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March 25 2010

17:55

News Service Uses Mobile Voice Messages to Inform Rural India

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

What Does Gaon Ki Awaaz Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Does It Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 25 2010

16:04

How Mobile Voices Enables Day Laborers to Tell Their Stories

LaJornada.pngThis is the second of two articles about Mobile Voices, a project based in Southern California. The first post can be found here.

Voces Móviles / Mobile Voices, a Los Angeles-based citizen media project, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (ASC) and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). Mobile Voices describes itself as "a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones. [The project] helps people with limited computer access gain greater participation in the digital public sphere."

I previously wrote about how Mobile Voices developed the software for its citizen-media platform. Recently, I spoke to Amanda Garces of the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), and Madelou, a blogger with Mobile Voices, to find out more about how laborers are actually using the platform. (Madelou asked that we not use her full name.) I wanted to find out what is working for the project, and some of the challenges it faces in bringing marginalized voices to the public.

Telling Stories

Mobile Voices is motivated by the desire to enable day laborers to tell their stories from their own perspective. It was born to provide day laborers and migrant workers a chance to write their own histories, as Garces put it, at the same time many other people and groups are trying to write it for them. They work to counteract the negative images of day laborers and immigrants created by anti-immigrant propaganda. Anti-immigrant voices have long used blogs and websites to further their agenda. Sites such as DayLaborers.org features pictures of day laborers showing the camera the middle finger, and also lists day laborers with criminal histories as being "Most Wanted." The day laborers, on the other hand, hardly have a presence on the Internet. There is a stark digital divide. Mobile Voices aims to close this divide. After surveys revealed most day laborers used cell phones, Mobile Voices began brainstorming a platform to use mobile phones to tell the stories of day laborers. Five active day laborers in the IDEPSCA community were selected as pilot users, and Mobile Voices began building the platform. As of now, three more bloggers have signed up via word of mouth.

The Audience

Garces said their audience is multi-layered. One group is the public and media, who do not have a good perspective on the lives of day laborers. "They need to see these stories," Garces said, "and Mobile Voices is a platform that will generate these stories."

Another audience is the day laborer and immigrant community itself. Finally, some of the bloggers lso want to educate city officials and employers about the life of a day laborer.

However, much of the work that is aimed towards addressing broader audiences is still in the brainstorming phase. It is very unclear what the immediate audience is like becasue the project doesn't track a lot of its traffic. Sasha Constanza-Chock, who works on the platform, said the site needs to be redesigned in order to be more welcoming to visitors. They plan to add social media tools that will enable easy dissemination of content, and are working on getting more day laborers to start blogging.

What Has Worked?

When I asked Garces what has worked well with Mobile Voices, she immediately mentioned the dedication of the bloggers. She said their commitment to the project, and the dedication and hard work they've committed to create content has been impressive. As if to prove the point, Madelou told me there were many days when she spent more than eight hours covering events, which included the time required to create, edit, and submit content to Mobile Voices. Recently, for example, she visited Phoenix to cover a march against the notorious, local anti-immigrant sheriff there, Joe Arapaio. She generated eight posts, reporting with text, audio, video, and photos. Other bloggers seem similarly committed. Adolfo has written more than two blog posts a day on average since at least August 2009.

Talking to Madelou, it was clear the project has had a positive impact on the bloggers. Besides covering events, Madelou reports about others in the day laborer and immigrant community. To her, the most important thing is the need to write people's stories as they tell it. She complains that American mass media doesn't do a good job of presenting laborers' stories from their perspective. She wants others to listen to the voices of those whose stories she is telling. To her, Mobile Voices provides a platform through which she can broadcast the voices of the silenced; it's a way to break th dominance of mass media.

For Madelou, Mobile Voices filled a major gap. She was so hungry to broadcast and project voices of the immigrant community that she spent time blogging without even knowing who read or saw what she wrote. When I asked her who reads what she writes, she said she didn't know, but that she hoped whoever came across it would find a new perspective. Other bloggers were similar.  They were all glad to find a platform to express themselves; not one of them talked about the audience.

Even though Constanza-Chock said Mobile Voices hasn't started measuring site traffic, the response to the project has been positive. Many of the laborers were also involved in producing an IDEPSCA newspaper before they started blogging for Mobile Voices. In their latest installment, they adapted some of their blog posts for print (The PDF is here).

Challenges

So far, many of the challenges have been technical. This is partly because Mobile Voices is still in its pilot phases. More challenges may come as Mobile Voices expands the number of day laborers blogging on the site, or when the audience begins to grow. To expand the base of day laborers using Mobile Voices, IDEPSCA is designing training material. It will cover three broad sections: A section on how to use phones better and how to make sense of phone plans; a section on using cell phones to document abuses such as unpaid wages; and a section on using the Mobile Voices platform for blogging.

A challenge that Garces foresees in giving out this training is the revolving-door nature of the resource centers. Laborers are bound by work schedules and therefore make irregular visits to the center, which may make it hard for IDEPSCA to run sustained training programmes. Training is already a challenge. Garces noted that it's an ongoing process to show bloggers how to use Mobile Voices. Some are sophisticated enough to edit audio before posting, while others are still just taking one picture and uploading it. (The longest-serving bloggers have been on the system for almost a year and a half). The time Madelou spends on some of her blogging shows that rich media uploads can require a large time commitment.

Another thing Garces worries about are new phones and plans that won't work well with the system, especially when it comes to posting MMS messages. In this pilot phase, all but two of the bloggers are using the same phone, which were donated by Nokia for the project. (When using these phones, their MMS messages are paid for by the project.) They already had problems configuring phones, so Garces worries new ones will only cause more problems.

Finally, there is the challenge of increasing the audience of Mobile Voices. Garces told me that they are still brainstorming answers to questions David Sasaki asked in his blog post:

If one of the objectives of the blogging component of the project is to challenge the negative stereotypes against migrant workers then how do they plan on reaching readers [who are now informed by anti-immigrant sites]?

Summary

For now, Mobile Voices has created a project where a few dedicated bloggers from the day laborer community have produced an incredible amount of content about their lives. Since November 2008, there have been more than 3,000 posts on the platform. Many questions and hurdles remain before the project can reach its general goal of bringing day laborers' voices to the American public. Still, Mobile Voices has enabled parts of the day laborer and immigrant communities to write their own histories.

This series is cross-posted on MobileActive.org

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