Publications, reports, and articles.

Smartphone as Lifeline: Designing Technology for a Changing World (2020)

Posted on:
May 15, 2024

What is this research about?

This report explores how smartphones, viewed as essential lifeline devices, can be designed to better serve individuals in vulnerable, disadvantaged, or transitional contexts. It emphasizes the critical role smartphones play in providing access to resources, services, and vital communication, especially in precarious situations such as natural disasters, migration, and poverty.

What do you need to know?

Key insights from the research emphasize the multifaceted use of smartphones beyond conventional consumer applications. Smartphones are increasingly becoming integral in managing crises, supporting refugees, and aiding those in poverty. The study highlights the importance of considering these devices as more than just communication tools but as critical resources for safety, identity management, and access to essential services. The research also points out the potential vulnerabilities and dependencies created by smartphone use, which can lead to issues of privacy, security, and increased risk in certain contexts. Key areas to understand include:

  • The current role and impact of smartphones in vulnerable communities.
  • Design principles and factors for creating more effective and supportive smartphones.
  • Challenges and ethical considerations in technology design for disadvantaged users.
  • How smartphones can act as both lifelines and liabilities due to their current design and dependency.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a literature review, engaged in community and expert interviews, and analysis to identify design principles that would enhance the utility of smartphones for support, services, and survival. They examined various levels of computing—society, infrastructure, data, device—and their impact on vulnerable communities. The study included interviews with technology designers, community researchers, and non-profits to fill knowledge gaps and frame the analysis. They focused on three key vulnerable groups: those living through disaster or crisis situations, refugees and migrants, and people living in poverty or experiencing economic precarity.

What did the researchers find?

Smartphones act as "gateway devices" for almost all other digital services and resources. However, the study also found that the current design and deployment of smartphones often amplify existing vulnerabilities, exposing users to risks such as data privacy issues and increased surveillance. The research identified a lack of deep, contextual understanding of how smartphones are used by disadvantaged communities in the Global North, leading to design assumptions that do not align with the actual needs and risks faced by these users.

The research identified other interesting findings:

  • Smartphones are essential lifelines in vulnerable contexts, providing critical access to information, safety, coordination, and resources. Smartphones are indispensable in managing personal crises and accessing vital resources.
  • There are four common themes across vulnerable communities: dependency on smartphones, digital identity issues, user agency, and the impact of design multipliers such as time and scale.
  • Smartphones can amplify vulnerabilities by exposing users to risks like surveillance, data breaches, and loss of connectivity.
  • There is a significant lack of research and understanding about how to design smartphones that cater to the real-world needs of disadvantaged users.
  • Cross-sectoral collaboration is necessary to address these challenges and develop ethical and effective design solutions.

Important findings related to refugees (quotes are directly from the report):

  • Smartphones as connectors, way-finders and passports, helping refugees to bridge the contexts of where they came from and where they are going. Mobile phones are widely thought of as being ‘the social glue of migrant transnationalism’. A UNHCR and Accenture research study conducted in 44 countries found that many refugees consider mobile and internet access as critical to their safety and security as food, water and shelter. Refugees often spend up to a third of their disposable income on internet and mobile services, which reflects that staying connected is expensive, but also indispensable. One study puts it simply in this quote from a refugee: “It is hard to think of a more useful thing to own than a smartphone, especially if you’re fleeing your home.”
  • Dependency on smartphones is a key factor for communities living through disasters, migrants and refugees or communities living in poverty. Dependency here is understood not as a question of habit or addiction, but rather as a critical relationship with a phone as a way of getting vital access to resources and impacting a user’s fundamental freedoms (identity, mobility, rights etc). This means that smartphones act as ‘gateway devices’, providing access to essential elements through which everything else can be accessed; from access to up-to-date information, to shelter, money, healthcare and support.
  • An increasing amount of innovation can be found in this space, with UNHCR endorsing the increased use of biometrics for identifying and tracking refugees. This can be extremely valuable in providing essential services, such as reuniting families, but there are also increasing concerns about the disproportionate use of digital IDs. For example, the use of digital ID to access basic services such as access to food. Refugees in a state of dis-empowerment have little choice but to consent to the formation of these identities, giving up ownership of their fingerprints, irises and faces in exchange for basic necessities. The added permanence of these states through technology and policy lead to the further consolidation of power, as secure implementations of trust tend towards authoritarian politics.
  • An existing community of app and technology makers – some of whom are refugees themselves – are seeking to support the development of smartphones for this group, from ways to navigate train systems to apps for Syrian refugees to navigate German bureaucracy... There are currently over 700 apps that have been developed specifically for refugees, many of which have few to no users. This has led to some words of caution from relief agencies about the enthusiasm of tech developers rushing in to help without really understanding the practical, social, psychological or political dynamics of this community. Well-meaning time is often spent developing solutions that don’t work, aren’t appropriate or connected to the communities in their roll-out, and in some cases may exacerbate and compound problems. However, some that are significant and helpful have emerged, mostly developed in collaboration with humanitarian organisations.

How can you use this research?

If you work in technology design, humanitarian aid, or public policy, this research can guide you in several ways. By integrating these insights, professionals in the sector can contribute to more inclusive and supportive technology design that meets the needs of all users, especially the most vulnerable.

  • Design for Real-World Needs: Develop smartphones with features that address the specific challenges faced by vulnerable communities, such as durable and reliable devices, energy efficiency, and accessible connectivity. Engage with communities to understand their specific needs and challenges, ensuring that smartphone designs are user-centered and contextually relevant. Incorporate the findings to develop smartphones that prioritize reliability, accessibility, and security, particularly for users in unstable environments.
  • Cross-Sector Collaboration: Work with non-profits, community groups, and other stakeholders to understand the unique needs of different user groups and co-create solutions. Educate stakeholders about the critical role of smartphones in different contexts and the need for a shift in design philosophy from consumer-focused to lifeline-oriented.
  • Ethical Considerations: Incorporate ethical design principles to protect user privacy, enhance security, and ensure that technology empowers rather than exploits vulnerable users.
  • Policy Development: Advocate for policies that support equitable access to technology and address the socio-economic factors affecting smartphone dependency. Use the research to advocate for policies that recognize the essential role of smartphones in supporting vulnerable populations and regulate data use to protect privacy and reduce surveillance risks.
  • Innovative Solutions: Leverage insights from this research to create innovative tools and applications that can improve the quality of life for those in precarious situations, such as emergency communication systems and resource mapping apps.

You may notice that the PDF is not very readable on your screen. I have no idea why a report like this, particularly focused on smartphones would be designed so inexplicably inaccessible on any device, especially on a smartphone. Here's a quick video of what that looks like, browsing the original Tactical Tech Executive Summary on their website and then clicking to try to access the PDF...


This report explores how smartphones, viewed as essential lifeline devices, can be designed to better serve individuals in vulnerable, disadvantaged, or transitional contexts. It emphasizes the critical role smartphones play in providing access to resources, services, and vital communication, especially in precarious situations such as natural disasters, migration, and poverty.