Is the Digital Divide as Much a Barrier to Research Participation as we Make it Out to Be?

A lot of researchers worry a great deal about whether individuals who don’t have a mobile device can participate in ProofPilot studies.

The answer is an easy YES! ProofPilot includes “Proctored Tasks” these are tasks conducted by a study professional on behalf of a participant. There may be many situations in which this makes sense. Perhaps an individual doesn’t read, or they are incapacitated somehow. Maybe they’ve forgotten their phone, they’ve run out of minutes, haven’t paid their bill. Or, maybe tech access isn’t the issue. Maybe the task itself isn’t appropriate for participant self-service and needs to be conducted via an interaction between participant and study professional.

ProofPilot has specific functionality to serve participants in “real-life,” whatever the reason might be. 


Still, a lot of researchers think entering the digital revolution means struggling with budgets to provide every participant with a device to participate. ProofPilot wants to reduce budgets as much as possible, and we have some good news.

First, large portions of the Americans and international population have access to SmartPhones capable of running ProofPilot. Given the rapid growth of the smartphone market, it can be hard to pinpoint statistics – but it’s clear – use is widespread – across all socio-demographic groups.

  • Hispanics in the US are using substantially more data minutes than other ethnicities.
  • In 2013, 56% of the US population owned a smartphone (Wikipedia). That number jumped to 64% in 2015 (Pew), and then 72% in 2016. A substantial growth rate.
  • According to Pew Hispanics, and African-Americans may be more likely to have a smart-phone than Caucasians.

All this being said, a digital divide does remain. In Uganda, only 4% of the population has access to a smart phone. In the US, low-income minority seniors may not have access.

Does that mean you need a budget and should provide a smart phone for everyone? Not necessarily.

In many first and second world countries, with device access rates so high, those without may be making a choice to go without for reasons beyond affordability.

A recent study examined the “bring your own device” model to clinical studies increases engagement” in studies versus a study provided the device. “Bring your own device” means that a participant had a smartphone already that they used to participate.

While those users that received a device paid for by the study showed initially higher engagement rates, their engagement dropped far faster than those who used their own devices. Researchers need to consider the acceptability of technology during their study design. Buying and providing devices may not improve engagement rates over the long term. Considering a study design that includes in-person engagement may be a better option.

There are multiple options to engage populations less likely to have smartphones (or other accessibility to the internet). However, researchers probably do not need to budget funds to provide every individual in the study with a device. It’s likely many have one already.