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Where you’re from is where you’re app: our geographic influence

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New research has shown that a user's home country is the single biggest determining factor in influencing the types of smartphone apps they use.

Smartphones have become an integral part of modern society, as evidenced by the proliferation and popularity of mobile apps to support practically any kind of everyday activity, such as well-being, education, health, and leisure. Thanks to wide pricing options, smartphones are popular in practically all countries and afforded by a large percentage of the population.

These developments have resulted in smartphones becoming an unprecedented opportunity for studying people’s behavior and activities through information garnered through their devices.

While mobile apps have become an integral part of everyday life, little is known about the factors that govern their usage. In particular, the role of geographic and cultural factors has been understudied. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Helsinki has carried out a large-scale analysis of geographic, cultural, and demographic factors in mobile usage.

The team analysed app usage gathered from 25,323 Android users from 44 countries and 54,776 apps in 55 categories, and demographics information collected through a user survey. The analysis revealed significant differences in app category usage across countries and showed that these differences, to a large degree, reflected geographic boundaries.

Essentially, the researchers found that the country a person lives in is the single most important factor when it comes to influencing the kinds of apps they use.

“We wanted to study factors that govern usage of the mobile apps, particularly the role of geographic, demographic, and cultural values,” said PhD student Ella Peltonen, from Ireland's Insight Centre for Data Analytics. “We carried out a large-scale analysis of geographic, cultural and demographic factors in mobile usage [...] in 44 countries across Europe, Americas, Asia and Oceania.”

According to the results, English-speaking countries - the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - along with Japan and South Korea had the highest app usage across the board, likely due to the fact that almost all apps have an English language version. In addition, many services and businesses in the US and Europe have dedicated apps which boost usage in these regions.

Map of global app usage

Image credit: Research team authors

The group nicknamed ‘European’ countries - Continental Europe, as well as Southern and Central European and Nordic countries - have lower app usage than the English-speaking countries, but higher than countries in the ‘Mixed’ category. Thailand and Singapore also fell into the ‘European’ group for app usage, possibly because they are popular holiday destinations for Europeans.

The lowest app usage was in the ‘Mixed’ group of countries: Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan and India. In these groups, application usage in general was slightly lower than in the other groups, but higher in sports and racing games.

 

The researchers compared the five elements of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory - a popular framework describing the impact of a society's culture on its members' values - to countries’ application usage. Hofstede's cultural value survey provides a widely used, if not perfect, way to present cultural values of the population, according to the researchers here.

They found that ‘masculine’ cultures (with more pronounced gender roles) like Japan prefer personalisation apps, while ‘collectivist’ cultures and those with more fluid gender roles such as Russia seem to value family-related categories, education games and parenting.

‘Individualist’ cultures such as the US favoured entertainment applications and other leisure-related categories, such as travel and local, sports, health and fitness, music and audio.

App usage is not only dictated by the country you live in. Socio-economic factors also play an important role when considering mobile usage. The present study shows that occupation, education and how much a person has in savings are the next important factors in determining what apps a person will use. Those factors trump age and gender, for example.

People of similar socio-economic status tend to use their smartphones in a similar way across the globe. This is particularly true for people of similar household status, living with or without children, who tend to use smartphones in a similar way. This is also true for professionals and well-educated people.

“The results of our work show that there is a strong relationship between the type of apps people use and their geographic and socio-economic factors, suggesting that these different factors should be taken into account when studying mobile data. In addition, our results can be used to better target mobile apps in different countries and for personalisation,” Peltonen said.

The article “The Hidden Image of Mobile apps: Geographic, Demographic, and Cultural Factors in Mobile Usage” is a collaboration work between University of Helsinki, Finland; University College Cork, Ireland; Lancaster University and University College London, UK. It was presented and published at the 20th International ACM Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (ACM MobileHCI 2018 in September 2018, in Barcelona.

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