Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 14 2013

11:00

How FrontlineSMS Helped an Indonesian Community Clean Up a River

FrontlineSMS has had a strong connection with environmental issues since our founder had the initial spark of an idea while working on an anti-poaching project in South Africa. We're delighted to share how Een Irawan Putra of KPC Bogor and the Indonesia Nature Film Society used FrontlineSMS in Indonesia to invite the community to help clean up the garbage clogging the Ciliwung River.

Community Care Ciliwung Bogor, known locally as KPC Bogor, was founded in March 2009 in West Java, Indonesia to harness the growing community concern for the sustainability of the Ciliwung River in the city of Bogor. We formed to raise awareness about the damaging impact of garbage and waste in the river, as well as to mobilize the community to take action.

river1.jpg

The community around KPC Bogor was initially formed by our friend Hapsoro who used to share his fishing experiences in the Ciliwung River. "If we go fishing in the river now, there is so much junk," Hapsoro once said, "All we get is plastic, instead of fish." It was after an increasing number of similar tales from the community about pollution levels that we decided to conduct some field research. We set out to find the best spots for fishing along the Ciliwung River, particularly in the area stretching from Katulampa to Cilebut.

Some KPC members work in Research and Development of Ornamental Fish Aquaculture, Ministry of Marine and Fisheries and in fisheries laboratory in Bogor Agricultural University. So while we conducted the research voluntarily, they were always present to offer their skills and ensure our research methods were sound. In addition to the study of fish, some KPC members who work in mapping forest areas in Indonesia helped us to map the river area using GPS. We mapped the points where garbage was stacked, sewage levels and commensurate changes in the river. We also tested the quality of river water by using a simple method called "biotilik," using organisms as an indication of the state of the river water quality in the Ciliwung River.

The results of the research were shocking. We found out that while the people who live along the Ciliwung River rely on its use for daily necessities including cooking, cleaning and washing, the river is increasingly being used as a place to dispose of trash and inorganic waste materials. The research helped us realize just how poor the Ciliwung River conditions were at the time -- with worrying consequences for the function, condition, and use of the river. Not only did we uncover poor river standards, we also identified that there was a lack of public knowledge about the importance of maintaining a healthy river among the community. Waste disposal practices have become rooted in the bad habits that have been ingrained in the minds of the people who live around the Ciliwung riverbanks over a long period of time. People are so used to the methods they use that they do not realize the severity of the environmental damage which they cause.

citizen clean-up takes off

So members of KPC Bogor got together to ask, "What can we do to save Ciliwung River in ways that are simple, inexpensive and uncomplicated?" From there, a simple concept was born. We set out to recruit volunteers to become garbage scavengers in the Ciliwung River. Every Saturday, KPC Bogor members and friends met from 8am to 11am, to pick up any inorganic matter that litters the Ciliwung River and put it into the sacks before sending it to landfills.

In many ways, we actually consider this activity as a way to meet new friends. It might be hard work that can cause us to sweat, but we understand that even though waste removal is a very simple activity, it important for the sustainability of our river and our community around it. The number of people who come every Saturday varies: Sometimes there are only two, other times up to 100 people. For us, the number doesn't matter. What's important is that KPC Bogor must continue to remind citizens to take care of the Ciliwung River.

About three months ago, we had some sad and shocking news that our friend and leader Hapsoro had passed away. A few of us were worried about what would happen to our 4-year-old community and how it could continue without his leadership. We gathered at Hapsoro's house before his funeral, and we all committed to doing all we could to ensure KPC Bogor's activities would carry on. We saw how vital this work was for the River, the community's health, and our livelihoods. We needed to honor and commemorate the important service Hapsoro had initiated to form a sense of responsibility and awareness in the community. But how could we mobilize the community like he did?

river2.jpg

using sms

Hapsoro was a man who always actively sent SMS to all our friends to participate in regular KPC Bogor activities, especially to remind them to get them involved with cleaning the river. With an old mobile phone, he used to send messages one by one to the numbers in his phone book. The day after we decided to keep KPC Bogor alive, I asked permission from Hapsoro's wife, Yuniken Mayangsari, about whether we could keep using his phone number to send SMS to all the subscribers. She gave me the phone at once without hesitation.

I started using Hapsoro's mobile phone to send SMS every Friday to the friends of KPC Bogor. When I was using the phone, I realized how patient Hapsoro must have been in sending the SMS alerts about river cleaning over his three years of organizing the activities. One by one, each of the numbers had to be selected from the address book, and I could only enter 10 numbers at once. It made getting though more than 200 numbers exhausting, and it took me more than two hours! Not to mention when I forgot which numbers I'd already sent the message to. I'm sure there are a few people who got the message twice.

Because of the limited time I could dedicate to sending SMS every Friday, some friends and I decided to try using FrontlineSMS. A friend who lives in Jakarta went looking for a compatible Huawei E-series modem to send and receive messages with the software. When we were finally able to buy one, we installed it on my laptop and KPC Bogor's laptop. Now every Friday, we load up FrontlineSMS to send alerts about KPC Bogor activities due to take place the following Saturday. It's great because I can carry on working while FrontlineSMS is sending the messages. I can easily manage contacts and send alerts to the community in a few simple steps.

KPC Bogor's work with volunteers is now so successful that we started a "Garbage Scavengers Race" which has now become an official annual agenda event in the city of Bogor. Last year, 1,500 people came to the river to help and we collected 1,300 bags of garbage in just 3 hours. We are now preparing for this year's scavenge due to take place in June 2013. In recognition of the need to tackle root causes of the waste issue rather than just the clean up, we've also started to do more than collecting garbage. KPC Bogor now provides environmental education for elementary school children, conducts research on water quality and plants trees around the Ciliwung River. We are also able to regularly assess the river water biota, where we analyze diversity of micro-organisms, plants and animals in the ecosystem. Recently, we even made a film about the waste problems in the Ciliwung River.

Now, we use FrontlineSMS to let the community know about our new activities too. Every week we receive SMS from new people who want their mobile number to be added to the subscribers list so they can receive a regular SMS every week with information about how to join in with our activities.

Thanks to the community, the city government is now giving full support to our activities by giving us budget for waste cleanup efforts through the official budget allocation. Once, Ciliwung was a clean river that was highly venerated by the people for its famous fresh water and was relied on by the public in Indonesia for their livelihoods. It was once a source of clean water used for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. This community wants the condition of the Ciliwung River to return to how it once was, and we're getting there -- one piece of garbage at a time.

You can watch a video with English subtitles about the KPC Bogor community here.

More information about KPC Bogor can be found at here or via Twitter @tjiliwoeng and Facebook.com/KPCBogor.

river3.jpg

Een Irawan Putra is currently director of the Indonesia Nature Film Society, coordinator for the Ciliwung River Care Community (KPC Bogor), head of TELAPAK West of Java Territorial Body, member of TELAPAK, and member of LAWALATA IPB (Student Nature Club Bogor Agriculture University). Formerly he was a Forest Researcher in Greenpeace South East Asia Indonesia Office (2005); producer, cameraman, and editor at Gekko Studio (2005-2012), vice director PT. Poros Nusantara Media (2012), and vice president of the Association of Indonesia Peoples' Media and Television (ASTEKI) (2012).

May 09 2013

17:24

Diaries, the original social media: How our obsession with documenting (and sharing) our own lives is nothing new

If you’ve ever kept a diary, chances are you probably considered that document private. As in,

MOM I’VE TOLD YOU A MILLION TIMES MY DIARY IS PRIVATE SO DON’T FUCKING READ IT AGAIN PS THANKS FOR CLEANING MY ROOM IT LOOKS NICE

— Luke (@StereotypeLuke) March 24, 2013

But that wasn’t always the case when it came to personal journals. At least, not according to Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell.

Humphreys led a conversation this week with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective on historicizing social media practices. Humphreys argues that, through journals and diaries, people have been recounting their daily activities and reflecting on them for much longer than Twitter and other social media platforms have been around.

But through her research, Humphreys found that it’s only been in the last hundred years that journalling has come to be considered a private practice. In the late 19th century, she says visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives. Journals were also kept in early American towns to mark and record important events: weddings, births, deaths and other events of community-wide importance.

“You don’t get a real sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century,” Humphreys told the Cornell Chronicle in 2010, “so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”

At Humphreys’ talk on Tuesday, some suggested that the advent of Freudian psychology — or perhaps the mass popularization of the novel — had contributed to this inward turn by America’s diarists. As the profession of journalism began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, the independent writer was becoming increasingly self-reflective, creating the expectation of privacy that we were familiar with prior to the arrival of the Internet. But Humphrey is arguing that before we had a mass media, there was a system of personal writing that looked like a slower, more loosely networked version of Twitter.

people want to make twitter their diary but isn’t a diary suppose to be private?

— #slick (@rickstayslick) May 7, 2013

The similarities between Twitter and historic trends in diary keeping don’t stop there, according to Humphreys. She points to a surge in the popularity of pocket diaries, which, like Twitter, restricted the number of words you could write due to their small size, but also made them mobile. With 60 percent of tweets now being written on mobile devices, according to Humphreys, as compared to around 14 percent when she conducted the study in 2008, trends in Twitter behavior are in fact reflecting historical trends in self-reporting. So even the practice of making notes about your daily activities as they are happening isn’t a new behavior.

A second study Humphreys conducted revealed even more lessons about our drive to create personal records. Using the diary entires of a soldier in the Civil War, which he dutifully copied and turned into letters home, and the personal blog of an Iraq War soldier, Humphreys explored the reasons people feel compelled to record the events of their lives.

Primarily, she says, people journal as a way of strengthening “kin and friend” relationships. The soldier in Iraq, referred to as DadManly, originally began his blog as a way of keeping in touch with all of his family members at once. Charlie Mac, the Civil War soldier, exhibits a similar desire for communication and relationship maintenance by sending home a faithfully transcribed (we assume) copy of his diary. Both men, Humphreys says, described experiencing profound frustration and anxiety when the medium through which they communicated was disrupted, whether by an Internet blackout or a rainstorm that dissolved parchment and delayed the post.

The writings of Charlie Mac and DadManly shared another important similarity: Although both were writing for ostensibly private audiences, there was an implicit understanding that their words might someday reach a wider audience. When DadManly saw web traffic from strangers, he began to increasingly write about his political views on the war, providing what he believed to be a unique perspective of support at a time when very few journalists in the traditional media felt the same way.

Charlie Mac also had reason to believe his diary letters were being shared with an audience larger than the one he was directly addressing. In fact, he sometimes included parenthetical addresses to specific individuals, should they happen to come across the documents. But there was also a real possibility that his war correspondence would be picked up and reprinted by newspapers. (Or, as it happened, compiled, archived, and read by researchers hundreds of years later.) After the war, he ended up becoming a journalist at The Boston Globe. What more apt analogue to the media of today than a world in which one’s personal commentary on current events is so appreciated that they can be transformed into a lifelong career?

During the course of Charlie Mac’s budding career, he would have observed the budding of what we consider the traditional media hierarchy. Information would increasingly begin to flow from the top down, rather than be gathered voraciously from amateurs in the field. He would see news brands begin to shape and control narratives, and come to exist in an information system with less and less emphasis on personal interactions.

Of course, what we’ve seen in the decades since the dawn of the digital age is just the opposite. Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.

Personal diarists are not only comforted by recording and sharing their experience, Humphreys says, but they are empowered by claiming their own narrative. She suspects it was for this reason that so many 19th-century women kept journals — in the hopes that they and their families would be remembered. Her point takes on contemporary significance when she points out that Twitter is more popular among African-American and Hispanic youths than among whites.

The most powerful argument for Twitter as a force of erosion of the public media is not, as we hear so often lately, that it feeds the fires of rumor and speculation. The argument that Twitter is facile is much more potent — that Twitter users are self-obsessed, that a minute spent tweeting is a minute wasted, that Twitter is the digital embodiment of the general degradation of intellectual society — many of the same arguments made a decade ago about blogging.

This is what I ate for breakfast… Greek potatoes, orzo, Greek salad, dolmades, and OJ. #Hmm yfrog.com/nxfktoej

— Miss Illinois (@StaciJoee) March 28, 2012

I’m going to be a total blogger today. This is what I ate for breakfast. LOL http://yfrog.com/h2tovdrj

— Holly Becker (@decor8) February 20, 2011

What Humphreys has found, instead, is that if we are all navel-gazers, it’s not Twitter that made us that way. And further, that we are tighter-networked, faster-responding, further-reaching navel-gazers, with a richer media experience, than ever before.

Image by Barnaby Dorfman used under a Creative Commons license.

August 09 2012

14:00

How User-Centered Design Powers FrontlineSMS, Version 2

I'm going to be honest: When I first joined FrontlineSMS, I had no idea how much goes into the design of software. Every screen, every button and every function has principled thought behind it.

gabrielwhite.jpg

In 2011, we worked alongside Gabriel White, a user experience designer from Small Surfaces, to help translate FrontlineSMS users' needs into the new design of Version 2. I came to realize that no matter how advanced and amazing a piece of software might be, it has no relevance if users can't access it or work out how to use it. I think that the user interface -- that point of contact between a user and the functionality (or what the software can do) -- is the most important entry point in the way users experience a tool.

It's now been over a year and a half after the design work first began, and I recently spoke with Gabe to share his reflections on how we ensured users' priorities were central to the design of Version 2.

What user design experience involves

I'm sure that for many of us it's not clear what User Experience Design really involves, so I asked Gabe to explain. "To me, it means creating products and services that address real user needs, and defining how people can interact with software in a way that's useful and meaningful. The most important things to consider in this process are what you (as an organization) are trying to achieve by creating the product or service; what the needs of the end users are; and then bringing those two sets of goals together through a design solution that is usable, useful and engaging."

version2launch.jpg

At FrontlineSMS, we have always endeavored to put our users first and be responsive to their needs -- to make our software work better for them. This user-centered design process is at the heart of Version 2. I was curious to ask Gabe how he got involved in the FrontlineSMS project. "I decided to move to Uganda to focus my work on projects which were meaningful to me in terms of positive social impact," he replied. "I found out about the Mobiles for Development Conference in Kampala in 2010. I'd heard that FrontlineSMS' founder, Ken Banks, was going to be there, and the FrontlineSMS project was exactly the kind of initiative I wanted to get involved in. So I basically cornered him and said, 'We have to have a coffee together!' When I later found out that he was thinking about how the user experience would evolve in the then-upcoming Version 2 of the software, it felt like serendipity. Working with FrontlineSMS turned out to be one of the highlights of my design career."

step one: personas

The first step in working together was when Gabe asked us to draw up profiles representing the characteristics of different types of FrontlineSMS users ("Personas" in design-speak). We asked volunteers who represented diverse projects using FrontlineSMS to be involved in the design process. Gabe explained the importance of this: "It's really critical to involve users throughout the entire process so that you can continuously ensure that you address users' real needs in appropriate ways. First, we interviewed existing users of the software to understand their aspirations and pain points. This helped us frame the problems we wanted to solve with Version 2. As I began to craft a design solution, it was important to continue to engage end users through the process. So even when we had only very early design concepts, I shared the alternative solutions with users to understand how effectively the design ideas met the needs I'd earlier uncovered."

"One of the things we found was that, while it was often easy to do basic things in Version 1 of the software, it was sometimes harder to do more sophisticated things with it. For example, FrontlineSMS users often want to use the tool to gather together messages from a group of people on a range of specific topics, or create a poll and easily understand the responses. Essentially, it's great to be able to gather or disperse information using FrontlineSMS, but that's only the beginning of the story -- it's often what users do with all those messages afterwards that counts. Making it easier for people to use FrontlineSMS to do more sophisticated things was critical as we thought about building the new software."

the inspiration behind activities

This speaks volumes to a central feature of Version 2: the "Activities" which guide users through common tasks like announcements and polls, so I was keen to know more about where the inspiration for this came from. "In the research we found that most people were wanting to use the software to carry out three or four core types of tasks (such as conducting a poll)," he said. "Version 1 of FrontlineSMS required users to put the pieces together themselves when doing these tasks, which meant that many users were unable to unlock the full potential of the software. I realized we needed to do two things: Make it easier for people to do more complex things with the software, and also help people appropriately manage the information that was coming in and going out in relation to each of these different activities. So we created this idea of Activities -- if we know you wanted to create a poll, for example, we could guide you through the steps of setting it up, and then help you manage and understand the responses coming back in. With Activities, people do not need to put the pieces together themselves -- the software now supports them through the whole process by providing pre-packaged sets of tools."

Activities FrontlineSMS 2.jpg

Moreover, the system was designed to inspire people to make the most of FrontlineSMS and explore more sophisticated uses of SMS. Gabe elaborated: "Activities expose people to the possibilities of what they can do with the system. FrontlineSMS users have always been aware there was potential, but some didn't know they could do more advanced things with the software. Activities make it much more explicit and easy to understand. It's now more obvious about potential possibilities and so makes everything much more approachable."

the elements of design

When we presented early designs to users to seek their feedback, one person highlighted the power of the "email metaphor," particularly in reference to the ability to star messages or select multiple messages using check boxes. I wondered to what extent Gabe's design was influenced by online tools like Gmail and Facebook. His response: "As a designer one of the things I think about is: What are the design approaches or metaphors that people are familiar with and makes most sense to them? Design most often is not about creating completely new and radical solutions; rather it's about bringing together elements and metaphors that people already deal with in novel and interesting ways."

Gabe's approach was logical and meticulous, sticking to predictable behavior to ensure the usability of the user interface. It wasn't until after building user personas, choosing the task-based "Activity" concept and creating over 100 pages of design documentation that we first saw the first line of Version 2 code and a blue hyperlink for "Inbox" in summer 2011. Now that it's fully working software, I sometimes have to rub my eyes to believe how far we've come. What I love the most is hearing what people think, because that is what's central to user interface design. So find out about what's new in Version 2 here and share your ideas on what you think of the design on our forum here.

Gabriel White's company Small Surfaces designs user interface solutions for smartphones, tablet computers and beyond. His award-winning designs have helped organizations including FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, World Vision, and Refugees United, as well as business leaders like Google, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Sandisk and Kodak deliver innovative, next-generation products and services. Gabe continues to work on new features and designs for FrontlineSMS.

Amy joined FrontlineSMS at the beginning of 2011 and is coordinating the FrontlineSMS:Radio project. This is a tailored version of FrontlineSMS's free and open-source software which is customized for radio DJs to help them interact with their audiences via text message. The project has involved offering user support to the growing community of radio users who are interested in solutions for the management of SMS and translating their needs into the software development process. Previously, Amy has worked for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, Amnesty International and Action Against Hunger.

A version of this post originally appeared on the FrontlineSMS blog.

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.

January 12 2012

15:20

Pew Studies the Power of Text-Based Donations After Haiti Quake

A simple text message can have a big impact. Mobile giving makes it easy to donate almost instantaneously after disaster strikes -- users authorize a mobile donation by texting a keyword to a specific short code, and the donation is then billed to the donor's mobile phone bill, eventually ending up with the nonprofit of choice.

haiti.jpg

Following the devastating Haitian earthquake of 2010 that left more than 200,000 people dead and more than 1 million Haitians homeless, mobile donations to Haiti totaled more than $43 million -- the first time mobile giving went mainstream in the United States on a large scale.

On the two-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, the Pew Internet Project has released "Real Time Charitable Giving," a report that delves into mobile giving and donors' motivations in the U.S.

The report, a collaboration among the Pew Internet Project, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Knight Foundation, and the mGive Foundation, aims to provide a window into the motivations, benefits, and potential pitfalls of mobile giving campaigns.

Drawn from a sample of 863 individuals who made a mobile donation to the "Text for Haiti" campaign, the survey covers why the users gave, how they learned about the mobile donation campaign, how likely they were to share information about their mobile donation, and how likely they were to remain engaged with relief efforts.

Key Findings

Many of the contributors to the Text for Haiti campaign were first-time mobile givers; 74% of the respondents said that the earthquake response was the first time they had used a mobile device for charitable giving. Many of the users went on to contribute to other relief efforts (such as the Japanese tsunami and the BP Gulf oil spill) through mobile donations, with 56% of the respondents saying they had continued to use mobile donations for other efforts.

Some of the key benefits of mobile giving are the ease of the transaction and the relatively small donation amounts, which make it an easy impulse decision; 73% of respondents donated the same day they heard about the campaign, and 50% of those users donated immediately upon hearing about it. The ease of mobile giving also encouraged the donors to spread the word about the campaign to their social groups; 43% of the surveyed mobile donors reported that they encouraged their friends and family to make mobile donations as well.

Unsurprisingly, the report found that mobile giving attracted a younger, more diverse, and more technologically savvy group of donors compared with the typical nonprofit donor. The majority of the respondents were also more familiar with the little computers in their pockets, using their phones in more ways than just texting or calling (such as taking photos, accessing the mobile web and social networking sites, sending and receiving emails, etc). Less than 40% of average U.S. mobile users use these features.

A downside to the mobile giving campaign was respondents' limited long-term engagement with relief efforts and news following their initial donations; 43% of participants reported that they were following the reconstruction efforts "not too closely," while 15% were following them "not at all." Furthermore, the impulse decision to make a mobile donation meant that there was minimal research into relief efforts before the donation, with only 14% of respondents saying they had researched where the money would go before making their mobile donation.

The spur-of-the-moment nature of mobile donations and the ease of the transaction make mobile giving an easy way to reach a large number of donors, despite the challenges.

Image courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme and used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

January 06 2012

15:20

Al Jazeera, Ushahidi Join in Project to Connect Somalia Diaspora via SMS

Al Jazeera, Ushaidi Join in Project to Connect Somali Diaspora via SMS

In the Horn of Africa, Somalia makes headlines, but often only because of drought, famine, crisis and insecurity. Al Jazeera launched Somalia Speaks to help amplify stories from people and their everyday lives in the region -- all via SMS.

Somalia Speaks is a collaboration between Souktel, a Palestinian-based organization providing SMS messaging services, Ushahidi, Al Jazeera, Crowdflower, and the African Diaspora Institute. "We wanted to find out the perspective of normal Somali citizens to tell us how the crisis has affected them and the Somali diaspora," Al Jazeera's Soud Hyder said in an interview.

Added Souktel's Jacob Korenblum: "The notion was that when the food crisis erupted this summer, we wanted to get word out from the ground level as to what was going on in that region."

The goal of Somalia Speaks is to aggregate unheard voices from inside the region as well as from the Somalia diaspora by asking via text message: How has the Somalia Conflict affected your life? Responses are translated into English and plotted on a map. Since the launch, approximately 3,000 SMS messages have been received. Here is just one example:

I was born in the city of Wanlaweyn, and some of the people there are destroying things. I am poor now.

For Al Jazeera, Somalia Speaks is also a chance to test innovative mobile approaches to citizen media and news gathering.

somaliamap.jpg

mobile makes sense

The campaign involves sending thousands of text messages to citizens in the Horn of Africa. With this specific campaign, a mobile approach works.

Souktel's Korenblum said that in a five-year period leading up to 2009, mobile phone penetration jumped 1,600% in the Somali region; Souktel has been delivering service in the Horn of Africa since 2008 and has a member SMS subscriber list of over 50,000 people.

There has also been considerable growth in the number of operators in the region, with new entrants almost every year. In some regions, there are as many as five mobile providers, Korenblum said. In terms of handset usage and mobile media, it's overwhelmingly done via SMS. Reaching out to citizens via SMS, then, makes sense.

SMS responses to the Al Jazeera question are sent to an Ushahidi and Crowdflower instance which enables filtering, translating and sorting of the content. These responses are then posted to the Somalia Speaks map on Al Jazeera for a larger international audience.

Partnership is Key

Somalia Speaks stems from earlier cooperation among the various partners. Souktel has had a long-standing relationship with both Ushahidi and Al Jazeera. The groups have worked together in the past on a campaign focused on events and citizen reporting from the Gaza Strip. "We all three found it was very successful in terms of giving ordinary citizens the ability to really have their voices heard, in a process which is usually reported on by news outlets and not much more than that," Korenblum said. "It was a good way of democratizing the flow of information."

And they are back at it again in the Horn of Africa, where Souktel has for years operated large-scale mobile information services. Because of this, they have outreach and solid relationships with the mobile network operators in the three primary regions in the Horn of Africa. "Coming together on this campaign was a very natural thing for us to do," Korenblum said.

Each partner brings unique expertise and fulfills a specific role. Souktel facilitates the creation of the free local short-code for users across the different regions and mobile network operators. It also leveraged its 50,000-plus member SMS subscriber list to send the initial SMS messages.

Ushahidi and Crowdflower work together to translate, categorize and geo-locate the incoming responses, which can be viewed here.

Al Jazeera's Hyder described the Ushahidi role as crisis mapping with a twist. "We are not mapping out a crisis but information that could provide more insight," he said.

"I think this a model for a good partnership between a media outlet, a mobile service provider, and mapping platforms," Korenblum said. "I think it's a decent use case for this sector on how different players in the social mobile landscape can come together to really help give a voice to communities."

A Pilot for Citizen Newsgathering

Somalia Speaks is a pilot project. While the responses help amplify voices and stories of everyday life from an under-reported region, the project also provides editorial insight as to where Al Jazeera should focus in going forward with its citizen reporting efforts.

"We are also looking at how to streamline news gathering workflows to get news directly from the people," Hyder said. "It's like taking citizen journalism to the next level."

Al Jazeera has received story tips and leads from Somalia Speaks participants. "We found out, for instance, there was a fire a week ago, and this was under-reported by all mainstream media," Hyder said. "This gives us an easier way for sourcing and finding information."

Somalia Speaks is helping create a more optimal model for sources of information in the region. With the fire report, for example, an editorial team investigates and can follow up by using stringers or calling local telephone numbers in the area of the fire. Cynara Vetch, also with Al Jazeera, added that another positive thing about mapping and SMS is that volume can help with corroboration. "So many people submitted similar reports, unprompted," she said. "This volume itself helps verify incidents."

The Somalian diaspora is getting involved, too. Hyder said that originally, the project was only going to focus on citizens within the region. "But there is a lot of input from the diaspora," Hyder said -- meaning that Somalians in the diaspora have valid arguments and points to add to the discussion. "Editorially, we had to open up the scope and see how the story grew," Hyder said.

There is an international number for anyone to send in a report (+45609910303) and people can also submit comments online in a section called "Diaspora Voices," including video links, photo uploads, and text descriptions.

The project itself is not without challenges. There is also a larger so what question as to the value of, and reaction to, such messages being mapped and posted. For more, read the complete case study here on the Mobile Media Toolkit.

December 20 2011

15:20

FrontlineSMS Shows News Foo Why Mobile Innovation Matters

With new smartphone apps making headlines daily, it's too easy to overlook the innovative potential of more basic technology like SMS on low-end phones. At FrontlineSMS, we're leaders in helping organizations around the world realize that potential, and we build tools to help turn SMS into an effective and ubiquitous channel for communication and data collection. One of the most exciting contexts for our work is among community journalists who are using SMS to create participatory news environments and deepen the reach of their work.

foocamp.png

We had the chance to provide our perspective on mobile innovation in journalism at News Foo, a recent "unconference" sponsored by O'Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation, a major supporter of our work. There, we talked with journalists, innovators and technologists from news outlets around the world, and shared our unique expertise on the transformative potential of basic mobile technology.

It was easy to find common insights and share ideas with even the most high-tech innovators at News Foo this year. Our tools may be different, but we are all working to create new modes of reporting, informing, and engagement between journalists and their audiences. It was proof that innovation is universal, and that the work of Radio Nam Llowe might be able to teach The New York Times or National Public Radio a few things about effective audience engagement.

Creating a vibrant and participatory media environment is a nut we're all trying to crack, using the appropriate technology for our communities. Smartphone apps are great for people who own them, but for the vast majority of the world, mobile technology is still defined by cheap, voice-and-text-only devices.

the power of sms

Many people were interested to hear our ideas about the power of text messaging, both in formal sessions and serendipitous conversations. We talked with the founders of SeeClickFix and EveryBlock about how their approaches to citizen-driven, hyperlocal information-sharing could work in an all-SMS interface.

We brainstormed with investigative reporters, data journalists, and machine-learning experts on collecting, sharing and marshaling the massive datasets new technology is generating -- in last-mile communities, collating and storing SMS interactions has the potential to be a valuable source of accountability data, at a fraction of the cost of a full-scale program evaluation.

We shared our experiences and lessons learned bringing meaningful interaction to community radio via text, with NPR and local radio innovators thinking about the same issues a bit further up the technology ladder.

Basic text-only phones might not be capable of the same technical functions of the iPhone or Android devices, but with a tool like FrontlineSMS, we can deliver the value of the best apps to even the simplest devices.

We're incredibly grateful to John Bracken, Sara Winge, Richard Gingras, and Jennifer 8. Lee for inviting us to Phoenix to be a part of the group you assembled, and we're eager to continue the conversations we started there.

P.S. One of the best parts of News Foo was getting to see some awesome new technology our fellow campers have been building. NPR's Infinite Player is a smart, adaptive player of new and archived NPR footage. Audiofiles is a curated hub of the best audio stories from around the web. Fellow Knight News Challenge winner The Tiziano Project's 360˚ Kurdistan is a beautiful, community-driven look at a community too easily associated with war and poverty.

October 06 2011

12:20

How Mobile Phones Could Bring Public Services to People in Developing Countries

In Santiago, Chile, more than 60 percent of the poorest citizens don't have access to the Internet. In the rest of the country, that number increases to 80 percent, and in rural areas, an Internet connection is almost nonexistent. But there are more than 20 million mobile phones in the nation, according to the latest survey by the Undersecretary of Telecommunications. (That's actually around 1.15 cell phones per capita in a nation of 17,094,270 people.) And in rural areas, cell phones are king.

santiago.jpg

As Knight News Challenge winners FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and NextDrop have shown, mobile communications are crucial for citizens living in rural areas, where being able to reach other people and access relevant news and public services information make a huge improvement in people's lives. Plus, cell phones are tools that most already have.

THE PITCH

What if, apart from efforts to widen connectivity in isolated areas and government programs to provide computers for schools in rural areas (which has been a very good, but slow, undertaking, and not an attractive business for telecom companies), governments of underdeveloped countries create and provide easy ways to access public information and services on mobile phones with an application or open-source web app that could be downloaded from government websites (in Chile it's Gob.cl)? Or cellular service providers could pre-install an app or direct access to a web app on every smartphone or other devices?

This could mean a great deal for people, particularly in rural and impoverished areas where the biggest news is not what's happening in Congress or the presidential palace, but what is happening to you and your community (something Facebook understood very well in its latest change that challenges the notion of what is newsworthy -- but that's a topic for a separate post).

People could do things like schedule a doctor's appointment or receive notice that a doctor won't be available; find out about grants to improve water conditions in their sector; receive direct information about training programs for growing organic food and the market prices for products they might sell; find out how their kids are doing in a school they attend in the city or if the rural bus system will go this week to the nearest town or not. These are just a few very straightforward examples of useful public services information that could be available on people's phones. Such availability of information could save time and money for those who lack both things.

I know it because I saw it as a boy growing up in a small town -- and as the son of a farmer who still hasn't gotten around to the idea of using a computer, despite having the chance to use one. But because my father owns a mobile phone, he's become an expert user of SMS and applications that allow him to check weather conditions.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE TELECOM COMPANIES

At the same time, telecom companies could support this initiative by providing mobile Internet connection packages and a free SMS service for rural areas by which citizens could specify their information searches or requests (a kind of help desk). Why would they do it for free? Because with each free transaction, there might be another one that has nothing to do with the government or public services information, which may produce additional income. It might also improve the companies' public image.

Another way of getting support from these companies consists of giving them a
tax reduction for providing the service and automatic updates of information. Thus, rural citizens living in small towns and cities would be able to access the data they need (pension reforms, hospital appointments, housing benefits, food grants, etc).

IN SIMPLE WORDS

To do what we're talking about, we need clean and intuitive interfaces with super-simple steps and strong government websites or apps that learn from the end users' needs, systematizing:

  • Databases containing questions and answers made by ministries and government staff.
  • Services citizens can access in order to ask for all kinds of information: subsidies, hours of service, etc.
  • Simple and complex procedures, so that answers can be delivered accurately and in the shortest amount of time.

This reduces the margin of error, maximizes human resources -- decreasing the man-hours needed for searching for requested information -- allows specific departments to detect questions which are more usual, and meets the needs of users and citizens.

However, in order to make citizens understand the information, it has to be written in a simple way, with no illegible technical or legal terms. For such a purpose, there are citizen language manuals that standardize response criteria issued by the state. (A good example of this in Spanish is the Mexican Lenguaje Ciudadano government guide.)

This is a small civic proposal to start a wider conversation and brainstorming and discover projects and ideas that may already be addressing this issue. Please feel free to post your tips and thoughts in the comments section.

Image of Santiago, Chile by Flickr user Cleanie.

July 24 2011

07:22

Lance Ulanoff's (love) letter - Dear Twitter: don't change the 140 character limit

PC Mag :: Slate's Farhad Manjoo, makes an eloquent argument for raising Twitter's character limit. He argues that you can't say a whole lot in 140 characters. He's right that Twitter's character limit is tied to the service it was launched on, the SMS text messaging system, which, after message handlers and the sender's name, left just 140 characters to speak your mind. But then Manjoo makes a leap. "The 140-character limit now feels less like a feature than a big, obvious bug."

[Lance Ulanoff:] Twitter was never intended as a conversation hub. Yes, it's for sharing, some engagement, but is, necessarily, a broadcast and share medium. Longer posts, even the 280 characters he suggests, would undercut that intention.

My vote? I join Lance Ulanoff: "Dear Twitter: don't change ... ."

Continue to read Lance Ulanoff, www.pcmag.com

June 30 2011

14:00

FrontlineSMS, a News Challenge winner, connects people in places where the web is out of reach

Sean Martin McDonald, FrontlineSMS

There are more than 5 billion mobile phone connections on earth, by some estimates, far more than the number of people who have access to clean water. In much of the developing world, however, Internet access is either scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Knight News Challenge winner FrontlineSMS is open-source software that tries to plug the resulting information gap. The platform, which has until now focused on the communications needs of NGOs, has already found success in medicine, agriculture, and election monitoring. Now, with help from KNC’s three-year, $250,000 grant, FrontlineSMS plans to expand its focus to include journalists.

FrontlineSMS is a free download for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It requires a computer and a cell phone — a cheap one will do — but, importantly, no Internet connection. “It enables people to have complex digital communications with people who may live beyond the reach of the Internet,” said Sean Martin McDonald, the director of operations, Americas, for FrontlineSMS.

The software allows for mass communication over SMS, akin to an email blast, and it supports complex, two-way communication. So a health care worker in India, for example, coud text an appointment reminder to a patient and request a response to find out whether the doctor showed up. The software can capture and store these responses programmatically, which is essential in situations that find you seeking input from dozens or hundreds or thousands of people.

A real-world example is Rien que la Vérité, a fictionalized, documentary-style television series about current events in Kinshasa. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, McDonald said, and viewers are polled via SMS about where to take the conversation next. Community radio stations, too, use the FrontlineSMS software to interact with listeners and solicit public opinion. Sure, American Idol does the same thing, but SMS is connecting people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk.

The Knight grant will enable the organization to build upon its FrontlineSMS:Radio spinoff and develop tools specifically tailored for journalists. The idea is still hazy at this stage: Before solidifying any plans, McDonald wants to survey the needs of people who work in countries where journalism is hard to carry out. A significant chunk of the grant project, he said, will be devoted to research.

“The amount of interest and demand that we get from journalism organizations is pretty intense. There’s a lot of need out there. We’re hoping definitely to work with Knight and their network and be able to get useful software into the hands of some people,” McDonald said.

FrontlineSMS developers are also improving support for MMS, which allows citizens people to share audio, video, and photos over standard cellular connections. The lingering problem: While there are plenty of reporting apps out there, there are none that work without an Internet connection.

Another challenge: The mission of FrontlineSMS can be tricky to carry out in countries with regimes that feel threatened by informed citizens and inquisitive reporters. “We’re not necessarily bringing an anti-censorship angle to this — although I think everybody’s anti-censorship,” McDonald said. “Our focus is really on helping bridge information gaps. There are lots and lots of things with SMS that can expose people to danger if they’re taking up positions that are contrary to government, so that’s not really the operational focus of what we’re doing.”

McDonald said the FrontlineSMS software has already been downloaded 15,000 times in more than 60 countries. It’s in the midst of a total redesign that should be be finished in the “not-too-distant future,” he said. Because the software is available on GitHub, anyone can download the code and improve it right now.

June 15 2011

14:43

Tanzania Media Copes with Wild Success of Feedback via SMS

For the largest civil society media platform in Tanzania, back talk is good. 



In fact, talking back is the objective of a new service at Femina HIP called Speak Up! The service aims to increase access of marginalized youth and rural communities and promote a participatory, user-driven media scene in Tanzania.



SpeakUp.png

Femina HIP is the largest civil society media platform in the country, outside of commercial mainstream media. Products include print magazines, television shows, a radio program, and an interactive website. Fema magazine, for example, has a print run of over 170,000 copies and is distributed to every rural region in the country.



Over the last few years, Femina HIP has encouraged its audience to connect and comment by sending letters, email, and SMS messages -- and comment people did. Dr. Minou Fuglesang, executive director of Femina HIP, said the platform was nearly drowning in messages.

It became clear to the team that SMS needed to be handled more systematically. Speak Up! is a service that offers a more automated, organized way to receive and respond to incoming SMS messages. With the Speak Up! service, the message flow is more systematic and organized. Femina HIP is better equipped to respond to comments and queries. A more automated system also helps Femina HIP embrace the young community -- one that feels a growing need to organize and participate, Fuglesang said.



How It Works

Femina HIP uses an application built by Starfish Mobile, a wireless application service provider. All SMS messages are sent to the same shortcode (15665) and the Starfish application sorts messages according to key word. (Senders have to begin the message with the key word of the product they wish to address, be it Fema magazine or the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show.) 



Femina HIP staff members access the application from a web-based dashboard, where they can view all incoming messages across products. Virtually all messages received are in Swahili. "It is very rare to get a message in English, let alone other languages," said Diana Nyakyi of Femina HIP. "Though if we do receive something in English, it is considered just as much as any other SMS in Swahili in terms of feedback value."



The Speak Up! service works in collaboration with local mobile providers, because the shortcode is "bound" to the providers, Nyakyi said. "However, we are keen on having a more engaging and beneficial relationship with them [the mobile operators] as partners, and some have shown interest."



Two-Way Communications

Femina HIP wants to talk back to its audience, too.

When an individual sends an SMS to the Femina HIP shortcode, he or she receives an automatic confirmation. Senders' phone numbers are automatically entered in a database, which allows Femina HIP staff to further respond to individuals. Often, this is to simply say thank you for the message. But staff can also access and respond to urgent or serious messages, including questions on issues of health, sex, suicide, or requests for advice. Currently, Femina HIP has a list of about 30,000 active mobile numbers.



chezasalama sms.jpg

The Speak Up! database can also be sorted by categories such as key word, time submitted (date, week, month), or by phone network. Statistics are available, including which phone numbers have had the most interactions with the system, and whether the interactions were via SMS vote or SMS comment. The ability to sort allows the staff to group SMS messages around content themes and inform people about relevant, upcoming programs. 



Speak Up! wants the audience to become agenda setters, and claims to achieve "a more inclusive public debate and a more investigative reporting that mirrors everyday life in Tanzania." 


Challenges and Lessons

Femina HIP and the Speak Up! service have faced a learning curve. For example, it's been challenging to help the audience understand how to send an SMS to an automated service. "It's not as easy as it sounds because people have to understand how to use the shortcode and our key words," Fuglesang said. 



If someone misses a space or spells the key word incorrectly, for example, the SMS is marked "invalid" and ends up in the trash box. 



Similarly, if people send a message that's over the 160-character limit of a text message, the second half of it is also marked invalid. Currently, Starfish Mobile does not support these so-called concatenated SMS messages. "This is causing a problem, even though we ask our listeners to send us short messages," Fuglesang said. "People write long messages." 



For example, Speak Up! had 900 responses to a recent question, but nearly 500 ended up in the trash bin because of error or length. While the messages can be retrieved, and the team is trying to do just that, "it does pose a bit of a headache," Fuglesang said.



Another issue may be cost. While there is a cost to send a text message, sending an SMS to a shortcode actually carries a slightly higher cost, Fuglesang said. "We are trying to monitor this to see if it affects the flow."



February 16 2011

17:24

7 Lessons From the Egyptian Revolution

Whilst I am no expert in Egyptian history or politics, I have found the role of digital technologies in Egypt's revolution fascinating. This blog serves as a summary of some of my observations surrounding the 18 days of protest, which successfully ended President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years of rule.

1. People at the heart.

Whilst information and communication technology (ICT) provided critical channels to mobilize and magnify the revolution, it was the motivated, driven activists, such as the leaders of the April 6 Movement who effectively and deliberately used these tools to organize the protests. Millions of brave, determined demonstrators took action and met on the streets. Thus, it was the Egyptian people -- not the tools they used -- who need to be given credit for successfully demanding political change.

2. Kick-started by social media.

Wael_ghonim.jpg

Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager administered the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page that -- amongst others such as the January 25 Facebook page -- were the initial tools that enabled and enhanced the January 25 demonstration. Soon Twitter followed Facebook, with the #Jan25 hashtag spreading virally online.

As Ghonim told the AP: "This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook...This is the revolution of the youth, of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians."

3. A combination of tactics.

The organizing capacity of social media was the impetus for the revolution and it continued to play a pivotal role throughout, recording events in real time for all with Internet access to see. However, other combined and coordinated tactics were used, including demonstration invitations delivered face-to-face and via email and SMS.

Hotline numbers, such as those of Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, were used to receive citizen reports. Blogs and photos were posted online, bambuser.com was used for live video streaming, Google created the Crisis Response page for Egypt and videos were posted on YouTube, Storyful, and CitizenTube.

Here's one such video highlighted on YouTube's CitizenTube page:

Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera, was also a particularly powerful force for intensifying participation both locally and internationally. For instance, Wael Ghonim was interviewed on television, after he was imprisoned for 12 days by the secret police. He wept for the 300 Egyptians killed and it is widely believed that this emotional moment turned up the movement's heat and led to a large swell in the number of protesters in Tahrir Square the day following his interview. It was broadcast on television, uploaded on YouTube, subtitled, and then circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.

Even when the government disrupted and blocked Internet and mobile phone communication, activists were inspired to be even more resourceful in their use of cross-platform strategies. Researcher, Alix Dunn gives examples of these hybrid techniques and how they spread: satellite news broadcast of tweets, transmission from satellite television to radio, and leaflet distribution by people on the ground.

The impact of this coordination is proof that the Egyptian revolution was both a people's movement and a tech-centric uprising.

4. Censorship led to further innovation.

During government disruptions of Internet/mobile communications, citizens and journalists continued to use social media via third party applications like Hootsuite and TweetDeck and they transmitted videos via satellite devices.

Full Internet/mobile censorship by the government led to further communication innovation, with Speak2Tweet being developed by Twitter/Google, so that Egyptians could send news without being online. Egyptians could call in to advertised numbers to leave voice messages, which were then tweeted via the #Egypt hashtag, with a link to the audio message. Small World News subsequently organized translation of the Arabic messages into English.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo warned autocrats that censorship doesn't prevent protesters from using Twitter completely, "you're just challenging them to find another way to use it. People will always find a way to communicate."

5. The importance of external allies.

Twitter and Al Jazeera English service were key avenues for Egyptians to communicate with the rest of the world, including with international NGOs, bloggers, and media. Once the world is paying attention and in solidarity with the uprising, citizen protests become more difficult for dictators to ignore.

6. Corporations should be held more accountable.

According to Pyramid Research, the government used Vodafone Egypt, in which it has a 36 percent ownership stake, to send pro-government SMS messages to the Egyptian citizens. According to sources on the ground, Mobinil was used for this purpose as well. Later Vodafone, other mobile operators and the country's major Internet service providers, were forced to suspend their networks by the government.

Telecommunications providers and ISPs, which have physical assets, usually need a country license to operate. Thus, they are more susceptible to government pressure than corporations like Facebook and Google, which do not have to build infrastructure in a country to be accessed by its citizens. Yet despite pressure from repressive regimes, surely corporations like Vodafone have some responsibility to citizens and should be held accountable for their actions in Egypt and elswhere?

7. A question of access.

Egypt is blessed with a relatively solid ICT infrastructure. According to Pyramid Research, there are three mobile operators, providing nationwide coverage and 3G services, with cellular penetration having reaching 78 percent of the population by the end of 2010. According to 2009 data 21 percent of Egyptians are online and 5.1 million are on Facebook.

In African countries, where access to ICT is considerably less, building up this type of political momentum may be more difficult.

Conclusion and next steps

ICT and particularly social media definitely lubricated and sped up the revolt in Egypt and, as Ethan Zuckerman states, it will be interesting to see how these tools will be used to help form a new democratic government in Egypt.

When Wael Ghonim was asked what's next in revolutions in the Arab world, he told CNN: "Ask Facebook."

Similarly, global citizens from countries with repressive regimes have heard the tweets and the news from Egypt and are in some way emboldened and inspired.

February 03 2011

18:24

Social Media, Facebook Help People Stand Up in Tunisia, Egypt

Even though they're far away from the center of the action in Cairo, Chinese web users felt the impact of the current demonstrations and political change afoot in Egypt. Chinese users searching for "Egypt" on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, came up empty, and 467 sites were reported inaccessible after a call for a "march of a million" was issued in Cairo days ago.

For roughly a week now, the journalists and bloggers spreading information about the situation in Egypt have been harassed been by the military. Yesterday and today saw the worst outbreak of violence against journalists yet, as evidenced by this video of CNN's Anderson Cooper and crew being attacked by a crowd:

Plus, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and ABC News staffers were attacked too. As of this morning, reports have been flowing on Twitter and in the mainstream press that journalists are being detained by the regime, while the physical attacks on them continue in streets and hotels.

Serge Dumont, a Belgian reporter, has even been arrested and accused of spying. What started with relatively peaceful demonstrations has turned into a violent and deadly case of repression by government -- and it is playing out in real-time thanks to social media and television.

Tunisia: End Of Info Repression

The demonstrations and political fallout in Egypt are reminiscent of what began on December 17 in Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit vendor, set himself on fire in an act of protest. But one important difference between Egypt and Tunisia is that official media in the latter did not cover the event, and journalists were harassed when trying to get to the city of Sidi Bouzid.


5367417272_ddd33cd5a1_m.jpgIn Tunisia, the official media blackout was challenged by amateur video and pictures, which often became the most important information coming out of the country. Soon, #SidiBouzid became a popular Twitter hashtag, and Facebook began filling with reports and infromation. The Internet was the place where pictures and videos of government repression were assembled for the world to see.



Finally, on January 13, Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after a TV interview showed him to be nothing but a weak man in power. Three days later, the transitional government got rid of the Information Ministry and Slim Ammamou, a blogger who was released from prison just four days before, became Secretary of State for Youth and Sports.



During the Ben Ali regime, information was strictly controlled. All but three newspapers were controlled by the government and the cyber-police -- also called Ammar404 -- kept themselves busy by filtering opposition websites and installing surveillance systems in Internet cafes and email providers. The result was that Facebook become one of the only places where freedom of speech could flourish in Tunisia. (The regime attempted to block Facebook in 2008, but had to abort the idea.)

Forty percent of the population has access to the Internet in Tunisia. It was this group of connected citizens who demonstrated that online buzz and chatter can grab the attention of international media, and thereby help bring about change. Of course, this kind of political and social change is about people behaving bravely; but social media can help bring an issue to the attention of the international community.

The same can also be said for Egypt: Social media proved a powerful and constant source of reportage, but it was the people in the streets who stood up.

Al Jazeera Emerges

5413076448_04a286e8f9_m.jpg

On January 31, five foreign and Egyptian journalists from the pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera were interrogated by the Egyptian military, and their equipment was confiscated. They were released, but the day before Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of the network's Cairo office. Al Jazeera denounced the move as an attempt to muzzle open reporting and urged Egyptians to send blog posts, eyewitness accounts and videos to get around the censorship.

Much in the same way that the Persian Gulf War was a defining moment for CNN, the uprising in Egypt has been something of a coming out party for Al Jazeera's English service. Its website has seen a 2,500 percent increase in web traffic, with a notable portion of that traffic coming from the U.S. That's quite a feat, since the vast majority of U.S. cable carriers do not offer Al Jazeera English. (You can see the Al Jazeera English live feed online here.)

While people around the world were watching the live stream of Al Jazeera's coverage, those in Egypt began reporting problems with their Internet connections on January 26. There were particular problems when attempting to access the online newspapers Al-Badil, Al-Dustour and Al-Masry Al-Youm. Access to Al-Badil and Al-Dustour was subsequently blocked altogether, while Al-Masry Al-Youm experienced major problems. A huge online blockade was reported the night of January 27, which also happened to be the day before a general call for a Friday protest.

Four local ISPs were forced to stop their services. Only Noor was still working before it shut down at 11:30 pm local time earlier this week. In order to prevent the disruption of their services, Google and Twitter now allow people to tweet just by making a phone call. Facebook, which was intermittently blocked, issued a statement condemning the Internet shutdown.

"Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community," said Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes in a statement. "It is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet."

Mobile Phones Disrupted

In terms of new technologies, the Internet wasn't the only target. The authorities began jamming mobile phone communications in locations where protesters gathered. Representatives of Vodafone and Mobile Nile denied any involvement in the disruption of service and placed the blame on Egyptian authorities. And today Vodaphone released a statement saying that the government also forced it to send messages over its network

Free Press, a U.S. non-profit organization working for media reform, has denounced one American company, Boeing-owned Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif, for its relationship with the government. It sold Egypt "Deep Packet Inspection" equipment that can be used to track, target and crush political dissent over the Internet and mobile phones. Before January 27, mobile phone services were disrupted only where the protesters gathered. But on the night between January 27 and 28, SMS and phone connections were interrupted and only partially reestablished on January 29.

As of this writing, news organizations are reporting that Internet access has been restored in Egypt, with Facebook and Twitter coming back online for the populace. This comes at a time when clashes in the streets have turned violent against citizens and journalists. With the Internet and social media back to normal, let's hope the same can soon be said for the Egyptian people.

This post was made possible thanks to the contributions of the Middle East and New Media desks of Reporters Without Borders.

Image of Tunisian demonstrators by magharebia via Flickr.

Image of Egypt demonstration by Beacon Radio via Flickr

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.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

January 28 2011

17:34

Sudan Radio Service Solicits Feedback via Text Messaging

From January 9 to 15, Southern Sudan held a referendum to decide if the region should become an independent state. Although results have not yet officially been announced, estimates indicate that the referendum will pass with an overwhelming number of pro-independence votes. (Read MediaShift's recent report from Simon Roughneen on the ground in Sudan.)

It's essential to keep citizens informed of new developments during the voting period -- and one of the best ways to reach large numbers of people is through radio. The Sudan Radio Service, which has been operating since 2006, recently began incorporating mobile technology into its work in a two-pronged approach to monitor the reach of their broadcasts and to solicit reader feedback.

Jacob Korenblum of SoukTel, the company that designed both mobile services, explains that the service, which is based out of Nairobi, Kenya, and Juba, Sudan, wanted to make sure that their broadcasts were being heard by their target audience.

"The power of radio is that it can reach millions of people; the challenge of radio is that you don't know if people are listening," he said. "So I think that there was a big need for ways to get feedback from listeners across southern Sudan."

Survey

In order to monitor the reliability and clarity of the radio broadcasts, SoukTel designed a survey for field workers in ten different regions where the Sudan Radio Service is heard. Previously, the broadcasts were sent out of Nairobi over shortwave radio frequencies, but the new station in Juba uses an FM signal. The branching survey, available in both English and Arabic, leads the field workers through a series of questions to describe the sound quality of the programs and, if the sound quality is poor, potential reasons for the interrupted service. The information is sent back to the main radio centers where the data is used to track trends in service interruption and to make changes in problem areas. Written in PHP and SQL, the survey is available to field workers entirely through SMS so it works on basic phones.

Korenblum said the reason for this was to make sure the field workers could easily participate. "The whole point of our platform is that it's bottom-of-the-pyramid," he said. "So it's all SMS-based, you don't need to have a Java client or an Android handset...Frequently the field staff have only the most basic phones, and we never ask for our partners to go out and purchase different hardware -- you can use whatever handset you have."

The field workers are remunerated with air time at the beginning of the month to cover their expenses for completing the surveys. (The Sudan Radio Service is a project of the non-profit organization the Education Development Center and is funded by USAID). Since the project launched in early September, they have run the survey program ten times in each region.

Listener Feedback on Programs

The second part of the mobile technology project launched in December is meant to capture feedback from listeners about programming. Since the Sudan Radio Service has programs covering everything from news broadcasts to soap operas, getting feedback from listeners about the type of content they find useful is important.

Announcers of different programs promote the feedback line, and users text in their replies, some of which are read on air. Although the Sudan Radio Service broadcasts in 12 different languages, Korenblum said that most of the responses have been in Arabic, with a few in English.

So far, Korenblum estimates that the Sudan Radio Service has received roughly 400 SMS responses; below are a few examples of some of the responses (translated from Arabic with the names of submitters removed):

> "This is very reliable news. I hope your news gets all over the world. We listen to your radio station and it's very clear in Saleh valley."

> "I like to listen to SRS programs because of the variety in programs, and the accuracy in news. The Sok Almawasera series talks about real problems and give us real messages for our life. Also thanks for the Al-Asmo program, and thanks for all the services the radio is providing."

> "Very good news service. I hope you invite a speaker from the army or the camps and increase the broadcasts. Please also provide us with a program that's hosted by refugees."

> "I appreciate your dramas on the subject of al-Kojour in Darfur. They reflect the traditions and habits of Darfur in a very realistic way."

Listener responses help the radio station determine which programs are enjoyed and valued by their listeners; it can also help the station plan for future broadcasts that meet the needs of Sudanese residents and the Sudanese diaspora within range of the Sudan Radio Service's broadcasts. Combined with the frequent tests of the station's broadcasting capabilities, the Sudan Radio Service can provide reliable information that reaches the greatest audience.

"It's really about creating a dialogue between radio listeners and the content providers of the programming, and mobile is a fantastic way to do that," Korenblum said.

January 11 2011

17:45

How Mapping, SMS Platforms Saved Lives in Haiti Earthquake

This article was co-authored by Mayur Patel

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti last January, killing more than 230,000 people and leaving several million inhabitants of the small island nation homeless. Though natural disasters are common, the humanitarian response this time was different: New media and communications technologies were used in unprecedented ways to aid the recovery effort.

A report released today by Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, with support from Internews and funding from the Knight Foundation, takes a critical look at the role of communications in the crisis and recommends ways to improve the effectiveness of utilizing media in future disaster relief efforts. (The Knight Foundation is a major funder for MediaShift and its sister site MediaShift Idea Lab.)

In the weeks after the crisis, Haiti quickly became a real world laboratory for several new applications, such as interactive maps and SMS texting platforms. In the aftermath of the quake, these tools were used for the first time on a large scale to create dialogue between citizens and relief workers, to help guide search-and-rescue teams and find people in need of critical supplies. The report, Lessons from Haiti [PDF download] (co-authored by Anne Nelson and Ivan Sigal, with assistance from Dean Zambrano), recounts the stories of media participants, technologists, humanitarian organizations, Haitian journalists and response teams involved in the relief. Many of these players were first brought together to share their experiences at a roundtable convened by the Knight Foundation and Internews last May.

Notable Innovations

"The most notable innovations to emerge from Haiti were: the translation of crowdsourced data to actionable information; the use of SMS message broadcasting in a crisis; and crowdsourcing of open maps for humanitarian application," according to the report. A dizzying array of new media and information technology groups, Haitian diaspora networks and media development partners were involved in these initiatives (see the infographic below). Although these innovations had varying levels of impact in Haiti, they showcased the potential for use in future crises.

haitiResponse_final_03.jpg

One of the most notable developments was the application of Ushahidi, an online crisis mapping platform that was born only a few years earlier in Kenya. Ushahidi had already been used to map political violence, but it had not yet been used in the context of large-scale natural disasters. When the earthquake struck, an ad hoc coalition quickly took shape, anchored by a group of graduate students at Tufts University in Boston.

The Ushahidi teams, supported by translators from the Haitian diaspora community in the U.S., gathered information from news reports and individuals about the most acute needs on the ground: rescue, food and water, and security, among others. The coordinates were placed on a map and made available to rescue and relief teams.

Soon they were able to include SMS texts in their bank of information. A few days after the quake, Digicel, one of Haiti's leading telecom companies, agreed to offer a free short code (4636) for SMS texts in service of the relief efforts, with the help of InSTEDD, a technology focused humanitarian organization. The four-digit code enabled cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about missing persons and emergency needs. SMS messages and direct reports from Haitian citizens began to flow within four days of the quake.

OpenStreetMaps, an open community of volunteer mappers, joined the effort to create online maps of Haiti's improvised and unnamed neighborhoods. These maps became the standard reference points: Users included not just information technology platforms such as Ushahidi, but also large providers of humanitarian services, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Not Necessarily a Success Story

However, the CDAC Report cautions against calling the Haitian experience a "new media success story," as some of the approaches -- attempted for the first time -- faltered. The crisis threw together volunteer technology communities and professional humanitarian organizations, without a common language and operating procedures. A lack of coordination and understanding of how to use and integrate the new tools into existing disaster relief structures further complicated efforts on the ground.

In addition, new media efforts did not preclude the importance of traditional media. As in past crises in the developing world, radio continued to be the most effective tool for serving the information needs of the local population. With Haiti's newspapers and television broadcasters knocked out of production for the first few weeks after the quake, radio provided a heroic lifeline. One Haitian station, SignalFM, was able to broadcast continuously throughout the crisis, and worked closely with both international relief organizations and the digital innovators in support of the population. Popular radio host Cedre Paul reached his audience via Twitter as well as on the air.

"We have always known that one of the best ways to communicate with affected population in crises is through radio broadcasts," said Mark Frohardt, vice president of humanitarian programs for Internews, a media development organization. "We found in Haiti that innovative technologies not only had an impact on information delivery on their own, but also greatly enhanced the reach and effectiveness of radio."

Still Work to be Done

For all the welcome innovation, the report makes it clear that digital humanitarian action has a long ways to go. One of the big obstacles to the Haiti effort was the lack of pre-existing connections between the large government and international institutions and the new tech activists. Large institutions tend to mean weighty protocol, some of it based on long and bitter experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, has strict rules of confidentiality, which has allowed it to play a uniquely useful role in conflicted and tense situations, while the open source community's hallmarks are spontaneity and transparency.

Nonetheless, the connections among the various sectors advanced in Haiti, stimulated by a common desire to help, and there are many signs that new synapses are emerging. For example, CDAC has made some progress bridging the gaps between the humanitarian and media communities. The report calls for more of this kind of cross-sector collaboration to improve future recovery efforts. Specifically, it recommends that media, new technology developers and humanitarian agencies (both UN and international NGOs) engage in joint preparation and simulation exercises for future emergency responses.

We should not forget that Haiti's crisis is far from over. Many donors have yet to fulfill their commitments for reconstruction funds, and much of the rubble remains. New digital initiatives are still appearing; one promising new effort from MIT is an online labor exchange for Haitians called Konbit.

Disasters will continue to occur. But their damage can be mitigated by relief efforts that are well-planned and executed in concert with the local population. Digital media technologies offer a unique opportunity to advance these goals with the right on-the-ground coordination. As the report notes: Haiti demonstrated "the culmination of a vision and the beginning of the hard work of implementation."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

16:23

Radio Azadi in Afghanistan Delivers News to Mobile Phones

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is three months into an interactive SMS service with its Radio Azadi service in Afghanistan that allows listeners to access content and participate in the program via mobile phone.RFERLRadio.jpg

Through the interactive SMS service, Radio Azadi is now able to send and receive SMS messages from subscribers. As a news organization, the main goal of RFE/RL is reaching an audience, according to Julian Knapp, RFE/RL's deputy communications director.

"We want to make sure our content is available on whatever platform Afghans want to consume it on," Knapp said. The service allows listeners to become texters, and people around the country have sent in messages to the radio station. Roughly 200 messages are now flowing in per day.

RFE/RL is a private, non-profit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress. RFE/RL currently reaches 21 countries, and Radio Azadi, the Afghan station, has been broadcasting for 10 years and is the most popular media outlet in the country. It has a weekly audience of 7.9 million and a market share of about 50 percent.

How it works

Outgoing messages -- those sent by Radio Azadi -- include breaking news headlines and emergency alerts. The headlines are sent about twice daily and there are currently 50,000 subscribers since the launch in late October.

RFE/RL partnered with mobile provider Etisalat for the interactive SMS service; it's free for users. Knapp said it was important to go with a major regional player with a large subscriber base. However, only Etisalat customers can join the service for now. To sign up to the bilingual SMS headline service (there is one code for Dari and one for Pashto), people send an SMS message to a shortcode.

Another facet of the service supports citizen journalism in Afghanistan by allowing subscribers to text in reports and opinions. Radio Azadi receives 150 to 200 messages a day from Afghans with messages ranging from music requests, comments on programming, and information about local stories and issues. Subscribers can also send in MMS and photos. Knapp said the majority of incoming texts are substantial news messages and a selection of these messages are read over the air. In some cases, RFE/RL reporters follow up to verify details, or are tipped off about a story which they then investigate themselves.

Radio Azadi provides the headline text to Etisalat via a web interface, and the provider, in turn, sends the SMS message to subscribers via a bulk distribution. For incoming messages, Etisalat helps advertise the short code via bulk ads to the base, and messages and pictures sent in are then forwarded to the radio station.

Using New Tech to Reach New Audiences

Though the service is in the early days, Knapp said it has proved important for rural areas of Afghanistan. The majority of incoming SMS messages come from small villages or rural areas where people don't have as much access to officials or media.

"People's habits are developing as we speak," Knapp said. "Which seems to suggest that people there feel more disconnected and like the idea of having a new outlet for their concerns and observations."

As elsewhere, mobile penetration is on the rise in Afghanistan, where up to 60 percent of Afghans have access to a mobile phone, Knapp said. In addition, the mobile environment is modern.

"Infrastructure was so destroyed," Knapp said, "that Afghanistan started pretty much from scratch. Development skipped the infrastructure-heavy broadband and telephone lines and went straight to mobile."

Which is why mobile infrastructure -- where it's available -- is modern and advanced.

Radio in Afghanistan is still the main means to reach a wide audience especially outside of urban centers. "SMS is a complement for us because we are aware of how crucial radio is," Knapp said.

This month, Radio Azadi moves into mobile audio with the launch of an IVR (interactive voice response) component. People will be able to call a number and choose a language and category (sports, entertainment, news, and so on). The audio recordings will be updated several times a day.

The above image shows free solar-powered radios being distributed by RFE/RL in Afghanistan, to promote access to information where people lack access to electricity. Mobile phones can be charged via the radios. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL.

November 09 2010

15:00

Overcoming the Challenges of Using Ushahidi in Low Bandwidth Areas

With the increased adoption of Ushahidi around the world, we are finding that one problem (which we anticipated in the very beginning of the initiative) is that of low bandwidth regions. In the early days of testing the platform in Kenya, we found that the map would take ages to load, and so the development team worked very hard to change this. This was of course before the installation of fiber optic links in Kenya, which make connection speeds much better after September 2009.

Our current solution for integrating SMS in areas with low bandwidth (but good wireless service coverage) is to have a FrontlineSMS hub with a compatible mobile phone attached to a computer via USB or even Bluetooth for those who prefer it.

Ushahidi plus FrontlineSMS

That has worked reasonably well, but we are always looking for ways to improve access to maps containing crowdsourced information, particularly in areas with low Internet penetration rates. Recent statistics indicate that mobile networks are now available to 90 percent of the world's population overall, and to 80 percent of the people living in rural areas. This means it's even more important for Ushahidi to be able to collect and then visualize information from mobile phones. It's worth remembering that for many people with mobile phones, their first social network is their address book.

What follows below are several updates on developments to improve the ability for people to use Ushahidi in low bandwidth areas. We welcome everyone in our greater community to try these applications out and provide us with feedback. Let's see if we can continue this process of "real-time sense making," even in rural areas. At the very least, we would like to have the tools well tested and used in various locales.

Luanda

We have an upcoming version of Ushahidi dubbed "Luanda" that will be released soon, it will have many improvements that will be of interest to deployers around the world.

There are two options for using Ushahidi in low bandwidth regions:

1. Configuring the mobile version of the site you build and put Ushahidi on. You will need the 2.0 build of the platform (caveat that it's a test build). Then add and activate the mobile plug-in from our plug-ins database.

2. The offline mapping tab available as an OS X test build - Dale Zak and Emmanuel Kala are still working on this, but we'd like to invite users to test things out. Caveat is it's a test build and for Mac OS X for now.

Please submit issues/suggestions on the Github tracking issue tracking log, as this will help us greatly.

Frontline Mapping

The upcoming Frontline Mapping plug-in allows new ways for Ushahidi incident reports to be gathered in the field:

  • SMS-to-Report -- Any incoming text message can be converted into an incident report and synced once Internet access becomes available. For example, a text message that reads "Riots in the streets, several people injured" would be received by Frontline. A person managing the application double-clicks that message and the new incident report dialog is pre-populated with that information, along with the sender's contact info if available.
  • FrontlineForms-to-Report -- The Mapping plug-in can generate a FrontlineForm with all the required Ushahidi fields, and send that Form to any contact with a Java-enabled phone. The incoming FrontlineForm response is automatically covered to an incident report, and can be synced once the Internet becomes available.
  • FrontlineSurveys-to-Report -- The Mapping plug-in can also populate the new FrontlineSurveys plug-in with Ushahidi-specific questions (such as, "What is the incident description?") You can send a survey to any contact via SMS, which initializes a series of questions, the next question sent once the previous answer is received.

Here are four demo videos showing the Mapping Plug-in in action:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-One.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Two.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Three.swf

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9326/FrontlineSMS-Mapping-Four.swf

Note that the FrontlineForms and FrontlineSurveys options require less work for administrators because the data received is structured; however it may require multiple SMS messages to gather all the information. In times of crisis, the user may only be able to send one text message. However, community health care workers may choose to use the FrontlineForms or FrontlineSurveys options to submit structured patient information.

Do subscribe to our blog feed or follow us on Twitter to get the latest about upcoming announcements about the continuing evolution of the platform.

October 26 2010

16:33

Innovative SMS-Driven News Project Takes Root in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a documentary media company and an independent news agency have teamed up to integrate mobile phones and SMS into news reports. From election-day text messages to stories of homemade airplanes, they're demonstrating how a willingness to adapt mobile platforms to the landscape can contribute to a successful intersection of technology and media.

Small World News is a documentary and new media company that provides tools to journalists and citizens around the world to tell stories about their lives. Pajhwok Afghan News is an independent news agency headquartered in Kabul with eight regional bureaus and a nationwide network of reporters delivering stories in Dari, Pashto, and English. Together, the two launched Alive in Afghanistan, a website originally meant to showcase reports from the 2009 election in Afghanistan.

aliveinafghan grab.jpg

Alive in Afghanistan

Danish Karokhel, director of Pajhwok Afghan News, said social and multimedia platforms are new for many in Afghanistan. So he hired Small World News to help train Pajhwok staff on how to use these tools and equipment in the context of the 2009 elections. 



Unlike other initiatives that bridge mobile technology and journalism, the project did not promote or encourage citizen journalism per se, said Brian Conley, founder of Small World News. Instead, it grew from a rudimentary, informal election observation tool to a broader platform for media dialogue and journalism support for trained reporters.

Alive in Afghanistan launched in 2009 when Small News Network set up an SMS reporting system for Pajhwok reporters during the Afghan presidential election that year.

At launch, Alive in Afghanistan received attention for how it posted citizen reports from "ordinary Afghanis" alongside verified reports from Pajhwok reporters. More than 100 reports came in on election day from Twitter, SMS, and directly from Pajhwok reporters. These were mapped using Ushahidi, a platform for map- and time-based visualizations of text reports.



Conley said the site turned out to be one of the only sources of real-time news on election day. But though individuals could submit messages via mobile phone, many could not access the website because reliable Internet access is not widespread in Afghanistan.

"Although, as the founders of the site readily admit, only a minority of Afghanis know how to use the site and have access to it, it's still a great resource for real-time election news from Afghanistan," reported a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times.



Alive in Afghanistan was intended to be used to report on a looming presidential run-off election. When the run-off was called off in November, the site and functionality could easily have been abandoned by either Small World News or Pajhwok.



Instead, it was retooled and it "turned into more of a journalism-strengthening project for supporting a free and fair media in Afghanistan," Conley said. 



Karokhel, who is also a 2008 recipient of an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Pajhwok received user feedback following the launch that suggested news about daily life and daily activities would be an interesting addition.



So they did just that. SMS reports on the site are now sorted into multiple categories, including security, election, governance, construction, sport, health, and innovation. The reports also appear on special "SMS Updates" section on the Pajhwok website. 



On October 19, for example, 15 SMS reports were posted on the Pajhwok site. They ranged from commentary about last month's parliamentary election to sexual performance drugs to a teenager who constructed the country's first homemade plane.

pajhwok grab.jpg

SMS Reports Alert Both Readers and the Media

While many mobile-based journalism projects capitalize on geo-coding technology and hyper-local conversations, Karokhel sees larger, international potential for this initiative. Pajhwok posts SMS reports on stories that are interesting to international readers. This comes, in part, from understanding that the audience of the site goes far beyond Afghanis, many of whom don't have Internet access.

Another important function of the adapted platform is that the SMS reports foster a dialogue for other media outlets and help Pajhwok set the agenda and alert other journalists of breaking news from provinces across the country.



Pajhwok SMS reports are read by 93 radio stations, 25 TV news channels, and 14 daily newspapers. Reports are often picked up by many media outlets, Karokhel said.



In the near future, Karokhel plans to rev up the citizen journalism component of the project to provide SMS reports, in multiple languages, to mobile phones.



Overall, the project is a step forward for both Pajhwok and the media landscape. By taking advantage of training and equipment from Small World News -- and running with it -- "they will be very cutting edge for a news agency anywhere, and not just in Afghanistan."  Conley said.

October 21 2010

19:43

Creating an emergency notification system in 15 hours

I’ve written a post on the Scraperwiki blog about a hackathon I attended where a small group of developers and people with experience of crowdsourcing in emergencies created a fantastic tool to inform populations in an emergency.

The primary application is non-journalistic, but the subject matter has obvious journalistic potential for any event that requires exchanges of information. Here are just some that spring to mind:

  • A protest where protestors and local residents can find out where it is at that moment and what streets are closed.
  • A football match with potential for violence (i.e. local derby) where supporters can be alerted of any trouble and what routes to use to avoid it.
  • A music festival where you could text the name of the bands you want to see and receive alerts of scheduled appearances and any delays
  • A conference where you could receive all the above – as well as text updates on presentations that you’re missing (taken from hashtagged tweets, even)

There are obvious commercial applications for some of the above too – you might have to register your mobile ahead of the event and pay a fee to ensure you receive the texts.

Not bad for 15 hours’ work.

You can read the blog post in full here.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl