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May 14 2010


A Challenge to Create Mobile Solutions In South Africa

Vodacom Challenge LogoVodacom is hosting three challenges to support people who are using mobile technology to solve problems dealing with education, health, or community information that are deployable in South Africa. Their hope is to find projects that can demonstrate value for users, ease of use and deployment, scalablability, sustainability, and innovation. The winning teams will receive R20,000 ($2,646) and the winner with the most promise will receive an additional R20,000.

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May 05 2010


Ushahidi-Based Voice of Kibera Aims to Map Kenyan Slum

Melissa Tully is a PhD student at UW-Madison who is researching the use of social/new media in social justice work in Kenya. She has been volunteering with Ushahidi for the past two and a half years. In this post, she highlights a workshop that she organized in Kibera.

On April 23 I, along with the Map Kibera team, organized a focus group on the Voice of Kibera (VoK) platform, which is designed to be a place for residents of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, to post reports and information relevant to them and their community. VoK is a recent initiative of Map Kibera, which itself is a project to produce the first public digital map of this community.

map kibera.jpg

The main goal of the focus group was to get feedback from people who live in Kibera and work with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). We had a great group of participants who openly shared their ideas about the usefulness of the Ushahidi-based platform, especially in regards to the SMS reporting mechanism. They also offered suggestions for how to publicize the site in Kibera.

Participants were excited about using the site to post reports about their community work and suggested that it could be used to post jobs and other opportunities. VoK has a mobile short code (3002) that was provided by their partners at the Social Development Network (SODNET), and the site uses a customized Ushahidi platform featuring videos, photos, a Twitter stream and a separate SMS Reports box. SMS can be used to send information about Kibera-based organizations, opinions on local businesses and services, problems encountered in the community, and things that are happening in the community (both good and bad).

Group Suggestions

After introducing Map Kibera and the Voice of Kibera site, we broke into small groups to test the site, enter new reports, and discuss SMS reporting.

When we reconvened in the large group, we heard great suggestions from each group. Their ideas included asking cyber cafe operators to put VoK as the homepage on the computers as a way of publicizing the site and making it more readily available to Kiberans; doing a better job of harnessing the personal networks of each participant; building relationships with local media, including Kibera Journal and Pamoja FM; and starting an editorial board to make key decisions regarding how the site will run. As a result, the first editorial board meeting will be held this Friday.

If the enthusiasm from the workshop carries over to the next meeting, VoK will be off to a great start.

More information about the workshop, as well as updates on VoK, can be found on the Map Kibera Wiki.

This post originally appeared on the Ushahidi blog.

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April 16 2010


March 10 2010


Video journalism in Africa – guest post

Ruud Elmendorp, a video journalist in Africa, writes about his experiences in the job

“Monsieur le journaliste? Votre interview avec le ministre est a deux heure.”

Mister journalist? Your interview with the minister is at two. Thank you, I say to the lady on the phone. Finally I managed to arrange an interview with a minister in Rwanda.

Some hours later I set up my tripod and camera, and start asking my questions. There I am with a small digital camera – and myself only. The minister is told that I am a correspondent for Dutch national television – normally the type of media you would expect to come with a camera man, reporter and a boom operator for the sound. The very kind and distinguished minister doesn’t give a wink about my solitary presence, and comments profoundly on the issues I raise.

Just because he’s used to it.

Before 2000 I was the typical television reporter coming with a crew. When the small digital cameras entered the market I took the challenge to do it on my own. As early video journalists we for some reason were forced into an innovative and creative approach. We had to do something different to the traditional crews, and so we did.

That was before I moved to Africa.

Here I saw that almost every television person is a video journalist. Most local television channels cannot afford full crews, and they depend on one-man-bands. No need to come up with other approaches or styles of storytelling. The video journalists bring news just as the traditional crews do.

The camera which is still mostly in use is the good old Sony PD150 or 170. However over the last years there has been a slight shift towards lower end HDV cameras, although they will be switched to DV or DVCAM and 4:3 aspect.

Here we’re talking about major national channels, because there is also a group of other video journalists carrying older and smaller cameras. These VJ’s are freelancers for the local channels or stringers for BBC or CNN. They really know their stuff, make reasonable shots, and know which questions to ask.

Being a VJ is about logistics.

In many African countries you have to a be a video journalist to move around. In remote areas it’s difficult to travel with a full crew, or you have to rent an expensive 4×4. A VJ can hop in local transport, or even board humanitarian or military flights taking the last and only, lucky-for-you, seat.

There are so many times it happened to me like that, and on arrival you’d discover that none of the traditional crews had made it there. That’s of course best, and it happens often.

It’s the same with borders. A video journalist can easily cross since the camera will be stowed away in your backpack, and no customs officer will bother. No need to fill out temporary import forms, or to pay deposits. They just consider you a tourist.

Being a VJ is about press freedom.

In several countries in Africa the press is free, as long as it doesn’t criticize the government or other big entities too openly.

It means that when things get dirty, it will become difficult for journalists to get there.

The fun part about it is that you will not openly be denied access. They let you go through friendly but lenghty accrediation procedures. If you get accredited at last, the event you were looking for will be long gone. Most journalists by then will have moved to other things to report on, and that’s what they’re aiming at.

Still, in the end your accreditation will only be a piece of paper, or a stamp. On the way you will find roadblocks manned by police officers who of course never heard of it, and can only let you pass after paying a hefty bribe.

The video journalist would be long back from shooting that same event, by being one of the passengers on local transport.

Being a VJ in Africa is about being able to report on matters you think are important.


January 15 2010


Free Kiswahili synthetic voice for Freedom Fone a possibility

Freedom Fone's ability to fulfill it's promise as a must have tool for bridging the digital divide has yet to be determined. Millions of poor people have access to mobile phones, but with tariffs as high as they are in countries like Zimbabwe, experimentation in this field is still costly. And of course, for our project these are early days. The development team is still in the process of creating the variety of features that will distinguish Freedom Fone from the technically intimidating (to ordinary folk) IVR products like FreePBX, Trixbox and PBX in a Flash.

One of the recalibrations for me has been a growing appreciation of the relevance of text-to-speech synthetic voices for our platform. This isn't news to our Project Architect, Alberto Escudero Pascual. He's been convinced of its relevance from the start. In fact, in order to build an interactive online demo for Freedom Fone he integrated a commercial synthetic voice from Cepstral called Allison as a quick option for building and testing a voice menu.

As you can imagine, English speaking Allison, as good as she sounds given she's synthetic, is not an ideal voice for enunciating other languages.

As a project located in Africa we are keen to develop/acquire free synthetic voices for some of the continent's many languages and include them with the Freedom Fone software. As an open source project I hope that we can attract the contribution of free synthetic voices for many of the world's languages over time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with Etienne Barnard at Meraka Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. To my delight he indicated that work already done in Kenya on text-to-speech for Kiswahili by a team led by Dr Mucemi Gakuru at the University of Nairobi some years ago, might be updated and made available in time for our July release of Freedom Fone version 2.

In recognition of the competitive mobile phone tariffs prevailing in east Africa and the willingness of organisations there to experiment with information on demand voice services, we will create our first localisation of the Freedom Fone GUI for Kiswahili in February 2010. The possibility of including a free synthetic voice for this audience is exciting.

So why this interest in synthetic voice? Doesn't this just mean a horrible robotic sounding Kiswahili voice? Obviously original audio files with perfect inflection are the first choice, but not all information requires the effort associated with recording audio files. Freedom Fone helps with the automatic conversion of audio files for voice menus, and it will be improved over time to make it as easy as possible to create audio files using a basic microphone attached to a computer. Still, it would be a lot quicker to automatically convey information received/produced in text format, like product prices, weather reports, breaking news using text-to-speech.

And ... not all synthetic voice sounds dreadful. Build and test your own voice menu in English using Allison and our online demo. Make it the default audio menu and call in to listen for free using Skype. To do this you will need to add Skypiax4 as a Skype contact. Let us know what you think of the experience!

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November 13 2009


Reporting with Mobile Phones: The Experience of Voices of Africa

Picture 3.png

(This story was written by Anne-Ryan Heatwole of MobileActive.org.)

Mobile phones are the tool of choice for a new group of young reporters in Africa. Voices of Africa Media Foundation, a Netherlands-based non-profit, trains young journalists in Africa to create news videos for the web using mobiles.

The foundation currently has programs in Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa, with plans to expand to more countries in 2010. The training program for the young journalists lasts nine months and teaches the trainees how to create video news reports with cell phones. At the beginning of the program, the small group (there are usually six or fewer participants per program) comes together and is trained for three to four days in the basics of mobile reporting (both how to use the technology and in basic journalism).  Then they return to their communities, and for a period of six months, use the phones to make video reports on local stories.

The reporters send in the videos (usually two per week) to the Voices of Africa website (part of Africa News) where they receive feedback on the reports from a Netherlands-based teacher; at the end of the six-months period, the students enter a three-month phase in which they are encouraged to continue in journalism by going after new assignments. After the nine-month process, the students have received a free education on how to tell stories digitally - and are encouraged to continue publishing pieces on the Voices of Africa website as a way to promote themselves.

Cell phones were chosen as the primary reporting tool for several reasons: they are much more portable than full camera equipment, they are less intimidating to potential subjects, and they can easily transmit information. Annelies van Velden, a program manager for Voices of Africa says,

"The use of the mobile phone is a very useful tool for reporting. What we have noted is that people don't feel intimidated when being interviewed by a mobile phone; as opposed to having a complete camera crew that walks into a village. [...] When people are interviewed by someone just carrying a mobile phone it's less intimitating, they're used to phones - everyone is walking around with a phone. Especially when they're interviewed by a person from their own community, speaking their own language, they are able to tell their own stories, and they feel comfortable. So we have really realized that the mobile is a useful tool for bringing out local stories."

The reports captured by the journalists show a variety of subjects, such as the effects of illiteracy in Tanzania or a meeting among the women of the Kibera slum to discuss women's rights. Van Velden stressed that an important component of the program is that the students are free to cover whatever they like, as long as it relates to their community. This freedom allows students to report on everything from music to environmental concerns.  This approach also keeps the content on the site engaging and fresh.

Despite its freedoms, the program has faced challenges - especially in adapting technology to the constraints of working in areas where Internet access is often limited or non-existent. The students are given Nokia phones that have camera and editing functions - the model changes depending on the location, year, and level of funding available. Says van Velden,

"We are basically just using the Nokia phones with a camera and an editing function. So, it also depends on the season - we had the N79 that we were using, but we have already changed [to another Nokia] for the new program [...] Things develop fast, so we just change - if we see a cheaper phone that comes out that is also able to do the same work, then we change to that phone [...] For example, in Kenya, we have just started to use mobile broadband. We use the USB - you use the phone to plug it into a computer and you use the Internet and send your videos like that.  In other places like Nairobi, people are able to send the video directly from the phone using Internet on the phone. It just depends on what is happening in the market [...] At the moment, in Kenya, it's getting better and better - especially in the bigger towns. One year ago, people were not able to upload the reports in the rural areas; they always had to travel to Nairobi. But now, with the current Internet speed and using mobile broadband, people are able to stay in their own village and upload the reports."

Another challenge faced by the organization is the difficulty of sharing its news coverage with the very populations it covers; since the video reports are distributed online, it is necessary to have Internet access in order to view them - a rarity in many rural areas. For now, the main audience of Voices of Africa videos is concentrated in Europe and North America, and in major African cities.

Voices of Africa is investigating ways to give visibility to their reporters and to increase the distribution range of their videos by linking up with different organizations. Videos are hosted on the Africa News website in order to draw greater attention to them. Voices of Africa also has a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund so that environmental-themed videos are covered on the site. The foundation is looking for creative ways to bring the work back into the communities they cover. Says van Velden, "We have made some videos of local NGOs, and are now looking into giving the videos back to them so they can show the videos on their own laptops or their own TVs, because to watch the videos online is a big challenge in those countries."  

Because Voices of Africa provides its training program free of charge to its students, they are dependent on funding from outside sponsors. The current program in Kenya is sponsored by Hivos, a Dutch NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty and creating sustainable economic development in developing countries, while the WWF contributes money for its partnership as well. Van Velden spoke of the limitations of funding on the expansion plans for the organization saying,

"We have high ambitions, it's only that we are limited by funding. So at the moment, we are still taking it step by step, although eventually we'd like to be in so many countries, we first of all have to make sure that things are going right in one country before going to the next. [...] But yes, although we have big ambitions, we also still depend on funding opportunities and partnerships. It's difficult to predict the future, how fast it will go."

The program, which started in 2007 in two countries with only nine trainees, has grown to six countries with 22 participants, and projects to more than double that number of participants next year. Many of the alumni of the program maintain their status on the Voices of Africa page; van Velden specifically mentioned two alumni, Walter Nana Wilson and Wanjohi Peris Wairimu as being notable for their continued progress in journalism.

Voices of Africa alumni have a section of the website in which they can add updates and comments. In Nana Wilson's follow-up describing his experience with Voices of Africa he writes, "Life has never been same for me since I got to be part of this business called www.africanews.com and Voices of Africa. It has been an indelible experience and it will continue to be."

Wairimu echoes this sentiment writing, "I joined the Voices of Africa mobile reporting project in October 2008. Since then my life [has] never been the same again. In the project I have learnt how [to] approach people for interviews, how to make videos and also how to write reports. Through Voices of Africa also I was able to fly to the Netherlands - not for fun but to attend a Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany. In the forum I got a chance to interact with my colleagues from Ghana, Cameroon and other world wide reporters."

Mobile phones offer a lightweight, non-intrusive means of covering communities that are in need of having their stories told. Voices of Africa meets this need by training local citizen journalists to tell the stories of their neighbors and neighborhoods. Van Velden summed up the foundation's mission saying,

"Basically, what we feel is that we need to bring out more local stories - and the best people to bring out local stories is people who live in communities themselves. They can tell about their own issues, and they are able to bring stories from their own viewpoint. And that is basically what we want to do. This is why we use mobile phones."

<em>Screenshot of video, courtesy Voices of Africa.</em>

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