Mobile phones have a powerful role to play in advancing literacy and nurturing a culture of reading in the developing world, according to a new report published last week by UNESCO. The Reading in the Mobile Era report is the most extensive survey of digital reading habits yet published outside of the developed world. It polled 4000 consumers across seven countries and paints a detailed picture of who reads what and why on their mobile phones, before going on to make several recommendations as to how these promising early developments could be turned into coherent strategies designed to get more people reading.


In the introduction to the report, UNESCO justifies its decision to pin the future of literacy on the basis that it's the most ubiquitous communications technology of all time. According to United Nations data it cites, in a world of 7 billion people an estimated 6 billion now have access to a mobile phone - even though only 4.5 billion have access to a toilet. Its very ubiquity means that the mobile phone is available in environments where books are scarce. Moreover, as smartphones make up an ever growing proportion of those mobile phones, and even simpler 'feature' phones are capable of accessing the web and other web services, these technologies are gradually driving a change in the way we communicate with one another. This change has had the unintended benefit of making reading a more important and desirable skill. As The Guardian said in its own write-up of this report 'with very little fanfare, the dominant mode of expression in much of the western world has switch from speech to text; as that switch moves to developing countries, it can only be a good thing for literacy'.


UNESCO's report, which was compiled in collaboration with Nokia and a web-based reading platform called Worldreader, tracks this transition in Ethiopia, Ghana,  India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe and yielded some encouraging results. For example, one of its key findings was that while women were still substantially under-represented in terms of mobile phone ownership (21% less likely than a man to own a phone in low to middle income countries, according to GSMA data), those that did own or use mobile phones were significantly more likely to use them for reading long-form text. While the average male user spent 33 minutes a month reading on their mobile phone, the average female user spent 207 minutes on mobile reading. Women did 66% of the all of the reading that took place during the three months of the study, despite only making up 23% of the total readers.


Another area where digital reading habits in the developing world appear to track those in the developed was convenience. 67% of people participating in the study said they chose to read on their phone because it was a device they always kept with them, and thus more accessible than paper books. It also appeared that giving people the ability to read on a phone had a measurable positive effect on their attitude to reading. 66% of participants who said they liked reading before they started the study reported that they liked to read even more now they could do it on their phones. An even more remarkable change took place in the attitudes of people who, on starting the study, claimed they didn't like reading. 62% of these participants said that having the ability to read using their phone made them like the activity more.


One important caveat to put on the conclusions drawn by the report is that the content on Worldreader's platform is largely English language books. It does go some way to redress this in the text of the report, however, where it makes prominent calls for governments and publishers to commission and publish more local language content as a means of driving literacy.


The full UNESCO report is available on its website and throws a fascinating spotlight on reading habits in places that have the potential to leapfrog the print era altogether and become digital-first markets. What's more, the data gathered by UNESCO and Worldreader suggests that the mere fact of making books available on a ubiquitous technology has some potential to lift the tide of reading and bring a whole new category of reader into the market.


Download the full Reading in the mobile era report here.