel Tate, and Aysha Siddique (2016) The increasing sophistication of mobile media sharing in lower-middle-class Bangalore. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, 2016.

McGregor, Moira, Bidwell, Nicola J., Sarangapani, Vidya, Appavoo, Jonathan and O’Neill, Jacki (2019) Talking about Chat at Work in the Global South: an Ethnographic Study of Chat Use in India and Kenya. In Proceedings of CHI, ACM, 2019

Jacki O’Neill, 21/03/2019