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May 09 2013

18:13

A new daily newspaper for young people in Calcutta is gaining ground

In Calcutta, a three-month old print daily aimed at youth has already become the third most widely circulated newspaper in the city. Ebela, a Bengali language publication, had an expensive and heavily-marketed launch, complete with branded candies. The paper’s owners, the ABP Group, say ad revenues are steadily increasing.

The positioning line of Ebela is “Ami Amar Mato” (“I am what I want to be”). This mirrors the psyche of India’s new generation, which is bold, colourful, positive, young–at-heart, free-spirited, forward-looking, and brimming with energy.

April 08 2013

16:55

Emerging spaces for storytelling: Journalistic lessons from social media in the Delhi gang rape case

delhi-gang-rape-case-protest-cc

DELHI — In December, the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old female student quickly gained attention in Indian and foreign media. In the days immediately following the woman’s death, protesters staged large demonstrations at Delhi’s India Gate and outside government buildings, including Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of India’s President.

During the protests, activists and journalists used social media to follow the protests and to discuss India’s problem of violence against women. This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere. To explore this case, we interviewed Indian and foreign correspondents who covered the protests in Delhi. They told us how journalists used social media during the protests, giving us insight into how a new medium is contributing to hard news coverage.

India’s digital divide and the challenge of representation

Social media hasn’t played anything near the role in Indian journalism that it does in, say, the United States. Supporters of social media often point to their inclusive and democratizing aspects — but in India, social media usage remains confined to a small percentage of the population. Nearly 80 percent of Indians now have a mobile phone, but only 11 percent have Internet access, and fewer than 5 percent use social media. In rural areas, these percentages are significantly lower. Information gathered from social media tends to come from a rarified segment of the population: the affluent, educated, English-speaking youth of India’s major cities.

When we asked journalists to what extent they use social media for news-gathering, some complained that social media discussions are narrow. As an India-based journalist for the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us:

They don’t really represent the majority of the people. For example, if you read social media, you would think everyone was extremely shocked and devastated. But if you talked to people on the streets or in slums, you get the idea that many Indians have extremely backward and conservative idea about women and how they had to behave. Social media can not replace doing research on the ground, in slums and villages. That’s the most important thing for working in India.

The digital divide thus represents a sociocultural divide: In India, those who use social media are more likely to live in cities, hold a passport, and share values with social media users in the West. By relying too heavily on social media, journalists may find that their coverage skews toward a narrow readership. One Australian journalist told us that the rape protests gained prominence on Twitter “because [social media] is city-based and at the center of the life of the middle class, university students, and mobile professionals.” The journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us “it is easy to share ideas and read articles of colleagues or see what intellectuals think.” What’s more difficult is to get beyond that narrow demographic and understand the views of Indians whose voices are not heard on social media.

According to Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, senior reporter at the Mail Today, social media presents a challenge for nuanced debate: “If I wanted to write about how Indian society needs to change or how patriarchy needs to be dealt with, I cannot say it in 140 characters.”

While journalists may have personal affinity with social media users, several of them told us that to get a more representative understanding of issues, they pay attention to television and newspapers. Here’s the journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Television, newspapers, and talking to people on the streets were much more important [in newsgathering]. Only a very small part of society has access to social media, but everyone watches television.”

delhi-gang-rape-case-protest-2-cc

In addition to questions of representation, journalists have another reason to discount social media reporting. As we discussed in an earlier piece, India’s newspaper industry is thriving. With healthy growth in newspaper circulation and advertising, many journalists are skeptical about what social media can do for Indian journalism right now. When we conducted interviews with journalists at The Hindu, we encountered a widespread belief that social media is mostly for soft news. But that was before the Delhi gang rape and protests. The question now is: Will this event change the role of social media in Indian journalism?

New spaces, new beats for storytelling

In the past, television networks have been the largest players in Indian news coverage. Social media haven’t changed that, but have instead provided new avenues for news-gathering and story distribution. In the months preceding the events, Indian newspapers and television had covered a number of rape cases. But the December Delhi gang rape proved to be different. The brutality of the attack and the scale of the protests brought international attention to India’s problem of violence against women. Some journalists we spoke to highlighted the role of protest in democratizing India’s media.

The Delhi gang rape case prompted many journalists to use Twitter for updates on events and immediate responses from activists. To a greater extent than in previous protests, social media helped journalists keep a finger on the pulse of middle class India and get their immediate feedback on important issues. An Australian reporter said that “Twitter was really helpful to get a sense of the public sentiment and developments.” He followed the #delhigangrape hashtag, the official Twitter account of the Indian government, women’s groups, pressure groups, and Indian media on the subject.

Venkataramakrishnan, the journalist who found 140 characters limiting, nonetheless said that the protests have been incubators for social media sophistication in India. “Following the Anna Hazare case and the Delhi gang rape case, social media began to achieve a critical mass,” he told us.

Many journalists cited the importance of social media for background information. A journalist from The Hindu told us “I look at tweets by our own editor, editors from other newspapers, well known journalists such as Pritish Nandy [a columnist with The Times of India and the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar], Abhijit Majumder [editor of the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times], and Saikat Dutta [a Delhi-based editor of the newspaper DNA]. I also look up tweets by television journalists such as Shiv Aroor [deputy editor at Headlines Today]. You get a mix of opinions from their tweets. Knowing these people’s perspectives helps me during coverage — but only indirectly…I rely on what I see when I am on the ground.”

Here we see the emergence of new storytelling beats. Many journalists and activists discussed how they used Twitter to stay informed about the locations of the protests. In this sense, social media has allowed for a new type of beat as well as a new element in storytelling. A foreign correspondent told us: “Last week, one of the accused rapists died in his prison cell, I found out about it on social media. I logged on Twitter, found students, and from there, the media picked up in India and our news organization called sources and confirmed.” Social media also helped journalists learn what coverage audiences wanted to read and see. Zoe Daniel, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Southeast Asia correspondent, told us that in response to demand from members of India’s social media-savvy diaspora, she’s made plans for a documentary on the Delhi gang rape case.

A common theme with journalists we spoke to is that social media have enabled wider conversations with audiences. Ruchira Singh, social media editor at Network 18, told us that during the protests

Our editors and reporter were tweeting individually — we had very hectic social media activity during the case. We were inviting opinions on the goings on in the case; we were asking questions, we were asking people what they think are the solutions to the problems. We were interacting with people, asking them if they are joining a protest and how they are reaching the protest grounds. We promoted certain petitions by change.org. We asked people if they felt certain provisions should be incorporated in these petitions. I tweeted on the organizational account. I also tweeted on my individual account, especially when the girl died.

These interactions reveal new interest in social media by both Indian and foreign journalists covering the protests. In India, social media is a nascent enterprise still finding its place in journalism. But in time, we may see the the 2012 Delhi gang rape protests as a watershed moment for social media in news gathering and distribution. This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India.

The future of India’s public sphere

Social media has allowed a small but growing part of the Indian public to join in discussions of soft and hard news. To date, online storytelling has catered to certain demographic groups: the middle and upper classes, the intellectuals, activists, and journalists. Middle class discontent found a place on social media, but marginalized and subaltern groups had minimal representation or participation in social media discussions.

The Delhi gang rape case gives us insight into ongoing changes in India’s public sphere. Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “a realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” But what kind of public sphere? Today, social media offer (at best) limited access to marginalized groups. Journalists who want to know about those groups cannot rely on social networking sites; they must visit often-remote towns, villages, and slums where most residents remain disconnected from social media. In the Delhi gang rape case and many other stories affecting India, social media is essential in research and reporting. At the same time, perhaps the greatest lesson is the limitation of social media: They offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is a Ph.D. candidate at City University London. Her research interests include new media, social media, journalism, public speech, sociology of news, sociology of work and organizations, ethnography and interviews, history of the media and ecology of communication.

Smeeta Mishra is an assistant professor at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Her research interests include new media, research methods, Muslim studies, and gender issues.

Colin Agur is a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. He is interested in cultural and sociological aspects of mobile phone use in developing countries, and his dissertation research is based on ethnographic fieldwork in India.

Photos by Ramesh Lalwani and Biswarup Ganguly used under a Creative Commons license.

July 27 2012

14:00

The Importance of NextDrop's Customer Cycle, and How to Improve Service

In our last post on PBS Idea Lab, NextDrop, which informs residents in India via cell phone about the availability of piped water, was trying to scale up in a very short period of time. How did we fare?

nextdroplog.png

Well, I think we discovered the first step to winning: Just get good data about yourself. Period. Even if it's ugly. Because after admitting there's something wrong, the second hardest part is wading through the mess and figuring out what exactly that is!

Let me try to lay out everything we discovered about our service.

Customer Side

Goal: Bill everyone possible and make money.

Immediate problem: Billers wasted a lot of time because even when they found houses (which many times proved difficult), a lot of people were getting late messages, weren't getting messages at all, getting them intermittently so they didn't want to pay for the service (no argument there), or just didn't want the service.

Immediate solution: Make a list of areas that have been getting regular messages for the past two weeks, and then call all those people before we actually go out and bill.

Immediate Systems We Put in place

Creation of the "Green List": We look through all of our valvemen data, and using the all-mighty Excel, we figure out which areas received at least four calls within the last two weeks. Our logic here is that since the supply cycle is once every 3-4 days now, if they are getting regular messages, valvemen should call in at least four times in a 2-week span. This system is by no means perfect, but it's a start, and at least gets us to the next level.

Conduct phone surveys: After we see all the areas that are on the Green List, we then call all the customers in that area. We spent two weeks piloting the survey to even figure out what categories/questions we should ask, and we've finally got some classifications the sales team feels good about.

Here are the different categories of NextDrop potential customers:

  • Could Not Contact (people who had phones turned off, didn't answer the call, possibly fake numbers)
  • Satisfied Customers
  • Pay (want to pay for service)
  • Continue
  • 1-month Free Trial (again)
  • Deactivate
  • Unsatisfied Customers
  • Not Getting Messages
  • Wrong Messages

Bill: We just bill the people who are satisfied and want to pay, or who are satisfied but want another free month trial (and have already had one).

our customer cycle

Here's a great flow chart that our sales manager made of our customer cycle (and if any engineers out there think this looks familiar, you're right! It is, in fact, a State Diagram. This is why I love hiring engineers!) And let me say, this may look easy, but it took two weeks to analyze customer behavior to even figure out what states to include and how to go from one state to another state.

customercycle.png

When we finally had data, we discovered some really interesting things about our service:

  • Total number of people called: 1,493
  • Total number of people we could contact: 884 (59%)
  • Total number of deactivated customers: 229
    15% of total customers
    26% of contacted customers
  • Total number of continuing customers: 655
    44% of total customers
    74% of contacted customers
  • Total billable customers: 405
    27% of total customers
    46% of contacted customers
  • Total billed customers: 223
    15% of total customers
    25% of contacted customers
    55% of billable customers
  • Total number of people who paid: 95
    6% of total customers
    23% of billable customers
    43% of billed customers

As you can see, the two major problems we identified were 1) we were unable to contact 41% of the customers we tried to contact, and 2) a majority of the people who we were able to contact were getting incorrect messages (54% of the contacted customers).

troubleshooting problems

And that's where we're at: trying to troubleshoot those two problems. Here are the immediate solutions we're putting in place to increase the people that we contact, and to put customers in the correct valve area.

Instead of taking "Could Not Contact" customers off the billing list, we are going to try to contact them. We're in the process of seeing what percentage of the "Could Not Contact" customers we can actually find and contact when we bill.

We have an intern, Kristine, from UC Berkeley, who will be working with us for the next six months to figure out how to place people in the correct valve area (because that is the critical question now, isn't it?) Kristine's findings are pretty interesting (and definitely deserves its own blog post), but our first prototype is to test a guess and check methodology:

  • First we call customers and find out when was the last time they got water.
  • Then sort through our data and see what areas got water on that date (plus or minus a few hours). This should at least eliminate 50% of the areas.
  • Then, to narrow it down even further, we only consider those areas that are geographically close to the customer. This should narrow it down to within 4-5 areas to check.
  • We subscribe the customer to these areas, and see when he/she gets the correct message. (We will find out through the phone survey.)

That's what we are going to try -- we'll let you know how that goes.

steps toward progress

In any case, I think the tunnel has a light at the end of it, so that's all we can really ask for -- progress!

And, as always, we will keep you updated on our progress, what seems to work, what doesn't, and more importantly, why.

Additionally, and most importantly, we're hiring! We are looking for enthusiastic and passionate individuals who want to be a part of our team. If you love problem solving, and finding creative solutions to problems, we want you!

As always, please feel free to write comments, offer insight, ask questions, or just say hi. Our proverbial door is always open!

A version of this post first appeared on the NextDrop blog.

Anu Sridharan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010 with a master's degree in civil systems engineering; she received her bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley as well. During her time there, Sridharan researched the optimization of pipe networked systems in emerging economies as well as new business models for the dissemination of water purification technologies for arsenic removal. Sridharan also served as the education and health director for a water and sanitation project in the slums of Mumbai, India, where she piloted a successful volunteer recruitment and community training model.

April 23 2012

13:10

NextDrop: Water Utilities in India Need Good Data

In places like the United States, we have access to more data than we ever know what to do with. We measure everything from what the average historical temperature is on a certain day for a city, to how good a restaurant is, to how much energy we consume. Because of this access, we base many of our critical decisions on this data (or at least that's the hope). Essentially, because we have had access, we know how to use this data.

nextdrop.jpg.jpg

However, this isn't the case everywhere.

Fact: Just because you have access to data, it does not guarantee that you will use it appropriately. Using it appropriately requires behavior change, something that, any person will tell you, is incredibly difficult.

This is the hard part about data -- not the production of it, but the usage. This means that simply providing technology is not a solution. It is technology and the realization of the potential results that will produce meaningful change.

making data-driven decisions

This is similar to the situation water utilities are facing in India. There's no real incentive to get good data, and it makes sense. They have many things to worry about -- mainly, the reduction of non-revenue water. Data is tricky, because the results are more of the intangible kind. You need initial buy-in, and lots of time, in order to build your case for making data-driven decisions.

We know that these data-driven decisions will, in time, reduce non-revenue water, but it will take some time. And unfortunately, in a world that wants sexy solutions along with fast results, this does not come easily.

We're hoping that in the future, other stakeholders will promote the acquisition of quality data, and will push the utilities to make data-driven decisions. From academics, to other government agencies, we see a need from other stakeholders to push this agenda and create this water data market for water utilities.

And when that happens, NextDrop will be there to provide that quality data to the utilities to help them become more efficient.

April 12 2012

17:02

Digital Activism: Technology Efforts Inspiring Social Change Offline

In the wake of the controversial KONY2012 video and its related drama and theatrics, I was left feeling somewhat jaded about the power of the digital to affect meaningful and tangible change on the ground (offline).

Surely, a successful deployment of technology for social good can offer us more than a soap opera like media frenzy. Can the success of such efforts be measured beyond YouTube views and money raised?

I decided to channel my post KONY2012 digital skepticism into a search for concrete examples where the power of technology was affecting real change in the lives of people in local communities, especially those communities and people that have the most need.

So how was digital technology educating and sharing knowledge, and more importantly transforming lives?

Well, how about like this:

  • 15K Youth and Community Leaders Trained
  • 76K People Reached by Community Advocates
  • 240 Million Exposed to a Multimedia Campaign
  • 7.5 Million “Sensitized” by a Video Van

Watch this video for an example that walks the walk:

In 2008 Breakthrough India launched Bell Bajao! (Ring the Bell), a national level campaign in India asking communities to join to end violence against women. Truly amazing is how the campaign has involved men and young boys to end the violence against and transform attitudes about women. Not a common approach or an easy feat.

Bell Bajao has become a peer leader in raising this issue on the Internet through the use of multimedia, hosting survivor stories on a blog, celebrity endorsements, map for social change, social media engagement, training toolkits, information and community stories of change.

More related campaign videos can be found on Breakthrough’s YouTube page.

Give us your take on effective digital activism. What works? What doesn’t? Share other inspiring examples. Use #digitalactivism on Twitter.

February 03 2012

14:00

Video Volunteers Makes an Impact in India with Incentives for Media Makers

As part of a 4-part series, Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. Part 1, which you can read here, was a basic introduction to IndiaUnheard, our flagship rural feature service.

Part 2 outlines new ideas we implemented into our training programs in 2011. For instance, we set incentives for our community correspondents in India. This triggered a series of valuable positive changes for the communities concerned.

videovolun.jpg

Incentives work

In October, we held an advanced training session for our strongest community correspondents which focused on activism and getting "impact." (To us, "impact" means that the community correspondent is able to resolve the problem the video addresses.) We told them we had decided to incentivize impact.

They would be paid 5,000 rupees (approximately $100) -- more than twice the regular stipend -- for an "impact video," which means they would make a video; show it locally to get the issue solved; and make another documenting that process and proving the impact actually took place -- and for that second video, they would get the 5,000 rupees.

Some amazing impacts happened this year: In Orissa, illegal timber smugglers were stopped by local villagers. In Mumbai, a factory was forced to clean its pollution. In Assam, politicians released desperately needed water to villagers. Rather than be turned away, Dalit children got help in village child centers. Expectant mothers received folic acid which had previously been withheld. And, in one area, some 600 women for the first time were paid minimum wage.

These are just some of our stories. You can watch our impact videos here.

Recruitment is challenging

Our goal is to have 645 community correspondents, or one in every district of India. We had to think hard about how we could quickly scale up if we needed to.

Our first two rounds of recruitment for IndiaUnheard was through our existing network. We sent emails asking people to nominate someone from the villages they work in and then to help them fill out the online application. We got a few hundred applications that way and thought we could keep doing it like that. But when we tried for the third round, the number of eligible applications was low (though the overall applications were higher than previous years). Maybe we had tapped out our existing network.

So how could we quickly scale up? Possibly through big non-profit institutions (like microfinance). We are reaching out to them now.

Choose the right geographies

For our first two rounds, our goal was to get one or two people in every state. Now that we've almost done that, we're going to focus on key regions we feel are "unheard."

Last month, we took about 20 new community correspondents from Jharkhand. We chose Jharkhand because it is part of the so-called Red Corridor where there is a Maoist insurgency taking place. In the future, we'll look at the North East where other separatist movements are taking place, and Kashmir. (Those two areas were out of our budget this year.)

My colleagues Kamini Menon and Stalin K. spent two weeks traveling around this area meeting the activists and doing the recruitment; this live recruitment is making recruitment easier and will also make retention higher because the 13 new correspondents, each representing one district in the same state, can support each other.

Partnerships are challenging

Two years ago, when our Community Video Units were our primary focus, we felt that we could scale this network through investments from NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We've realized that co-ownership is very difficult and can at times be a hindrance to innovation.

We now feel that we can scale better through partnerships with the mainstream media, rather than NGOs, and so for that reason, a huge focus this year has been on ensuring the content can work for both a local community and outside audience.

From our Community Video Units, we've learned a few other things: One is that a model where people are paid only when they perform is better than the Community Video Units model, in which the six or seven people who work together on a film are given a monthly wage.

Women produce more

Two observations we are thrilled to see: Women produce more, and retention is higher with the underprivileged. It suggests that journalism really is an appropriate livelihood for the poor. We started to see that with online recruitment, we had selected certain people whose incomes were clearly higher than they had told us on the phone. Live recruitment in extremely remote areas of Jharkhand will help get the correct balance.

The amount they can produce is low

We ask correspondents to produce two videos a month. They produce on average one or less. One reason is that being a journalist is difficult; it takes a lot of personal courage to confront officials and ask people private questions. They can spend a whole day on a bus getting to an official who then won't see them. They have to take care of their families, too.

I learned this year about the concept of "businesses in a box" and franchises, such as rural women selling solar lamps or soap sachets, and I discovered that we should make the process as simple and step-by-step as possible.

But journalism is simply harder than selling soap. We also ask them to produce tough stories that they have to research and which take time, unlike stringers, who are told to "go film this event and send us the footage." This means that our "cost per story" is higher than we would like. But we also aren't taking huge steps to increase their productivity right now, because we don't yet have enough buyers to support a huge level of production.

Choose the right people to train

The fact that we put such effort in selecting interesting people to train is a huge asset for us. Our new batch of correspondents includes people whose personal stories are, in some ways, the story. We have two boys from Kashmir who have seen the insurgency; a young man whose sister was the first dowry death in his state; women who have experienced sexual violence and have the courage to speak about it; and a good representation from the North East, including one young man who got the first footage of a particular insurgent camp because he's from that area.

In our training, we teach them that their power as a community correspondent will come through using their personal experiences and connections to the issues. This is what they have that no professional, no outsider, can ever replicate. They learn that they themselves must speak out, and speak personally, if they want their communities to do so, too.

Good training is not necessarily scalable. (That's another thing that we learned in 2011 -- that the training aspects of our work will always be expensive because education doesn't have a lot of economies of scale.) But it is the most valuable investment.

You can watch a video from our trainings here:

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will focus on our modes of online and offline distribution and our experience with earning income from partners and the mainstream media.

January 11 2012

15:20

NextDrop's Dashboards Look Great, But Mobile Content Would Be Better

One year ago, when we were just a team of graduate students with a big idea, our teammate Thejo Kote came to Hubli, India and demoed a web-based dashboard to the executive engineer and commissioner here. The dashboard uses Google Maps to show the status of valves and other system components in real time, using information provided via voice or SMS.

dashboard.png

Building that dashboard marked a turning point for NextDrop, which informs residents in India about the availability of piped water in order to help them lead more productive, less stressful lives. It was our first real "pivot," as we moved decisively away from crowdsourcing information from residents, which wasn't working. It was also the way to make progress with the utility, partner with them, and ultimately, win competitions that would enable us to get our company off the ground.

Implementing that dashboard is part of the larger vision of how NextDrop can ultimately revolutionize information flow in water utilities. But based on what we've learned so far, it's not clear that it's the low-hanging fruit in terms of how to make the lives of engineers easier today.

In Hubli, utility engineers have the computers and Internet access you need to follow the days' supply cycle through a live dashboard, but they're not quite there yet in terms of integrating that technology into their day-to-day routines.

But there's a different technology they are using -- everyone in the utility has a mobile phone, and they are incredibly adept at handling calls from hundreds of people each day, as they do things as varied as managing valvemen, dealing with customer complaints, coordinating tanker deliveries, overseeing pipe damage repairs, and interfacing with other engineers.

a day in the life of an engineer

santosh3.jpg

Last week, a team member and I went to the field with Mr. Santosh, one of the two section officers in Hubli's North Zone. While he was showing us the NR Betta Tank, we got to see first-hand the volume of calls he deals with.

Like all the engineers in the utility, Santosh's number is public, so even customers in his area can call him directly with complaints. Here are some notes from my interview with him.

I asked Santosh how many calls he gets, and this was his response:

  • 30 to 40 calls per day from NR Betta Tank, the major reservoir tank he is responsible for, where he checks on the reservoir level and chlorine levels.
  • 15 to 20 calls per day from his valvemen updating him on where they provided water.
  • 20 calls per day from the public inquiring about new connections.
  • 40 calls per day about tanker tuck deliveries.

While we're still learning a lot about the utility, we think the products that will make the lives of utility engineers easier today will have the following qualities:

  • Reduce the volume of calls the engineers get.
  • Provide them information through the mobile phone, the medium they already use.
  • Generate clear electronic records that can be studied over time.

With this in mind, we're launching a daily SMS that will inform utility engineers whether water was delivered to all the areas they're responsible for, and notify them of any exceptions to the set schedule. Beyond that, we're looking at opportunities to help engineers track the status of pipe damage repairs and tanker deliveries.

More news on new utility products soon to follow!

A version of this post first appeared on the NextDrop blog.

September 04 2011

14:11

Your future may vary - Typewriter lives on in India

Los Angeles Times :: It's a stultifying afternoon outside the Delhi District Court as Arun Yadav slides a sheet of paper into his decades-old Remington and revs up his daily 30-word-a-minute tap dance. Nearby, hundreds of other workers clatter away on manual typewriters amid a sea of broken chairs and wobbly tables as the occasional wildlife thumps on the leaky tin roof above.

Sometimes the monkeys steal the affidavits, Arun Yadav said. That can be a real nuisance.

India's typewriter culture survives the age of computers in offices where bureaucracy demands typed forms and in rural areas where many homes don't have electricity.

Continue to read www.latimes.com

June 14 2011

07:19

Al-Jazeera English: "revenue is not a driving force right now"

AdAge :: Al-Jazeera English may be one of the only fast-growing networks that doesn't want to tell potential sponsors its growth story. The global news network has seen its profile escalate in recent months due to its leading coverage of major events such as the Japan earthquake and uprisings in the Middle East. Web visits in April 2011 surged past 66 million -- 42% from the U.S. -- and talks to expand its limited distribution in major territories such as the U.S., U.K. and India have accelerated.

Continue to read Andrew Hampp, adage.com

May 18 2011

05:35

M4D in India: a snapshot

According to India’s telecom regulator, TRAI, India has around 500 million active mobile users. A new study by Opera Software released recently found that 49% of Indians are Mobile Only Internet Users (see this infographic for details on their useage).

What is the relevance of mobile technologies for the development landscape, given that the World Bank has estimated that more than one-third of the world’s poor live in India? This post will provide a snapshot of the “m4d” situation in India, and point you to further resources should you want to find out more about the exciting potential of mobile for development.

ICTD efforts in India have been ongoing for quite some time.  In some cases, mobile applications are being created as standalone measures; in others, mobile projects act as an extension of already existing ICTD projects. The models range from government or NGO-sponsored, to CSR and for-profit ventures.

When thinking about mobile in India, the first caveats to mention arelanguage, illiteracy, and ICT experience. There are innumerable regional languages in India. Only 63 percent of the population is literate, not to mention the huge barriers to ICT access among the roughly 70  percent that live in India’s villages. One project that aims to address these challenges is theBrahmi phone, “the first phone designed for Indian languages.”


Here’s a brief overview of different ways mobile is being used in India’s development sector. New products are getting launched practically every day--if you know of any, kindly share in the comments below!

m-Health

  • India Institute of Public Health’s infectious disease surveillance system: mobile phones replace paper transmission from field workers to public authorities.
  • Dr. SMS, a Government of Kerala  project providing comprehensive information on health-related resources via SMS
  • Wellness World, just launched last week by Uninor and Handygo, is available on both IVR (Interactive Voice Response) and SMS platforms. It will provide daily information to Uninor's subscribers on health related issues.
  • mPedigree – Started in Ghana and available in India, it’s a platform to protect users from drug counterfeiting.
  • Sana -- Partnering with one of India's leading healthcare providers, Narayana Hrudayalaya, the platform will help to screen and manage chronic diseases in rural and semi-urban India.
  • The Healthphone is set to launch on June 1st, with health and nutrition content in  English and 15 Indian Languages. It is been based on research from UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNDP, UNAIDS, WFP and The World Bank.

It should be mentioned that the telemedicine industry is quite advanced in India; Apollo Hospitals was a pioneer in this regard. See this article by David Shafran for an excellent overview of additional mHealth projects.

m-Governance (complementing e-Governance)

  • Bharti Airtel was the first service provider to offer traffic automation as the world's largest BlackBerry-supported law enforcement network. It has also facilitated property tax collection for Chennai Corporation via BlackBerry.

m-Agriculture

  • mKrishi: a mobile-based service delivery platform by Tata Consultancy Services for farmers. It provides personalized advice specific to the subscribers' needs.
  • Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA): Each day, SEWA sends agricultural workers SMS messages with commodity prices so they can determine when and where to get the best price for their produce. For more on #mwomen initiatives, see mwomen.org/deployments. ThanksTrina DasGupta for the head's up!
  • Life lines India: Initiated by OneWorld in collaboration with British Telecom and Cicso Systems, LifeLines today serves rural communities in 53 districts across 4 states of India with information services in Agriculture and Education. BT’s first Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme based on digital inclusion.

(This post serves as research for a guest post I'm preparing & is crossposted from my blog, Beckyblab.)

March 29 2011

17:39

ICT4D & TechSoup Summit: reflections one month on

(Cross-posted from http://beckyblab.com/)

It's been almost a month since I returned from the US and the TSG summit. While I was there, I got a lot of ideas from other Netsquared organizers and I was eager to share them with the community in Jaipur, though there's not much community yet to speak of. But it certainly enabled me to do a better job at communicating the value of Netsquared and using web 2.0 tools for social causes.

I can honestly say that I've maintained my positive outlook and dedication despite the challenges that I always face when returning from the US: lack of infrastructure, lack of understanding. Did I mention the heat? Somehow I didn't let these deter me and our Netsquared introductory meeting* is all set for Sunday!

One participant of the summit, who happened to be a previous colleague of mine in Bangalore, seemed to feel that the discussions at the summit were overly congratulatory. They've been happening for years--ICTs are great! They can save the world!--without a more nuanced understanding of the very real obstacles that we face every day in developing countries.

There were passing mentions, there were a few representatives, but I agreed with her that I felt more importance should have been given to the Global South. Yet is Silicon Valley really the appropriate or likely venue for that?

 

Sadhu & cellphone from http://techantropology.blogspot.com/

 

Nonetheless, I must say that my optimism remains in the potential for technologies to transform the world, within and without. My commitment is that much stronger now!

The subjective post-summit report goes into more detail about the specific aims and way forward. It will give you a sense of who all is involved in the larger TechSoup network.

*It's actually not the first Netsquared meeting I'm organizing, but now I've met and built trust with more of the "right kind" of people (working in social media and IT in Jaipur), so I think this time around will be more effective.

 

From a presentation by Nalaka Gunawardene

February 18 2011

21:30

UPIU Mentors, Publishes Student Journalists Around the Globe







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

Suleiman Abdullahi was recently an eyewitness to the birth of the world's newest nation.

In early January, the 20-year-old Kenyan journalism student flew to Juba, Sudan, to cover the massive referendum responsible for the creation and upcoming independence of South Sudan. As Abdullahi wrote, he arrived in the prospective nation's capital city with a travel visa, a press pass, a story budget, and a 48-hour window to interview, observe, and report upon "the history that was about to be made."

By the end of his first day, he was under arrest.

Abdullahi was part of a two-man student reporting crew hired by UPIU, a student journalism project run by the United Press International news service. UPIU is an emerging player in the college media and journalism education arenas. Its website features a self-publishing platform for news stories and multimedia journalism projects posted by students around the globe.

More than a platform

The most standout aspect of UPIU: It does not just publish content by students; it provides classroom workshops, story editing, and one-on-one mentoring to help their pieces sing. The students who take advantage of its services undergo what UPIU senior mentor Krista Kapralos calls a "mini-internship experience."

It currently partners with more than 30 schools in roughly a dozen countries, leading to a cluster of student-produced stories touching on things such as Kenyans and antibiotic resistance, Moroccans and Christianity, the Chinese and homosexuality, and Egyptians and a revolution. The UPIU motto: "Mentoring Student Journalists Worldwide."

"We want to leverage UPI's solid reputation to attract aspiring journalists and improve foreign coverage," said UPIU Asia regional director Harumi Gondo. "I've not encountered another program that has such direct communication and relationships with journalism schools around the world."

No contracts are signed. UPIU does not collect any revenue from the posted stories. Students retain ownership of their work and are free to submit elsewhere. In the meantime, their content is vetted by professionals and considered for pick-up by UPI. Since its creation in late 2008, more than 2,300 stories have been published on the site. More than 100 -- roughly 4 percent of all submissions -- have been approved for placement on UPI.com.

Extra Help in the Classroom

UPIU transparent-grey-logo 225.jpgI can personally vouch for its potential. I have incorporated UPIU into multiple sections of my news reporting classes at the University of Tampa to mostly positive results. The process is five-fold: 1) an introductory video chat with each class hosted by veteran journalist Kapralos, who oversees UPIU's initiatives in Africa, Europe, and the Americas; 2) an optional video session in which students pitch story ideas; 3) a critique from a UPIU mentor on subsequent story drafts students post to the site; 4) a video chat round-up with Kapralos commenting on the quality of submissions overall; and 5) revisions by the students based on the feedback from Kapralos and, of course, their professor.

Students' involvement with UPIU ultimately helps underscore the lessons I am teaching them -- if nothing else, the importance of a news hook, timeliness, editorial collaboration, and three-source minimums.

It also has served as the platform for award-winning work. In fall 2009, Michigan State University student Jeremy Blaney earned a Religion Newswriters Association honor for his reports on local Muslim issues that were published on UPIU and, soon after, UPI. The headline of one of his pieces, which touched on the intersection of Islam and technology was, "You're a Muslim? There's an App for That."

"When you're on our site, you're not only seeing students practicing journalism," Kapralos told a news-writing class during a recent video chat. "You're also seeing a lot of really groundbreaking work. And you're seeing it through a lens that you don't always see through the New York Times or CNN."

Lunch, Without the Education

One prime example involves peeling potatoes. Unbeknownst to many Westerners, a government program in India requires public schools to provide a hot lunch for all students. Since its roll-out roughly a decade ago, scattered stories from professional news media have been mainly glowing, focused on the positives of children eating at least one decent meal a day in a country where poverty and hunger are rampant.

It took a local student journalist -- and five days of editing oversight by a UPIU mentor -- to help present the truth. Shiv Sunny, a student at New Delhi's AJK Mass Communication Research Center, built upon his personal knowledge of the required lunches and close proximity to numerous schools to uncover the program's underbelly. In some schools, the teachers are the individuals required to receive the food shipments and prepare the meals -- forcing them to spend hours each day cooking, mixing, and peeling essentials like potatoes and carrots in place of teaching.

As Kapralos explained it, "The story our student found: Yeah, the students are getting lunch, but they're not getting any education because their teachers are spending literally the entire day in the kitchen." Another problem: Hungry students often attend school just for lunch, and then skip out on the learning.

Krista225.jpgAdmittedly, some students treat UPIU similarly. They use the site to gain a web presence with panache and ignore the professional mentors' editing feedback, leaving their articles' factual inaccuracies and grammar slips in public view. The operation also still screams young and scrappy rather than streamlined, at times seemingly run solely on the hard work and sheer tenacity of Kapralos. And the site's story template is somewhat restrictive -- sporting the same look for every piece and an accompanying photo slot that is a bit tiny.

According to Kapralos, template changes, multimedia add-ons, and paid freelancing opportunities are in the works. The latest call, which is for student reports on Internet infrastructure, access, and control, offers $100 for selected stories.

Back in Juba

The first major freelance initiative was the Sudan assignment, which spun into action quickly as hopes for the referendum became reality. UPI president Nicholas Chiaia was a strong advocate of hiring students as stringers for the seminal event.

"He really sees the value in student journalists and he is not one to turn them away simply because they have minimal professional experience," said Kapralos. "He's the one to say, 'We need to utilize students, if there's a way we can do it that equates to responsible reporting and provides quality work.'"

Kapralos contacted two student journalists in Kenya whose previous work impressed her: Abdi Latif Dahir and Abdullahi. She assigned Dahir to Nairobi, where he covered the referendum voting of Sudanese refugees. She asked Abdullahi to fly to the story's geographic center, Juba.

Along with his "fixer" (a local guide), Abdullahi boldly charged into the international reporting gig. He describes competing for stories with "thousands of foreign correspondents, each one eager to thrust their cameras and microphones at every passing local." At times, Abdullahi employed his "rudimentary Arabic" to interview residents who did not speak English.

Just before midnight on the day of the big vote, he went downtown to see if anyone had begun lining up. There, he said, an "extra cautious" security force detained him and demanded a curfew.

"You are welcome to do your work here and we appreciate you, but you must be indoors by midnight," the police told him. "After midnight, we really cannot guarantee your safety and we don't want your government breathing down on our necks."

In Washington, D.C., Kapralos was holding her breath. She had been trading messages with Abdullahi non-stop. He had been turning in all his reports on time. Suddenly, he had gone quiet, and a story deadline had passed.

"As an editor, it's one thing to have a story go missing in the melee of a major breaking news situation," she recalled. "But when the breaking news story is in a region of the world where violence has been a way of life for decades, and when what you've lost isn't a story, but a reporter, stakes are high."

Fortunately, Abdullahi was released a half hour later, unharmed, and went back to work. He ultimately earned three UPI bylines, reporting on the guns, flags, billboards, long lines, traditional folk songs, and ink-stained fingers of voters that comprised the spectacle of the historic referendum.

And along the way -- like his reporting partner Dahir -- he experienced his own unforgettable journalistic coming-of-age story.

"Seeing tens of thousands of people line up under the scorching sun with such zeal is a scene that is hard to describe," Abdullahi wrote soon after flying home. "When it's all done and the seemingly inevitable decision of secession is made, we'll be able to say that we were there when they became a nation."

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published this past fall by Rutgers University Press.







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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December 07 2010

16:56

Video Volunteers Launches 'IndiaUnheard' for Rural Issues

Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture -- it's only about 4 to 5 months old -- I'd love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it's about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities -- people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the "lowest" caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official's office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs -- they make videos, they get paid. If they don't, they don't get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She's made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don't have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have -- such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials -- are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can't participate in the online dialog. We've designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge-- such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question -- but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard's role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world's largest democracy; however, most people don't know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I've written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It's not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they've never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists -- especially local media -- another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We'll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you'll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more "heard."

September 21 2010

11:24

Sans Serif: Indian newspapers pilot talking ads

Volkswagen is running an ad in two Indian newspapers, the Hindu and the Times of Indian, that talks to readers, Sans Serif writes. A light-sensitive speaker has been added to the paper from which an advertising message is broadcast when triggered.

In some ways its a fairly basic addition, but as Sans Serif points out:

[T]his must be the first time daily newspapers of the size and reach of ToI [Times of India] and Hindu have done it at a time when American newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post are just about coming to terms with the reality of advertisements on the front page.

Full post on Sans Serif at this link…Similar Posts:



August 26 2010

18:06

Free Speech at Stake as India Demands Encrypted BlackBerry Data

Next week will be decisive for BlackBerry corporate users. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) could provide a solution to help security agencies in India access corporate email by obtaining encrypted data in readable formats. If RIM does not offer a solution before the end of the month, India has warned that it will block BlackBerry Messenger service in the country for corporate users.

BlackBerry phones encrypt their services better than most smartphones do, and this has been one of the selling points for BlackBerry as a device for corporate users. RIM has to this point refused to provide access codes that would allow governments to monitor the content of encrypted messages. Should RIM provide the Indian government with access to the data, it would not only hurt freedom of expression -- it would likely also hurt the BlackBerry's reputation as the business device of choice.

About More Than The BlackBerry

The Indian government isn't the only seeking access to BlackBerry data. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia claim that BlackBerry's services break their laws and threaten national security. The UAE's Telecommunication Regulatory Authority announced that it will suspend BlackBerry's instant messaging, email, web browsing and roaming services starting October 11. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is still allowing BlackBerry's instant messaging service to operate. Saudi authorities had planned to suspend it on August 6, but they only ended up blocking the service for a few hours. The company and government continue to work toward a compromise.

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the BlackBerry issue because the "national security" argument is just a pretext for these countries to take steps to restrict access to new technology and to tools that help with freedom of expression. In the UAE, some BlackBerry users were arrested for using BlackBerry Messenger to try to organize a protest against increased gas prices.

What really bothers these countries is their inability to monitor the communication flowing via BlackBerry's services. Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Kuwait have also voiced concern about BlackBerry's encrypted services, and it's no coincidence that some of these countries are home to a wide range of censorship measures. In Indonesia, for example, the government requires ISPs to filter out porn -- without providing them a specific list of offending sites. The inevitable result is that the ISPs cause collateral damage by blocking other websites with no direct link to pornography. This is also the case in Saudi Arabia. Filtering also slows down connection speeds throughout the country. Aside from censorship, these countries are also known for monitoring the communications and web usage of citizens.

It's therefore natural to question whether the requests for BlackBerry to offer access to its services are truly meant to fight terrorism, or if it's about finding another way to monitor the communications of citizens?

U.S. Perspective

These countries would do well to learn from an example in the United States. In 2003, the Department of Justice drafted legislation that would have lengthened prison sentences for people who used encryption in the commission of a crime. Defenders of encryption said it would do little to help catch terrorists, and would instead hamper the work of activists. The legislation never passed -- even though the fight against terrorism was a top priority of the government.

RIM's BlackBerry encryption isn't alone in being targeted. India plans on asking Google and Skype for similar access, which means this issue is about more than just one company's device. It's about the future of private communications in countries prone to censorship and other abuses.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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May 17 2010

12:55

Meet 'India Unheard' Producer Zulekha Sayyed

As Video Volunteers' second program, India Unheard is gathering steam, with some wonderful stories by our new community correspondents, we can't help but think about all the wonderful and dedicated community producers we have worked with in the past - and are still working with.

As many of you know, it takes about a year and a half to train our community producers, all of who come from situations of dire poverty. What they have in common is their honesty, passion and intelligence. Our aim in training an individual with immense potential is not just to create a technically sound and editorially sharp professional, but also to encourage leadership in their local communities.

I'd love to share the story of one such person: Zulekha Sayyed.

Zulekha grew up in a slum under harsh conditions; her father died when she was young and her mother worked as a domestic maid, earning roughly $35 a month. Often, they went hungry. She remembers how she would scavenge food from the roadside. She joined Yuva, a local NGO, at the age of 13. Yuva is an organization that has been working with slum dwellers for 25 years to help them formulate their own action plans and mainly, secure their right to housing. They have been organizing slum dwellers against the city's continuous cycle of forced evictions, in which the government razes the shanties of thousands of the city's workers. Yuva has initiated an extensive water campaign in response to the proposed privatization of Mumbai's water supply, and the CVU contributed in a real way to the success of that campaign.

Yuva also runs the Knight-funded CVU Hamari Awaz (literally translated as 'our voice'), which Sulekha joined after finishing high school. She is well aware of the turn her life has taken and says that she wouldn't wish her childhood on anyone else.

Hamari Awaz is a CVU that operates out of the slums of Mumbai. A quote Zulekha has given for our official brochure tells us a lot. She said, "The TV reporters never come to the slums. They only come when something like a bomb blast happens. We are the only local reporters here. So, community media is necessary."

As part of her team's efforts, Zulekha has been helping slum dwellers organize action plans to secure their right to housing. She has helped to organize people to fight against the city's continuous cycle of forced evictions, in which the government razes the shanties of thousands of people to make way for new developments.

As Zulekha's example demonstrates, using the community media in these underprivileged areas is not merely creating journalists, but creating leaders and social activists. To that end, our mandate increases from simply providing journalistic training to supporting entire campaigns carried out by communities. For example, when we aired a story about applying for "Below Poverty Line" cards issued by the government, our producers had to help with filling out application forms too. So, the producers cannot behave like traditional journalists, for whom the story can end once filed with the bureau.

But that is the genius of community media and community journalists. There is no "off" switch. It becomes a passion and a calling. It is then VV's duty to constantly innovate methods of communications and provide them newer platforms to make their voices heard.

Producers like Zulekha make it well worth the effort! (To read more about the work of Zulekha Sayyed, check out this story on GlobalPost.)

April 19 2010

21:27

Who's New to Net2 Local?

Net2 Local mapThis spring has brought 9 new NetSquared Local groups, bringing the new official number to 67 groups worldwide! Below is a list of the groups that have started in the last few months.

read more

March 25 2010

17:55

News Service Uses Mobile Voice Messages to Inform Rural India

One call can bring news to hundreds in rural villages in India. Gaon Ki Awaaz, which means "Village Voice" in the Avhadi language, sends out twice-daily news calls to subscribers directly over their mobile phones. Launched in December 2009, the project recently expanded to 250 subscribers spread over 20 villages.

What Does Gaon Ki Awaaz Do?

Sunil Saxena, dean of the International Media Institute of India that launched the project, said that Gaon Ki Awaaz was developed in order to meet the needs of rural populations. Gaon Ki Awaaz has two reporters, Divyakar Pratap Singh and Priya Gupta, who produce news reports by recording 30-to 60-second voice notes on their phones. Those short news bulletins are sent as multi-media messaging (MMS) to local editor Satyenda Pratap for review and are then sent on to Saxena for final review. The reporters are from the village of Rampur-Mathura (where the pilot is being run) so they can transmit reports in the local dialect, Avhadi.

Subject matter for the broadcasts can include alerts such as when health camps are coming to a nearby area, farm tips, events happening in the village such as religious and/or community-oriented celebrations, or local-centric government announcements. Saxena explains the value of mobile phones for communicating information:

In most of the Indian villages, the literacy levels are low. So newspaper do not work as the medium to disseminate information. And because the electricity is erratic, the television is also not a very good medium - we're talking about the villages, not the cities - so the only way one could overcome these two hurdles was to look at mobile phones. And if you look at the way the mobile phone's popularity has grown in India, it's absolutely remarkable. There are 543 million subscribers, and even in villages a lot of villagers now own mobile phones. It's become a part of their everyday life.

Saxena explained the thinking behind using voice calls: "We wanted to move away from the SMS alerts [that many large media companies in India use], because many villagers can't read them, so the purpose is completely defeated. It had to be a voice call, and it could not be MMS because some of the villagers are very poor - they're using very simple phones and don't all have MMS facilities."

Another reason mobile and particularly, mobile voice works for this project is its ease of use; recording voice notes and sending them as an MMS is easy for the local reporters, and subscribers need only to answer their phones in order to hear the pre-recorded messages. Adds Saxena, "The advantages we saw with mobile was 1. the villager could hear a news bulletin in the language or dialect that he or she speaks; and 2., the news relates to events happening around the village life. And this was not possible with any other device."

The ease of receiving and sharing Gaon Ki Awaaz's reports motivated the group to expand from an original closed group of 20 subscribers to 250 users. Saxena explains that the original 20 subscribers would often organize other villagers in order to broadcast the news alerts via speakerphone. According to Saxena, mobile phones are changing how news can be shared. He says, "They're enabling a large number of people who did not have access to information or could not contribute to information flow."

How Does It Work?

The twice-daily news reports (broadcast at noon and 5 p.m.) start with the village reporters recording their bulletins into the phones' voice recorders as .amr files. Those files are sent to the local editor, then on to Saxena. Saxena transfers the files to his laptop and converts them to .wav files. Because the .wav files are data-heavy, the files are compressed as .zip files and then sent on to Netxcell, a company in Hyderabad, for broadcast. Netxcell takes the files and sends them out as a robo-call to the numbers stored in a database (which the villagers submit).

Although the process has multiple steps, it doesn't take much time as everything is sent electronically and is automated.

The cost of the program is low; it's free for the villagers and is currently funded by Saxena's IMII colleague Dave Bloss. Bloss is a Knight International Fellow, and is funding the project through his Knight grant. Saxena estimates that the total cost of the four-month project is roughly $1000 USD. The only costs have been the purchase of three MMS-equipped phones (for the two reporters and local editor), which cost about $100 US each, and the monthly broadcast fees. Because the transmission costs of the short robo-calls are fairly cheap (Saxena estimates that the expansion of the subscriber to 250 raised the monthly fee to roughly $300 USD; before that is was under $100 USD), the project is able to operate with a small budget.

Despite the small budget, Gaon Ki Awaaz is now trying to become sustainable by bringing in independent revenue. Gaon Ki Awaaz recently got its first advertisers - in early March 2010 one of the village merchants, who was part of the original group of 20 users, bought an ad that was played before the news. Saxena says that they are looking to eventually bring in two types of adverts from local merchants and from national agricultural companies. The plan is to start with hyper-local advertising in order to gauge the response, and then start looking to agri-companies to have them sponsor some bulletins.

Plans for expansion include making the system more interactive for the villagers and increasing the number of subscribers. Subcribers currently only receive news voice calls but Saxena hopes to eventually enable villagers to submit their own news updates to a toll-free number. That information will be vetted by the reporters or local editor, and then added in to the reports. Says Saxena, "The aim is to enable subscribers to generate information about themselves in their own language, and to be able to hear information that's relevant to them."

He adds, "There is no better tool for information to come in, and for information to go out. If something happened in a remote, rural area there was no way to communicate with the media, or the administration or anybody [before mobiles]. This is the first tool that makes it possible."

March 06 2010

06:36

Agriculture and us

I attended an Ashoka conference in New Delhi yesterday on rural innovation and farming. There were so many new things I realized about agriculture's deep rooted connections with our culture and society and economy that I decided to immediately write about it before the memories weaken. Plus I watched Avatar later in the evening, which gave a perfect icing on the cake!

Agriculture and women

Agriculture can be looked upon from many perspectives. Food as a commodity, where farmers are considered merely as factory workers and we talk about increasing their productivity though machines, technology, etc. Agriculture as an economic activity with linkages into the global market, so that it becomes important to streamline supply chains, improve irrigation, and prevent price fluctuations. From an ecological perspective, in terms of organic farming, local supply chains, and keeping a small footprint. Or it can be looked upon from a cultural and humanist perspective by putting a face to the farmer, and this face is often that of a woman. As you read on, try to keep this context in mind by linking back the people in agriculture with the bigger landscape of the economic and ecological settings in which all of us are living.

It is well known that women in India and elsewhere have always played a huge role in post-harvest processing of food grains. What is probably less well known about India is that because of poorer economic rates of return in agriculture, men are moving into the cities for various unskilled jobs leaving their wives to manage the farms. At times many villages are only left with women, kids, and old people, while the men have gone off to work in factories in the cities or to pull a rickshaw. This is even more common during the off-season of farming because the lack of proper irrigation prevents any farming from happening at all during those few months. So you can see how policies for proper irrigation, increasing incomes in agriculture, market linkages, and other economic and political factors can influence the culture of farming communities.

A second arena where women again come into prominence in agriculture is because of development activities. Microfinance institutions and various not-for-profit organizations often like to work more closely with the women than with men. And in Satara near Pune, over 3500 loans have been taken by women to buy mobile phone based remote starters for tube wells and water pumps in their farms! Similarly, when a community radio station was set up in the area, one of the first advertisements go out on air was from a woman calling others to aggregate their little amounts of farm produce, and now they have rented a truck which goes back and forth each week to the city markets!

A third example came from Karnataka, where a not-for-profit organization helped set up a network of retail and produce collection points, again run by women. And here the women requested their local self-help-group organization to train them on selling mobile SIM cards through the same retail points! Cellphones, as many would know, are gaining tremendous outreach in rural areas. Companies therefore need a distribution network in rural areas to sell value added services, prepaid recharges, and such. And women are again the preferred ones to do it, what could be better than to leverage the existing agriculture distribution networks which are already in place.

Agriculture and productivity

If we think about argiculture as a food producing activity, many issues arise related to operational scale and efficiency. There is a question of proper education and training in disease control for example. Over 98% of a potato crop under contract with PepsiCo was once completely wiped out because of blight. And here we are talking about small farmers for whom one crop can make a difference between sustainance and falling into deep poverty. PepsiCo has since engaged a large army of extension workers who make sure that farmers know about the correct methods to control pests and crop diseases, and also provide weather insurance to their contract farmers. Similarly, the correctness of methods is very important. Paddy seeds can either be sown in a flooded field, or first sown and then flooded with water. It turns out that in the former approach over half the water is lost in puddling. There is no new technology here, no new seeds, only a different method of cultivation. And if we add that over 80% of water in India is consumed for agriculture, you can imagine the impact that good methods can have here! There are many similar examples where using the right methods can alone improve productivity, and these have even been tested in small pilots here and there, but very few practices have managed to make their way to farmers in a big way.

GM seeds are seen as another method to increase agricultural productivity. I will not go into the details of this hotly contested topic, and assuming that biotechnology is the way to go to grow more food for more people, the one probematic issue is the tradeoff between price and innovation. Companies such as Monsanto are innovating and developing new seed lines -- pest resistant, drought resistant -- and want to earn back the investments they have made. Exercising IP rights by putting in a stopper gene for re-planting seeds is one way, higher prices is another way, but effectively these methods do increase costs for the farmers at least in the short term. Can new methods be developed for companies to capitalize on their investments made for innovation, instead of simply a higher price? Governments can provide subsidies, for one. Alternately, the government of India chose to instead invent their own seed lines which could be sold at lower prices. To add a footnote here, the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow actually successfully did this for cotton seeds. But these genes have not seen the light of day as yet because government run institutes are completely lost in getting regulatory approval and passing food safety tests!

Society and agriculture

But productivity should not be the only goal. It is inextricably linked with society and ecology. Here is an example. Contract farming normally comes with strict regulations about crop rotation patterns, seed varieties, etc. But this has often resulted in farmers losing touch with their lands and passing the age-old wisdom to their next generation. In Uttaranchal, there is a concept of 12 anaja (seeds) which are supposed to be sown in rotation to preserve the soil health and the water table. The water table by the way is in most rapid decline in the Gangetic plains of north India than anywhere else in the world. Highly optimized contract farming however often neglects these principles because even if the soil deteriorates in one part, companies can always relocate their operations to other areas. The losers are actually the communities in these areas because they are losing the wealth of their lands, and likely at a price which does not take the soil and water table decline into account, and to make matters worse, they are losing agricultural wisdom over the generations.

Another interesting example, again from the hills of Uttaranchal, was the destruction of local supply chains because of increasing capitalization of agriculture. A village on one side of a hill could be producing rice while the other side could be barren. However, rather than sustain local supply chains, pricing and infrastructure are rigged in such a way that food first travels all the way to Delhi and then back. Not only is this ecologically nonsensical, but it also damages the cultural fabric that may have united the two villages together in the past.

Us

Those were quite some eye-opening issues for me, and underscored the importance of seeing agriculture in a more holistic setting. Economics, policies, technology, ecology, and culture all come together. To drive the point deeper, I coincidentally happened to watch Avatar the same evening, and realized the important link we have with nature. We cannot think in terms of us and nature, it is all one, we are a part of nature, and so are the technologies we develop and the policies we follow to live.

Can Gram Vaani help here? I definitely think so, because we are building a vehicle to spread this message and help everybody realize how rural areas are fundamentally interconnected to our lives, something that the mainstream media completely neglects. Stay tuned in for a formal announcement about the release of our GRINS box for community radio stations. We are almost there, I personally cannot wait for this having waited for it since almost three years now! We are also in conversation with Video Volunteers, a fellow Knight awardee, of how we can extend our radio based setup to video as well, and together build what we call a YouTube for the Next Billions.

Credits: All these examples and insights come from the panelists and attendees of the Ashoka conference. In particular, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Anita Paul (Community Initiatives), Chetna Gala Sinha (Mann Deshi), Uma Swaminathan (RUDI-SEWA), Prema Gopalan (Swayam Shiksha Prayog), Bharat Ramaswamy (ISI), and Vivek Bharati (PepsiCo).

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January 11 2010

19:24

Lessons Learned When Expanding Video Volunteers to Brazil

Video Volunteers recently started a new program in Brazil that is focused on using video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living. Starting a project in a new country has been an interesting, but also challenging, process.

When I started VV in 2003, we did a few projects in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the U.S. in addition to India, where we are currently based. But at that point, what we were doing was relatively easy: identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given the hands-on nature of community media.

Making the Decision to Expand

In our experience, social change initiatives that are based on empowerment, voice, and creativity are hard to replicate. This is because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management. So we focused on India for three years, always telling ourselves, "next year... next year... we'll be ready to launch outside of India."

Our board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived as "global" that make it smart to expand? These are some of the questions we debated.

In the end, one thing really convinced us: the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and fascinating, and probably the biggest in the entire world. It's also producing some amazing media. We had to be there.

Lessons Learned

Now that we have finally expanded outside of India, here are some lessons we've learned that might be relevant to organizations of a similar size.

Understand Cultural Differences: This is the hardest -- and the best -- thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India are the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to speak and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool for community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. In India, media and information are seen as tools for poverty alleviation or human rights -- probably because India's problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country such as Brazil.

In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth. The primary purpose is giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation. That's what funders and the government seem to demand. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves about whatever they wish. But because the environment (meaning primarily the funding environment) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation seem like they are not happening at the level they could.

We found people in Brazil seem to doubt the importance (as well as the feasibility) of young people earning a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the non-profit world in Brazil compared with the U.S. and India. Livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation are ingrained in the thinking in the non-profit world in the U.S. and India. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat these issues is not livelihoods and jobs, but empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.

Think About Organizational Setup: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options. We could register as a Brazilian non-profit, staff it locally, and then begin work. Or we could identify a partner NGO to hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. We could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. (Also, registering and opening an office would have been prohibitively expensive for us.)

We knew we first needed to do a pilot project in order to gauge the possibility of success. Then, with that completed, we could work on registering. That said, there were also drawbacks to the other option. Working through consultants and partners means less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.

Choose Your Partners Carefully: We initially developed a proposal with one organization in Brazil. Then, for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner, and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well. A good "gut feeling" about the organization was more important than going for the most experienced group in our field. Very vague, I know.

Our eventual partner, Casa Das Caldeiras, did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority. They have as much riding on its success as we do. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity -- and these were the most important qualities. So far, it's been a great partnership. They are focused on the visual arts, and run artists-in-residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip-hop, painting, graffiti, and more. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.

Expect Some Things to be Lost in Translation: Managing things at a distance is hard. For our project, it's been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They've selected great fellows, who are producing exactly the kind of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think, because it is so new.

VV has been obsessing about the issue of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to the project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It's an area where face-to-face contact is critical, and so it was very important that Stalin K., a VV board member and media and human rights activist, and I could spend the whole month of October in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. I'd love to hear from other people running small or medium-sized NGOs who can share their own stories and lessons from expanding to different countries. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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