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October 14 2010

14:18

New Media as a Force for Mobilizing Political Change

Does the dramatic uptake of new media tools such as mobile applications, digital media, blogging, social networking and video activism mean that citizens, citizen groups and service organizations have the power to challenge the state and mobilize political change?

This is a question that I'll be pondering along with my fellow participants at the New Media: Alternative Politics Conference at the University of Cambridge. Below are some of my thoughts on the topic, as well as a specific look at the situation in Zimbabwe. After the conference is over, I'll share some of the opinions expressed by key researchers and practitioners in this area.

Digital Media Affecting Change

In a recent article, researchers Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein argue that in the Middle East "digital media is becoming a new war zone." Digital media has changed the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli military occupation by offering local populations new tools to "interface with, support, contest, and/or agitate against state policies."

Social media sites are being used, some more successfully than others, to rally interest for online political demonstration, election campaigning and to logistically organize on-the-ground activity. These platforms, such as Facebook, are enabling citizens, groups and politicians alike. Using these types of tools certainly seems to be a quick and simple method for supporters to demonstrate their political allegiance or to air their views. But are members and fans genuine and active supporters? Does the fact that they join a Facebook group imply that they can be relied upon to take action in a material way? Will they turn up to vote, boycott a product or participate in a rally?

One positive example came after a tragedy -- when Khaled Said was beaten to death by the Egyptian police. A Khaled Said Facebook group was launched in his memory, and that group, along with Twitter and YouTube, were central in bringing together Egyptian activists and organizing protests to demand justice for Said.

Websites and blogs have similar power. In just one example, Kubatana.net, with its archive of over 17,000 reports from the NGO sector, is documenting the history of Zimbabwe's political and economic decline over the past nine years. It serves not only as a digital record, but also as an aid to the community's collective memory and a factual reference point for international media. Likewise, the Kubatana blogs site, with over 34 different authors, allows ordinary voices to be heard on a wide array of subject matter. BBC, CNN, Sky and the New York Times have looked to this site for a range of opinions from Zimbabweans.

Mobile Applications

Mobile telephony applications have also been widely used for political mobilization. In early September 2010 in Maputo, Mozambique, food riots were mobilized through the viral spread of text messages. According to a report from Russell Southwood on Pambazuka News, this may have resulted in the government putting pressure on the three local network providers to temporarily ban the SMS function.

In Kenya, SMS was used to incite ethnic violence during the 2008 post-election violence. This period gave rise to Ushahidi, a Kenyan crowdsourcing and mapping initiative and News Challenge grantee, which was developed to monitor and map the election violence in Kenya. (Read more about the project here.)

FrontlineSMS, which is free software for sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages, has been used in many countries, including Pakistan and Zimbabwe, to deploy SMS's for election related logistics and results.

Mobiles phones -- through voice, SMS and interactive voice menus -- are increasingly
important tools for citizens to receive, validate, gather and offer information. Mobiles offer a large percentage of the population a new means through which to stay informed and share opinions. For instance, mobile pones can be used to rally and organize participation, monitor elections, poll opinion, track human rights abuses, assist with more transparent modes of governance and to report back on government's service delivery. They can also be used for numerous other positive social benefits in the health, agriculture, education and emergency response sectors; and they can be used in a meaningful way to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid.

But to what extent do these examples of new media activities translate into meaningful change? Certainly, they facilitate remote participation; but how often does this convert into direct participation and/or action on the ground? We can assess opinion, reflect outrage, inform and inspire recipients, crowdsource information and record events without ever
meeting any of the contributors or consumers. Is there a danger that we will mistakenly believe our armchair activists will meet us in the street or at the polls? And how do we effectively measure the impact of new media? This inability to quantify new media's impact could lead to false optimism/pessimism, incorrect presumptions and misaligned reactions.

Zimbabwe's Traditional Media Landscape

In Zimbabwe, in spite of the two-year-old inclusive government, the media continues to suffocate under draconian laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

Television and radio remain firmly in the hands of the old guard, offering biased and highly politicized coverage. Community radio remains an elusive dream, and the government has redoubled its efforts to jam the shortwave radio signals of external broadcasters.

The licensing of five newspapers in May 2010 has not yet materially changed the media landscape as only one of them, NewsDay,
is actually operating. Added to this is the fact that the majority of the country's population lives in rural areas, where they struggle to access newspapers due to cost barriers and limited distribution infrastructure.

So while there has been some token liberalization of the print media, overall Zimbabwe's traditional media landscape continues to be tightly restricted, repressed and controlled. In its stead, new media initiatives are rising like green shoots in the cracks of the concrete, providing citizens with an alternate voice and means to bypass the state's road blocks.

In Zimbabwe access to the Internet is largely limited to the elite. Due to poor infrastructure and high costs, only about 10 percent of the population have access to the Internet. This limits the number of people who can take advantage of the net's abundance of news, social networking, blogs and services such as email. Not surprisingly, the 10 percent of Zimbabweans who have access to the Internet are benefiting from improved communications, information consumption, organizing ability and productivity. But the lack of overall access means that web-based media have limited power to mobilize political change within Zimbabwe.

Mobile Growth in Zimbabwe

While Internet access is far behind, there is much improved GSM coverage and rapidly growing penetration rates of mobile phone users, which according to government data is up to 49 percent from 9 percent in 2008. This sudden growth coincided with the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in late 2008 and is in stark contrast to the years preceding when people had to source SIM cards on the black market. Increased competition has brought down the cost of phone lines, but has had little impact on the cost of local calls and SMS. The lack of cooperation between mobile network operators has also resulted in the duplication of mobile phone towers to services areas, resulting in slower progress in the roll out of infrastructure and greater costs for callers.

At US$0.25 a minute, Zimbabwe has one of the highest mobile call tariffs in the world. This partly reflects the government's lack of vision on how mobile communications can be embraced to benefit the nation. The sad result is that these costs and attitudes constrain the potential of mobile communications to increase productivity and improve lives.

The government has been clear about its unease with civic and political initiatives using interactive voice response phone services to share information with mobile phone users. Actions to date have largely been directed at the mobile network operators, whose licenses they threaten to revoke or not renew. However, out-dated legislation and the inevitable convergence or radio, telephony and web technologies make this a losing battle in the long run.

September 24 2010

10:24

NewsDay: Defunct Zimbabwe publisher fights NewsDay for its name

What’s in a newspaper’s name? Well, quite a lot if you follow the case currently being fought over the title of Zimbabwean newspaper NewsDay. Two publishers who used the name 15 years ago for their title are attempting to prise the name, or compensation, away from new owners Alpha Media Holdings.

Full story on NewsDay at this link…Similar Posts:



August 25 2010

16:29

New Media Tools Play Pivotal Role in Kenya's Constitution-Making

Kenya is moving towards greater democracy and more transparent governance thanks to the recent constitutional referendum that received 70 percent "yes" votes.

The new constitution, which is scheduled to be signed into law on Friday, replaces the one drafted during Kenya's colonial era. It includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to decentralize political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.

President Mwai Kibaki said, "The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end." In reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.

However, at least Kenya is moving in the right direction. Here in Zimbabwe, our constitutional reform process is lagging behind. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the role that media played in the Kenyan process.

Lessons from Kenya

Zimbabwe's constitutional reform process should be an opportunity for meaningful public participation. Unfortunately, the process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.

I could not help but compare coverage of the Kenyan referendum to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on what we can learn from Kenya. Although the countries' circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can't afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years, as it did in Kenya!

The first factor that looms large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog post on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organizations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa, Kenya Land Alliance, Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum made during the Kenyan constitution-making process.

The post, by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai, also discusses the likelihood that civil organizations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly "at a time when the capacity within the government is limited." This is further amplified because trade unions -- which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work -- are non-existent in Kenya.

The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times, both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so.

"Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity," it read. "This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature."

Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media are fully objective or free from political influence (which country's media is?), the Economist and the BBC have said that Kenya is more liberalized than most African countries. Various analysts have also stated that since independence the Kenyan media has been an important check on government power.

New Media Tools

New media tools were also used during the constitution-making process in Kenya. A customized version of Ushahidi, a Knight grantee, was developed for use in Kenya. Called Uchaguzi, which means decision in Kiswahili, the collaborative deployment was supported by the Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza. During the referendum, the shortcode 3018 received over 1,400 SMS messages from around the country that reported incidents of electoral irregularities, violence and peace activities.

Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information "on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence" from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMSes from the public to be sent to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents because the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.

It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone, our project, had been added to the mix to capture citizen reports in an audio format.

A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya's constitution-making process. We must not underestimate the value of these organizations and tools during our process in Zimbabwe as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.

16:29

New Media Tools Play Pivotal Role in Kenya's Constitution-Making

Kenya is moving towards greater democracy and more transparent governance thanks to the recent constitutional referendum that received 70 percent "yes" votes.

The new constitution, which is scheduled to be signed into law on Friday, replaces the one drafted during Kenya's colonial era. It includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to decentralize political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.

President Mwai Kibaki said, "The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end." In reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.

However, at least Kenya is moving in the right direction. Here in Zimbabwe, our constitutional reform process is lagging behind. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the role that media played in the Kenyan process.

Lessons from Kenya

Zimbabwe's constitutional reform process should be an opportunity for meaningful public participation. Unfortunately, the process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.

I could not help but compare coverage of the Kenyan referendum to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on what we can learn from Kenya. Although the countries' circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can't afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years, as it did in Kenya!

The first factor that looms large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog post on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organizations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa, Kenya Land Alliance, Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum made during the Kenyan constitution-making process.

The post, by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai, also discusses the likelihood that civil organizations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly "at a time when the capacity within the government is limited." This is further amplified because trade unions -- which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work -- are non-existent in Kenya.

The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times, both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so.

"Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity," it read. "This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature."

Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media are fully objective or free from political influence (which country's media is?), the Economist and the BBC have said that Kenya is more liberalized than most African countries. Various analysts have also stated that since independence the Kenyan media has been an important check on government power.

New Media Tools

New media tools were also used during the constitution-making process in Kenya. A customized version of Ushahidi, a Knight grantee, was developed for use in Kenya. Called Uchaguzi, which means decision in Kiswahili, the collaborative deployment was supported by the Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza. During the referendum, the shortcode 3018 received over 1,400 SMS messages from around the country that reported incidents of electoral irregularities, violence and peace activities.

Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information "on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence" from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMSes from the public to be sent to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents because the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.

It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone, our project, had been added to the mix to capture citizen reports in an audio format.

A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya's constitution-making process. We must not underestimate the value of these organizations and tools during our process in Zimbabwe as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.

August 04 2010

17:04

Freedom Fone Succeeds with Call-in Soap Opera; Plans Activism

Freedom Fone version 1.6 is now available for download. This version builds on existing core features and adds some useful new functionality, and we hope it will inspire new deployments. Freedom Fone provides a voice database where users can access news and public-interest information via landline, mobile or Internet phones. Users can call in and then dial specific numbers to find the information they need.

Deployments of 1.5

Since the public launch of version 1.5 six months ago, there have been over 230 downloads of the software from the website, hundreds of email enquiries and thousands of visits to the demo site from over 3,000 different locations worldwide.

The diverse spectrum of individuals and organizations who have downloaded the software cover a wide spectrum of potential usage scenarios: Reaching out to ethnic refugees; sending reminders to pregnant mothers; communicating with indigenous arts communities; providing information services for remote musicians; helping victims of xenophobic violence; interacting with parents and school children from disadvantaged communities; providing support to sexual health workers; preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS; and audio journalism from the field. "Let us know":":http://www.freedomfone.org/contact how you could foresee using Freedom Fone.

Tariro Cartoon3.png

Tariro on Top continues to be one of the Kubatana Trust's most successful deployments of Freedom Fone to date. The call-in audio soap opera deals with sexual harassment in the workplace in an entertaining yet informative manner.

In just over a month there have been 1,752 calls from 1,102 unique numbers, with an average of 46 calls per day. Seventy percent of these calls were made from mobile phones and the remainder from landlines. Tariro on Top, the first program in an edutainment series, is comprised of five two-minute episodes. The average call length into the service has been over two minutes, with most callers listening to at least the first full episode. This is a significant achievement for a cost-to-caller service of this kind in Zimbabwe, where mobile calls cost U.S. $0.25 a minute and where unemployment hovers around 94 percent.

In terms of marketing, the SMS campaigns advertising the service created dramatic spikes in call volumes. Interestingly, the distribution of free, postage-paid postcards seemed to attract more determined callers who appeared to navigate through the voice menus more thoroughly. If you are in Zimbabwe, try out Tariro while it's still live by calling 0913 444 321 up to 8. For international callers dial +263-913-444321 up to 8. Alternatively, you can listen to the audio files online.

Development of 1.6

Here's a quick overview of some of the new functionality in Version 1.6 of Freedom Fone.

A language switcher now makes it easy to translate the user interface into English, Swahili or Spanish. In September, when we have our localization interface in place, we will invite volunteers to translate the GUI into additional languages.

It is now really simple to export audio files, including voice messages received through the leave-a-message component. Another valuable simplification addresses the need for callers to be able to leave a voice message by simply ending their call. The original functionality, which required callers to explicitly save their voice messages by pressing a designated number, is still available for organizations that wish to use it. System reporting has also been improved thanks to the inclusion of a report that details the duration of each call to the service.

This version is being ported to Ubuntu 10.04 and will be released as Version 1.6.5 LTS in September. This will be the stable long-term support version for the current feature set. Additional functionality will be incorporated into Version 2.0 due in October 2010. There's lots more to come, but you should definitely get going with Version 1.6 now!

Digital Activism

At the same time we're working to increase use of Freedom Fone, a recent interview with Gaurav Mishra, the CEO of 2020 Social, has caused us to consider the nature of digital activism. Speaking with the Guardian, Mishara said there are two main paradigms of digital activism: Empowering people with information and engaging with inspiration.

He listed Freedom Fone as a good example of a simple-to-use technology that empowers disadvantaged communities (mainly in Africa and Asia) by providing access to basic information and a voice to tell their stories firsthand. Mishra said that the second paradigm, engaging with inspiration, works with privileged online communities, based mainly in affluent North America and Europe. For these groups, it is not a lack of information access but rather a "crisis of caring" -- and the goal of this paradigm is to inspire action. In the end, he said, we are limited at looking at the world through either lens, and the world can benefit from a cross-pollination of these paradigms.

Mishra said that "researchers have found support for the 1:9:90 rule in many different contexts. The 1:9:90 rule says that 90% of all users are consumers, 9% of all users are curators and only 1% of the users are creators" of content.

We have encountered similar trends with Freedom Fone. For instance, for one of the current services, only 1 percent of the callers have taken advantage of the leave-a-message service to contribute feedback and participate in a two-way dialogue, despite the high call volumes into the service. This indicates one of the difficulties of shifting between paradigms and not only informing, but also inspiring action.

Freedom Fone could better engage with the inspiration paradigm by encouraging compelling content that promotes meaningful conversation, collaboration and participation. This may lead to increased co-creation and collective action of the open source software and user communities. Organizations like ours could benefit from improving collective intelligence by aggregating collective actions effectively and building stronger recommendation systems -- such as case studies and best usage scenarios -- just as Google does by ranking pages.

What do you think organizations like Freedom Fone could do to support both paradigms?

June 07 2010

17:09

Freedom Fone Adopted by Bulawayo's Pioneering Voices

I had visions of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe being a sleepy little hollow, and perhaps in some ways it is. But last week, after arriving at Radio Dialogue offices in Pioneer House in Bulawayo's central business district, I was very pleasantly surprised. We were in the City of Skies to run a practical two-day workshop with six local organizations on using Freedom Fone. Pioneer House seemed to me to be pioneering the way!

workshop_participants_100527.jpgRadio Dialogue is a community radio station that opened nine years ago and resides on the ninth floor of Pioneer House. Like all community radio stations in Zimbabwe, it has yet to gain a government license to broadcast. Despite this challenge, it manages to successfully give communities in and around Bulawayo a voice on local issues.

The Radio Dialogue office was bustling! The reception area felt like grand central station, with inspired communicators heading off in all directions. One young journalist stopped me outside the elevator to ask for an audio vox pop: "Now that winter is coming, what home remedies do you personally use to ward off flu?" After describing my potent garlic ginger juice concoction, my colleague and I continued on to one of the well-equipped computer labs to prepare for the Freedom Fone workshop the following day.

We were greeted by excited youths between 13 and 19 years old. They were working together in groups to write and read poetry about Mother Africa. This is one of the many regular activities organized by the Youth Press Bureau, headed by the youth coordinator, Rosie Chauke. She was one of the participants in our Freedom Fone workshop.

truth telling_exhibition_100527.jpgChauke later told me about an art exhibition and competition organized by Radio Dialogue, which we later visited at The Bulawayo Club. It was titled TRUTH telling: The TRUTH will set you free and is about the importance of speaking out against the violent atrocities in Zimbabwe, particularly around the Matabeleland massacres, locally known as Gukurahundi, which took place during the 1980s.

Bulawayo Agenda

In the same building as Radio Dialogue and the Youth Press Bureau, is Bulawayo Agenda. It provides a platform for community views through a free printed news bulletin called Weekly Agenda. Bulawayo Agenda recently organized a Transitional Justice Interface meeting to find resolutions to ensure national healing in Zimbabwe, such as including information on Gukurahundi in the education syllabus and identifying the causes of political violence.

Workshop participants from other pioneering organizations included Habakkuk, Zimbabwe Development Democracy Trust and KG6: King George VI School for the Disabled, where the Oscar winning documentary Music by Prudence was set.

freedomfone_workshop_100527.jpgOverall the workshop was not without its technical frustrations, but I left Bulawayo feeling inspired by the dynamism of the participants. Their thoughtfulness during the brainstorming sessions, their determination and resilience during the technical sessions, and their overall eagerness made me hopeful that Freedom Fone would be taken up as a valuable information tool to assist many of these organizations in reaching their noteworthy communication and community-oriented goals.

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May 04 2010

18:42

Freedom Fone Answers Questions on Zimbabwe Constitution

Two weeks ago the latest version of Freedom Fone, affectionately known to his handlers as "Fred," was set loose.

freedomfone.jpgInspired by the cockney rhyming slang "dog and bone" (meaning phone), the Freedom Fone dog logo and quirky character of Fred was born a few years ago. Fred is still young, but after a few years of software development (and dog training!), and thanks to Knight News Challenge funds, he's now ready to go out into the world on his own.

This is a report on his recent adventures since the launch of Freedom Fone version 1.5. To learn more about how it works, try our online demo. But in a nutshell, Freedom Fone is an information and communication tool, which marries the mobile phone with Interactive Voice Response (IVR), for the benefit of citizens. It provides information activists, service organizations and NGOs with widely usable telephony applications, so they can deliver vital information to communities who need it most. Freedom Fone makes it easy to build voice menus, run SMS polls, receive SMS messages and manage voice messages.

Testing Out Fred

Various individuals scattered across the globe have been downloading, installing and testing Fred's performance and his repertoire of tricks to see whether he's a useful addition to their existing communication strategies. For example, one NGO has been exploring the possibility of using Freedom Fone to support original music by indigenous musicians from the Northern Territory of Australia. Another is using it to communicate with multicultural communities involved in community arts. A British organization is considering using Fred to provide information and support for school kids and parents from disadvantaged communities.

Meanwhile, an individual in the States has been investigating whether Freedom Fone can be used for social networking with his friends. The prospect of using Freedom Fone as a "voicebook" platform to offer up some voxpop audio ear candy is a cool one!

We hope that all users of our free open source software have a good experience. If you give Fred a try, we ask that you please let us know how well he fetches the stick that you throw him!
lilian_manyuka_fri_2010.jpg

Although Fred has new admirers, he also remains loyal to his long-standing friends. In particular, he's formed a very close bond with the Farm Radio International (FRI) crew, who have been consistently good to him.

FRI has been using Freedom Fone for over a year at Radio Maria in Tanzania and for other projects in Ghana. In Tanzania they are running the Kuku Hotline, which provides rural farmers with information about chicken production. The above image of DJ Lilian Manyuka shows her interviewing a rural extension officer about his role in providing local farmers with information.

Fred Helps with Zimbabwe's Constitution

Another loyal companion of Fred is the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe. Not only did Kubatana have a hand in breeding and raising Fred, they've also been there to take Fred for lots of walks around the block. So far they are very happy with the way version 1.5 behaves, barks, wags and runs.

Eric MatinengaZimbabwe is currently drafting a new constitution, and Kubatana is using Freedom Fone to offer a constitutional question-and-answer service in English, Shona and Ndebele. To do this, it has been collaborating with Constitutional Affairs Minister Eric T. Matinenga (pictured above).

Kubatana's mobile lines have being receiving questions from the public about the constitution; Matinenga's responses will be recorded and the audio clips will be shared using Freedom Fone. In this use case, Fred is proving to be a powerful tool for citizens to question, debate and understand the constitution.

Kubatana also recently used Freedom Fone for lighter fare during the Harare International Festival of the Arts, held between April 27 and May 2, 2010. The Fred-powered hotline featured renowned HIFA master of ceremonies, Gavin Peters, giving the public the inside scoop on what was hot and happening during the festival's week-long activities.

Those are the updates for now, but stay tuned for more on Fred's new bag of tricks!

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January 14 2010

11:02

Molo and Kubatana's partnership helps put information in the hands of Zimbabweans

Kubatana, a Zimbabwean non-profit organisation committed to democratising access to information, was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant in May 2008 for its Freedom Fone software development project. The Freedom Fone project aspires to help civic organisations extend their information in an audio format to mobile phone users.

In Zimbabwe the mass media is monopolised by an entrenched and unpopular government. There are no licensed radio or television stations outside the direct control of the government. There are no community radio stations. There are no independent daily newspapers. Voice over Internet (VoIP) has not been legalised and wireless networking is tightly regulated. Working in this environment Kubatana realised the importance of leveraging the growing access to mobile telephony by people across income and interest groups. Frustrated by the limitations of SMS, Kubatana investigated the potential for manipulating call-in voice menus to convey frequently updated rather than static information. The primary objective was to add to the information outreach capacity of organisations in the non-profit sector by providing them with easy to install and use software to deliver their information, in languages of their choice, to phone users in the general public. Since interactive voice menu (IVR) systems incorporate voice mail or 'leave-a-message' functionality Kubatana also recognised the potential for developing rich two-way communications with communities and for facilitating citizen journalism.

With the Knight News Challenge award, we have been able to commission the redevelopment of our platform to incorporate lessons learnt to-date and the latest advancements in open source telephony development.

Since software development is an involved process, Kubatana was keen to work with an interim solution to facilitate experimentation with IVR in Zimbabwe whilst full-scale development progressed. We investigated commercial IVR providers in South Africa and were delighted to find a responsive company in Pretoria: Molo Innovation. Charl Barnard, a director in the company, was very interested in the innovative ideas we had for extending the use of IVR into the non-profit and development sectors. Importantly, he was prepared to assist us at heavily subsidised rates with quickly re-gigging an existing Asterisk-based product for our interim use.

The value of Molo's support cannot be measured in dollar terms - it goes well beyond that. Our expedited productivity gave birth to an innovation called 'Inzwa' which means 'to listen' in the vernacular. For the first time in many years in Zimbabwe, the general public were able to call-in, at their convenience, and access non-state controlled audio information via their phones.

Our Inzwa experience enabled us to quickly and constructively feed into the planning and development of the Freedom Fone platform as well as test the waters in Zimbabwe and start to assess local interest in phoning in for information. It gave us hands on experience and the ability to speak with greater conviction about the potential of Freedom Fone as a useful product; an appreciation of the skills and resources needed to run an information on demand audio service and allowed us to share a real-life deployment with others interested in doing something similar.

And Zimbabwe is just the start! A deployment partner, Farm Radio International, has been keen for some time to experiment with IVR as a support for and extension of their community radio programming for small-scale poultry farmers. They installed our interim version for training and pilot purposes in Tanzania and Ghana in November 2009.

Commercial support to non-profit initiatives can have far-reaching and rewarding results and we would encourage others to follow in Molo's socially responsible footsteps.
 

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