Research Methodology: Of Sieges and Shutdowns

How unreliable mobile networks and intentional Internet shutdowns affect the lives of women in Manipur

By Chinmayi S K and Rohini Lakshané

The research methodology adopted for the exploratory study titled “Of Sieges and Shutdowns” has been delineated here.

Literature survey

Research report

Last updated: June 8, 2018


Questions

  1. What do women entrepreneurs and women activists located in Manipur use the mobile phone and the Internet for?
    1. What devices do they use to access the Internet? Who owns those devices? (Mobile devices such as smartphones, feature phones, basic mobile phones and tablets; mobile devices shared with one or more members of the family; other networked devices such as Ethernet routers)
    2. Over the past 40 years, that is, since 1977:
      1. How has their access to the Internet changed?
      2. How has their access to mobile communication devices changed?
    3. Is there a difference between usage of mobile devices that are Internet-enabled and those that are not?
    4. Are there limitations or barriers to their access to the Internet and mobile networks?
      1. If yes, what are those limitations or barriers, as articulated by them?
      2. What do they do to circumvent or overcome those barriers?
    5. What are the software applications they use on their Internet-enabled devices?
  2. Are there documented and verifiable instances of intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks in Manipur?
    1. If yes, what was the nature of these shutdowns in terms of their time of occurrence, duration, scope, location within Manipur, type of Internet technology (i.e., wireless Internet, wired broadband, mobile voice networks), and the reasons cited, or lack thereof, for implementing the shutdowns?
  3. How are the personal, professional, and social lives of women in Manipur impacted and affected by temporary, intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks?
    1. How do the affected women overcome or mitigate negative effects of shutdowns, and what tangible steps have they taken or considered taking?

Objective

The objectives of this study are to qualitatively determine:

  • The usage of the mobile phone and the Internet among activists and entrepreneur women in Manipur for personal, professional and social purposes and in disaster situations.
  • How low quality of services (QoS) of networks affect the lives and livelihoods of the surveyed women
  • How intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks affect the surveyed women
  • The steps the surveyed women take to mitigate or prevent the negative effects of intentional shutdowns and unreliable mobile networks on their lives.

For the sake of brevity, the term “mobile phone” in this study includes all wireless communication devices such as tablets, phablets, smartphones and feature phones.

Object

A survey sample comprising 16 women activists and entrepreneurs residing in Manipur. These women locate themselves in different areas of women’s empowerment.

Criteria for choosing the survey respondents

  • We invited 20 women entrepreneurs and activists who were natives for Manipur belonging to different districts, ethnic tribes, religions, economic classes, formal academic backgrounds, professions and ages. The size of the survey sample was restricted to 20 because it was the first and preliminary phase of the study.
  • 16 were available to take in-person interviews and attend the two-day exploratory workshop.
  • In view of the socio-political situation in Manipur, we were aware of the local peoples’ mistrust of individuals and organisations from the so-called “mainland India”. There is often a trust deficit among peoples in northeastern India towards peoples that do not face the same challenges. To be able to meet relevant respondents and have candid interactions despite a lack of prior acquaintance with them, we identified and invited potential respondents through a circle of trust.

Demographic composition of the survey sample

16 respondents were surveyed.

Ethnicity and religion
The respondents belonged to the Meitei, Naga, Kuki and Pangal ethnic groups and followed Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Language
All but three respondents possessed working knowledge of the English language. Some also spoke Hindi, apart from their respective native languages.

Age
The respondents were between 20 and 60 years of age.

Gender
All respondents identified themselves as cisgender women.

Location
All respondents were natives of Manipur residing in districts of either the Imphal valley or the hills.

Profession
The respondents comprised entrepreneurs, activists, NGO workers and other professionals. The entrepreneurs owned food processing units, poultry farms, handloom and textile units, weavers’ cooperatives, and franchises doing retail sale of cosmetics. Activists and NGO workers in the group mainly worked in the domains of health, women’s rights, gender justice, economic independence for women, and access to education. They identified themselves as trainers, rescue workers (abuse and trafficking), human rights defenders, RTI (right to information) activists, and researchers. Some activists and NGO workers were also entrepreneurs or employed gainfully in freelance jobs outside the not-for-profit sector. Some entrepreneurs practised more than one trade, running different small businesses.

Additionally, the group consisted of an elected member of a gram panchayat, which is a local self-governance body in rural India, and women who professionally practise weaving, veterinary medicine, and accountancy.

Education
The respondents had completed different levels of formal education: High school or lower, Bachelors degree, Masters degree, Doctoral degree or professional degree(s).

Rationale

[Corresponding research questions: 1. What do women entrepreneurs and women activists located in Manipur use the mobile phone and the Internet for?
3. How are the personal, professional, and social lives of women in Manipur impacted and affected by temporary, intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks?]
The findings of this study would enable us, other researchers, and relevant stakeholders to:

  • Make technical and policy recommendations for government and non-government actors and civil society entities.
  • Study from the lens of Manipur the Internet shutdown rules issued by the DoT, known as the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.
  • Develop a mechanism to monitor Internet shutdowns in the region via technical measurement.
  • Create a road map to enable better network connectivity for communities in Manipur.

[Corresponding research question: 6. Over the past 40 years, that is, since 1977: How has their access to the Internet changed? How has their access to mobile communication devices changed?]
The respondents are in the age bracket of 20 to 60 years and the study was conducted in late 2017. So the oldest experiences of using telecom devices and services in Manipur are likely to date back to 40-odd years, that is, until circa 1977.

Method

[Corresponding research questions: 1. What do women entrepreneurs and women activists located in Manipur use the mobile phone and the Internet for?

  1. What devices do they use to access the Internet? Who owns those devices? (Mobile devices such as smartphones, feature phones, basic mobile phones and tablets; mobile devices shared with one or more members of the family; other networked devices such as Ethernet routers)
  2. Over the past 40 years, that is, since 1977:
    1. How has their access to the Internet changed?
    2. How has their access to mobile communication devices changed?
  3. Is there a difference between usage of mobile devices that are Internet-enabled and those that are not?
  4. Are there limitations or barriers to their access to the Internet and mobile networks?
    1. If yes, what are those limitations or barriers, as articulated by them?
    2. What do they do to circumvent or overcome those barriers?
  5. What are the software applications they use on their Internet-enabled devices?

3. How are the personal, professional, and social lives of women in Manipur impacted and affected by temporary, intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks?

1. How do the affected women overcome or mitigate negative effects of shutdowns, and what tangible steps have they taken or considered taking?]

Random sampling and quantitative surveys were ruled out as methods because this was an exploratory study conducted to chart and define the landscape for future phases of research. Additionally, the possibility of getting partial, reserved or inconclusive responses because of the trust deficit towards outsiders made it necessary that the researchers interact with all surveyed women in person. As a result, the survey was conducted over two steps:

  1. An interactive workshop for the researchers and surveyed women
  2. In-person interviews that were later anonymised

Interactive workshop

The two-day interactive workshop was conducted by the research team:

  1. For the research team and the surveyed women to get acquainted with each other in a safe space and an environment of trust while minimising potential fears of their privacy and security being jeopardised.
  2. To transparently establish the need and context of the study before administering the interview questionnaire
  3. To make available to the workshop participants an uninhibited space they could freely speak about their lived experiences in a group.
  4. To delineate the needs of the workshop participants in terms of their digital rights. E.g., All participants requested one or more training sessions on digital security.

The workshop was designed in keeping with the cultural, social, economic, and political contexts of the state. The results may not be reproducible if the design of the interactive workshop and the overall method of survey are applied to other populations who do not live in the same or similar contexts. The design of the workshop has been published at http://thebachchaoproject.org/workshop-design-for-feminist-investigation-of-access

Survey interviews

The survey questionnaire was administered in this step. Each participant of the workshop was interviewed individually and in a private space. All interview responses were recorded in November 2017.

Survey instrument

  1. Which of these devices do you use?
    1. Personal devices such as smartphones, other kinds of mobile phones, laptops and desktop computers
      1. What brand of phone do you use?
      2. What mobile operating system do you use?
      3. When did you buy your mobile phone?
      4. Where did you buy your mobile phone(s)?
    2. Network infrastructure devices such as routers
  2. What company’s SIM card(s) do you use?
    1. What SIMs do you use for [accessing the] Internet?
    2. Is it a prepaid or postpaid SIM?
    3. How much do you spend on mobile Internet per month?
    4. Do you use more than one SIM card?
      1. What do you use multiple SIM cards for?
  3. Which of these services do you use? (Yes/ No)
    • WhatsApp
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Instagram
    • LinkedIn
    • Pinterest
    • YouTube
    • Gmail
    • Yahoo Mail
    • Blogging platforms
    • Microloan websites
    • Crowdfunding websites
    • Alibaba [If yes, to buy or sell or both?]
    • AliExpress [If yes, to buy or sell or both?]
    • e-Stores [Examples for respondents who do not know what an e-store is: Ebay and Etsy.]
    • Online shopping
    • Enterprise software
  1. Do you make payments or send anybody money via mobile?
  2. What kind of technologies do you regularly use for your work?
  3. Are you the only person who uses your mobile phone?
  4. Are you the only person who uses your laptop/ computer?
  5. How is your personal and social life affected when the Internet does not work?
  6. How is your professional life and business affected when the Internet does not work ?
  7. Could you tell us about your experiences from the December 2016 economic blockade in Manipur?
    1. In the past 3 years have you experienced any other Internet or mobile shutdowns?
  8. Have you ever tried complaining to the telco or service provider when the Internet does not work? If yes, what was the response you received?
  9. During the earthquake and the floods that happened in Manipur, did you use the Internet or the mobile phone to reach to safety or get other people rescued or to get other people to safety?

Anonymisation

All responses were anonymised. Potential personally-identifiable information was redacted.

Validation of findings

One of the respondents gave some answers that were inconsistent with each other. Those responses were discarded.
All events relevant to the study and mentioned by the respondents were corroborated using reliable sources such as credible news reports, research reports, and government orders.

Analysis of findings

After the validation stage, the responses recorded during the workshop and in the transcripts from the interviews were analysed for possible patterns. Different categories were identified:

  • Use of WhatsApp and Facebook for activism and public mobilisation
  • Respondents’ awareness of being surveilled
  • Use of the Internet and mobile devices for entertainment
  • For research and education
  • For personal purposes
  • For professional purposes
  • For activism
  • Impact of low and unreliable QoS on professional life (8 sub-categories)
  • Impact on low and unreliable QoS on personal life (3 sub-categories)
  • Use of mobile devices and the Internet during disasters and natural calamities
  • Consumer awareness about poor QoS
  • Use of multiple mobile devices and connections
  • Lived experiences during intentional shutdowns
  • Unexpected uptime of BSNL services during intentional Internet shutdowns
  • Effects of shutdowns
    • Economic losses
    • Personal and public safety
    • Sentiment about the violation of the freedom of speech and expression
    • Emotional well being
    • Lack of state support during natural disasters and other emergencies
    • Experiences from the time of banknote demonetisation, 2016
    • Loss of work hours and productivity
    • Strained personal, professional and social relationships

Ethical considerations

Some of the views documented in this study could pose risks to the respondents’ security and privacy. We have, therefore, taken measures such as redacting personally identifiable information from responses and anonymising direct quotes.

All participants were required to sign a consent form (Annexure 1: Proforma consent form) at the beginning of the workshop as a prerequisite to attend the workshop. The contents of the consent form and the protocol (Annexure 2: Protocol for the workshop) were explained to them at the outset and they were urged to put forth their queries. This was done to ensure that we had indeed obtained “informed” consent.

We selected the venue where we met the respondents based on considerations of protecting their security and privacy and ours.

While ethical considerations forbid the slanting of questions in any research pursuit, we were exceptionally cautious of maintaining the neutrality of our questionnaire and our interactions (both planned and casual) with the respondents of the survey. As outsiders, we needed to strike a balance between being aware of local sensibilities and objectively recording our findings. This reflects in the difference between our research questions and the survey instrument. External researchers and partner organisations peer-reviewed the design of the two-day interactive workshop and the survey instrument before we embarked on the study. Questions that could either elicit deeply personal replies or potentially slant the perception of the group were left out of the workshop and included in the survey instrument.

Ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, and geographic diversity in Manipur, and the conflict between some of these groups, necessitated that we bring as many different and diverse voices to the table as possible. We invited respondents from diverse communities and paid for their travel expenses to ensure they do not drop out because of prohibitive travel costs.

A study such as this is deeply political in nature and should be paired with a strong grasp of different local contexts and sensibilities. It would have been ideal for a team from the state of Manipur to have designed and conducted this project. However, we realised during the course of our previous work in the region that the capacity for it does not exist locally and needs to be built before such a project can be initiated. On the other hand, the lack of substantial, verifiable and documented information on the topic from the state presented a need too pressing to wait for learning and capacity-building to happen. In keeping with the ongoing emphasis on digital empowerment in India, we decided to conduct this research when the opportunity for us arose.

The phrasing of the survey questionnaire has been kept simple in order to accommodate those who are acquainted but not necessarily fluent in the English language. We could not arrange for a professional interpreter due to various constraints. We worked around this issue by paying one of the respondents to interpret and translate for those who could not interact with us in English.

Some of our respondents suspected that they were under surveillance by one or more of the forces at play in the state. The low awareness of digital security among activists thus posed another challenge. We used electronic communications minimally while coordinating this study with them, relying on a combination of offline and online communication strategies.

Literature survey

[Corresponding research questions:

  1. Are there documented and verifiable instances of intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks in Manipur?
  2. If yes, what was the nature of these shutdowns in terms of their time of occurrence, duration, scope, location within Manipur, type of Internet technology (i.e., wireless Internet, wired broadband, mobile voice networks), and the reasons cited, or lack thereof, for implementing the shutdowns?
  3. How are the personal, professional, and social lives of women in Manipur impacted and affected by temporary, intentional shutdowns of the Internet and/ or mobile networks?]

These questions have been answered via a comprehensive literature survey available at http://thebachchaoproject.org/literature-survey-of-sieges-and-shutdowns.

[Corresponding research question 1. What do women entrepreneurs and women activists located in Manipur use the mobile phone and the Internet for?]

The literature survey only partially answers this question as the surveyed text (Information lives of the poor: Fighting poverty with technology) only pertains to low-income groups.

Limitations

Selection bias

The method of selecting respondents introduced a selection bias in the sample. (Refer to “Criteria for selecting survey respondents”.) As a result of an unavoidable trade-off between selection bias and the possibility of receiving distrustful, reticent or inconclusive responses, the former was chosen. Despite the selection bias, we could interview respondents belonging to different age brackets, ethnic groups, religions, vocations, and districts in Manipur.

Lack of corresponding technical investigation
Some responses about the quality of services of different mobile network operators can only be corroborated via technical measurements. The preliminary nature of the study did not allow for such investigation. Hence, those responses have been treated as anecdotal and discarded.

Lack of acquaintance with local language(s)

  • The research team did not possess knowledge of the local languages. The designated translator and interpreter for survey activities was not a professional.
  • The research team could not search for and peruse offline and online reliable sources in the local languages in order to corroborate or verify information or to obtain the necessary context.
  • The research team could not hire an additional researcher who had knowledge of one or more local languages as it was a pilot study and the team could not be expanded.

Lack of literature survey focussed on Manipur

Conducting a literature survey was difficult because of the sheer lack of scholarship in the context of Manipur on the topic of Internet shutdowns and women’s experiences of living with the unreliability of wireless communication networks. Either credible references written in English on the topic do not exist or they have not been published online as research papers, scholarly texts and books. Because we do not possess knowledge of the local languages, we could not search for and peruse literature written in them. It is another indicator of the information black hole in the northeastern region.

Choice of narrative style

Connecting and contextualising different responses given by the same interviewee by assigning them a pseudonym would have yielded a richer and more humanised narrative than what exists in this report. However, it could also potentially make it possible to connect data points and deanonymise respondents. Hence, we opted for the present narrative style.

Rohini Lakshané is Director (Emerging Research) at The Bachchao Project. She is a technologist by training, a long-time Wikimedian, and a public policy researcher. Rohini lives in Mysuru, India and tweets @aldebaran14.

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