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June 27 2013


Nonprofits Learn How to Tell Untold Stories at Data Day 2013

Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, presenters told nonprofits and journalists at a conference on June 21. The event demonstrated how one can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

Data Day 2013, held at Northeastern University in Boston, showcased how successful data-based stories engage people on an emotional level. Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and The Boston Foundation co-hosted the conference.

read more


Nonprofits Learn How to Tell Untold Stories at Data Day 2013

Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, presenters told nonprofits and journalists at a conference on June 21. The event demonstrated how one can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

read more

July 30 2012


Netsquared Regional Event for Cameroon and Nigeria

The Netsquared Regional Conference for Cameroon and Nigeria is a multi stake holder event that will bring together actors from local Netsquared groups, Internet Society, civil society, diplomatic institutions, government and the tech world to articulate on issues related to the social web and nongovernmental diplomacy. Citizens from three neighboring countries including: Cameroon, Nigeria and Central African Republic, in a two day event will seek to resolve the following challenges:

- The difficulties faced in introducing the social web for social development in the sub region

read more

March 27 2012


How Media-Savvy Activists Report From the Front Lines in Syria

In Syria, many activists and citizen journalists fill a media void and contribute to the global conversation on the uprising there by capturing and sharing their own footage. They're organized, trained, smart, strategic, and promote media -- much of it mobile -- with a purpose.


Mass demonstrations and state violence continue in Syria. Authorities are largely banning foreign reporters and have arrested Syrian journalists and bloggers. Outside of the country, many news outlets that report on the major events there cite "Syrian activists" as the source of information. Day-to-day events in cities around the country come to our attention largely because of the activists and citizen journalists who are systematically providing information to news outlets worldwide.

Thus, perhaps the way the term "citizen journalism" has been used to date is a misnomer in the context of recent events in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. Activists on the ground and online don't just happen to capture and record media because they're in the right place at the right time. Instead, they systematically gather, and strategically disseminate media.

It may be time for a new term -- "activist media" who are reporting from the front lines -- that describes the organized media campaigns waged by these activists in a place where traditional media is largely absent.

a media revolution

A report from Channel 4 News noted that a "a band of brand-new, out-of-nowhere, self-styled TV news reporters has sprung up in besieged Syrian cities," contributing to a media revolution. The article highlighted the video below, in which a video journalist from the Baba al-Sebaa area of Homs reported, all the while dodging bullets toward the end of the video.

But videos like these are more than just valuable content. They're part of a cogent global narrative from a well-informed and well-equipped group of activists who use mobile phones to live-stream, video record, Skype, and take photos in very strategic ways to provide witness and testimony to the events in Syria. They inform a public outside of the country, as well as reinforce activism in many areas within Syria, conveying the story of an opposition movement.

Most of the reporting is, of course, coming from the front lines. But organizations both in and outside of the country are offering support and training, with mainstream media outlets publishing and pushing citizen content to a larger global audience to help reinforce the narrative of the rebellion.

The media-savvy activists use a number of astute dissemination strategies: Photos and videos are shared across multiple platforms alongside additional text context or transcripts, and often have metadata such as time, date, and location stamps. Content is being uploaded hourly, and often live, on any number of social media sites, blogs and live-streaming video services like Bambuser. And where Internet or mobile network access are shut down, footage is collected and distributed via alternatives such as the old-fashioned sneakernet.

You can read the complete story here on the Mobile Media Toolkit. We highlight ways that activists and citizens are strategically capturing, crafting and sharing news, as well as the organizations that help support their work.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Syria-Frames-of-Freedom and licensed under Creative Commons. 

January 06 2012


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.


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 08 2011


Twitter and Campaign

A new PEJ study of the Twitter campaign conversation using computer technology reveals how the White House hopefuls fared, examines differences between the political discussions on Twitter and blogs, and updates the tone of the candidates’ news narratives.

read more

February 12 2011


Hello My Name Is___Ben Berkowitz__

Hi I'm Ben,

I am from New Haven, CT and am one of the Co-Founders of SeeClickFix.com. SeeClickFix is a platform that allows a citizen to report anything that is broken or needs improvement in the public space to anyone else who can help fix it including but not limited to governments anywhere in the world. 

I am interested in meeting others active on the ground in community and civic projects. I am also interested in meeting anbody who has a local blog or news site as SeeClickFix has a free widget that is widely deployed around the world.  I'm also interested in meeting existing users or anyone who has felt helpless when they wanted to get a pothole fixed.

January 11 2011


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.

October 15 2010


The Marriage of Social Media and the Olympics Is Inevitable

I've just returned from England where I spoke at the Abandon Normal Devices (AND) event, an independently funded festival of new cinema and digital culture. It was held in the Cornerhouse, a 25-year-old arts and media space located in the heart of Manchester. My presentation was part of the #media2012 session dedicated to the growing importance of social media in covering the Olympics, and during the preparations for the Games. The event drew artists, designers, researchers and new media folks from many corners of the world, including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Scandinavia.

AND Manchester__.JPG

Social Media and the Olympics

A special session on social media and the Olympics was organized by Andy Miah, a professor in emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland. He's a very well known Olympics culture researcher, and he posed a challenging and thought-provoking question, "Will citizen media take over the 2012 event?"

Miah built a very interesting one-day long program that drew charismatic and knowledgeable speakers. The goal was to have discussions "focused on opportunities, strategy and vision to create a publicly owned new media legacy for the Games." Miah also presented a media blueprint for London 2012, which emphasized the significant role of the new media in covering the Games.


Fortunately, the modern Olympic movement doesn't view the Internet as a threat (as it had). The IOC has started taking steps towards embracing the Net, and that trend seems to be continuing. It's obvious that the future of the Olympics strongly depends on the openness towards, and readiness to accept, new technology. With social media reinventing activism, the Games have a chance to get more people engaged in order to create positive change. And even more important, new media enables organizers to build a public archive of the preparations for the Olympics and the Olympics themselves. The legacy of the Olympic Games is one of the most important issues that the IOC and host country address every time the Olympics is organized. New media are the best tools to preserve and spread the legacy.

Presentation and Discussion

While in Manchester I gave a presentation about SochiReporter and participated in the discussion that followed. I spoke after Kris Krug, one of the creators of the True North Media House, which was established during the Vancouver Games. (Read more about it here.) My presentation was followed by one from Josi Paz of Brazil. He told us how the former Brazilian president had cried when he learned that Rio won its bid, and described the current state of preparations for the Games.

I first met Professor Miah virtually when I Skyped into the W2 Community Media Arts Fresh Media Olympics event back in February 2010. The folks at W2 in Vancouver organized an exciting discussion about social media's growing role in the coverage of the Olympics. The Vancouver Games were truly a breakthrough when it came to the engagement of bloggers; the expectation is that new media will only become more involved in telling the story of the Olympics.

During the event in England, Ruth McKenzie, the director of the Cultural Olympiad for the London 2012 Organizing Committee, pointed out that during the Olympics the London 2012 website expects a peak of 6 million visitors a day. They plan to turn the site into a platform for presenting the culture and soul of Britain.

AND festival Manchester_.jpg

A Natural Fit

In reality, the popularity and the accessibility of digital media basically requires the organizers of big events such as the Olympic to do their jobs better. The ability for anyone to document anything on their mobile phone and produce high-quality footage is something that organizers have to keep in mind. Fifteen years ago the big media played the role of a watchdog; today everyone is a watchdog.

Here's the simple truth: the Olympics are global and the web is global. What could be more logical than to marry the two? You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

September 23 2010


'Sourcing Through Texting' Brings Public into Radio Investigations

If a large truck illegally barrels through a neighborhood and no reporters are around to see it, does it make the news? It does if local residents with mobile phones can text truck sightings to a local public radio station.

This is the premise behind a new pilot project called Sourcing Through Texting from a team at "The Takeaway" radio program. Sourcing Through Texting provides a way to connect citizens with journalists via mobile phones.

Picture 1.pngThe Takeaway is a co-production of Public Radio International and public radio station WNYC in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the New York Times, and WGBH Boston. It can be heard live online or on the radio at about 60 stations in "Takeaway cities" across the U.S.

The program is trying to explore how to better connect with communities that are not a typical public radio demographic. John Keefe, executive producer for news and information at WNYC, said that typical listeners tend to be educated, older, and non-Hispanic whites.

"We want to be able to have connections and sources in communities where we're not heard or where people aren't going to our website," Keefe said. "In communities where people are communicating primarily via text."

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans use their phones, and text messages in particular, more than non-Hispanic whites.

Sourcing Through Texting allows people to communicate with journalists by sending tips or information via text message in response to story topics or specific questions. The pilot project also won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism in which judges said "the experiment opened the doors for engaging non-listeners in ways they liked."

Origins of Sourcing through Texting

Sourcing Through Texting is as much a story about process as it is about a product. The basic question was how to use standard mobile phones to connect journalists with people in communities where public radio was not typically popular.

"We didn't have an answer," Keefe said. After a summit, a planning group formed that included journalists, mobile technology experts, members of the Public Insight Network (a web-based citizen participation platform at American Public Media), and people from the targeted community in Detroit.

Keefe said the process was a combination of experimentation and design thinking in journalism to come up with -- and eventually try out -- various ideas. On the first morning of the summit, the group brainstormed.

"And then we said, it's lunch time. By 2:00 we're taking a bus to the neighborhood, and we're going to try it out," Keefe said. (Read more about design thinking and process experimentation on Keefe's blog or watch this screencast:

One outcome from the summit, which included some prior planning and visits to the neighborhood, was the idea to work with radio station WDET to help people in Southwest Detroit report large trucks that were illegally driving through the neighborhood in order to take a shortcut.

A team went to the neighborhood to make connections and demonstrate in person how to text "truck" to 69866 to send in the location of any spotted trucks. The team worked with Mobile Commons, a commercial mobile service provider in the United States, on the text messaging platform.

Rob St. Mary, a WDET reporter, said that since this initial launch they have received about 300 text messages from 25 to 30 sources. (There have been two subsequent pushes to encourage people to send texts about the trucks.)

Ultimately, Keefe said the response "wasn't overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it. It gave them enough energy to go about it." The information that was received led to a week-long investigative series on the trucks at WDET.

Later, the group also invited people in the same community to send via text message their favorite things about the neighborhood in six words or less. Responses included: "proud alive latino growing hardworking home" and "multiculturally divided, but strong when united."

The responses were not used for any specific aired program. "It was more of an experiment to see what would engage people," Keefe said. Over the course of the afternoon, WDET received about 20 texts.

For Keefe, the process was as promising as the product.

"Radio stations, software platforms like Mobile Commons, community leaders, Public Insight -- the fact that we're all working on this together to me is exciting," Keefe said. He stressed the experimental nature of the development process and the importance of bringing together people to brainstorm and talk about issues.

"People are wrestling with this and having conversations together about it," Keefe said. "This is almost more valuable than anything that we actually did on the ground."

The Takeaway for The Takeaway?

Sourcing Through Texting is beneficial for both the local radio station and for The Takeaway. Local stations rely on the resources of the national program to help connect with citizen sources. And "the national show benefits in the end, with stronger stations and content that bubbles up," Keefe said. (The trucks story later became a segment on the national program.)

The citizen text reports also function as a form of journalism assistance, as in the case of the truck sightings. "We can't have reporters canvassing the neighborhood and waiting for trucks to go by," Keefe said. "But we can have neighbors doing that. It's a way to get them involved in our crowdsourcing."

Future iterations of Sourcing Through Texting may include voice and call-in features to allow for longer messages and more community interaction.

h2.Challenges and Approaches to Sourcing Through Texting

Keefe said there are larger, longer term benefits involved in growing a database of contacts. Those who participate are identified "as somebody who has expressed him or herself as someone who wants to participate in covering their community, that we can turn to as citizen sources."

The sourcing project ultimately comes down to ensgaging a new audience. "We're really focused on figuring out ways to develop that soure base from people who aren't listening to the radio and aren't going to our website," Keefe said. He calls this outreach imperative. "I'm trying to use texting to get people into our sphere," he said.

Sourcing Through Texting is not without challenges. One has to do with the role of activism in journalism. If someone in a neighborhood has a specific bias toward an issue or specific company (the trucking industry, for example), this could be reflected in their citizen reports.

Another challenge is figuring out the best way to promote the service and the right level of interaction via texting. "If you ask someone six questions," Keefe said, "how often do you get an answer to the sixth one?"

Adjusting to language and culture issues is another challenge. Cost may be a limit to participation, too, especially since mobile users in the U.S. typically have to pay to send and receive text messages, although Keefe said this hasn't been an issue yet.

One success of the Sourcing Through Texting project was that the topic -- illegal trucks in Southwest Detroit -- was an issue that people were interested in. In other words, they had something to say about it.

"It was really easy to get people in communities engaged in the issue of tracking trucks because people felt like it was a violation of their neighborhood, and that they were being taken advantage of," Keefe said.

A more general or blanket request to ask people to help cover any story may not work as well, Keefe said. "It's harder to try and jazz people when you just ask them to be sources in general."

July 19 2010


South African Paper Uses Mobile Services to Engage Readers

In Grahamstown, South Africa, getting and sharing news is a mobile experience. Grocott's Mail, a local paper, incorporates mobile phones into many aspects of its news service -- from disseminating headlines via SMS, to encouraging readers to text in their opinions and making it a part of a Knight News Challenge-winning citizen journalist training program.

The paper, which sells 6,400 copies each week, is a good example of how mobiles can create a richer news experience for both readers and publishers. Idea Lab contributor Harry Dugmore, is a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He runs the Iindaba Ziyafika citizen journalism program with Grocott's Mail.

"The inspiration for the whole project is trying to democratize news and information and put it into the hands of more people, give people more access to it, and create more participation -- not just one-way, top-down communication," he said.

Creating Reader Engagement

Grocott's Mail, which published its first print edition in 1870, launched an online version of the paper in 2006. The website, now called Grocott's Mail Online, uses a customized content management system called Nika that is built on Drupal and allows for a smooth computer-to-mobile transition.

Grocott's Mail Online has a page for SMS opinions from readers in addition to the normal editorial content; readers can text the paper with their responses to articles, tips for stories, or general information and see those texts translated into non-text speak and put online or in the paper. Nika sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper's system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages let local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print.

Another way in which local citizens are engaged is through the paper's citizen journalist training program. However, Dugmore is quick to differentiate the citizen journalists from the general online community saying, "We think journalism and citizen journalism is quite a special thing, and we make quite an effort to distinguish it from user generated content and from community participation."

The six-week training program teaches students how to frame a story, how to create a narrative, how to access sources, and how to interview them. (Read more about it by going back through Dugmore's posts here.) So far, the course has been taught four time and, according to Dugmore, the program has evolved to be an important part of the paper. "We've gone from getting two pieces of citizen journalism a month to one for almost every issue," he said.

The citizen journalists use mobile phones as a supplementary tool in their work, not as a substitute for old-fashioned journalism techniques. Dugmore explained that although the students use their mobiles for sharing breaking SMS news alerts and taking photographs, they've often found it easier to take notes with a paper and pencil and then write out the stories on Grocott's Mail's computers. However, he said that they still train the citizen journalists on using the phones as cameras and for audio recording, and that the use of mobile phones is part of the curriculum.

Getting The Word Out

For readers who want to stay up to date on the latest headlines, Grocott's Mail has an SMS headline alert system. The free program, which users text to sign up for, sends out the paper's top headlines twice a week. (The print edition comes out every Tuesday and Friday, as do the SMS headline alerts.) The program launched a few months ago, and Dugmore said there are several hundred subscribers so far.

In addition to SMS alerts, the paper is also developing another way to reach its readers -- using mobile instant messaging to directly send the news to their subscribers. Dugmore said this will be a good addition to the current SMS headline system because it will give subscribers a more thorough news experience, while being a cost-effective news dissemination tool for the paper (which covers the cost of the SMSs).

"The other nice thing about IM is that you're not restricted, like SMS, to just headlines," he said. "If you want to, you can send a whole IM or the whole story "

The paper has already developed a GoogleTalk version of the instant messaging system and is currently finalizing a MXit version; they plan to launch the tool by the end of the summer, meaning that users without high-end phones can still have what Dugmore calls a "smartphone experience."

Grocott's Mail's initiatives show how mobile phones can be a great way to keep readers engaged.

"We were looking for ways to create more spaces where people could get news and information about things that were useful, and [also] looking for ways that possibly people could come together to see if there were common issues or areas where they might be able to make a difference in their own lives," Dugmore said.

July 06 2010


Great Citizen Media Projects That Use Radio, Audio and Mobile

Over at the Mobile Media Toolkit, we recently have been looking at voice- and radio-based citizen media projects that incorporate mobile phones. In an Idea Lab post last fall, I collected a series of examples that primarily used the voice functionality of mobile phones; however, this new set of projects integrate voice and radio with data-based services like SMS and web. Below are some of the projects we think you should know about.

Projects to Watch

  • Voices of Youth in Nepal is a free text message channel that enables people to interact with a weekly radio program. The radio announcers pick a question every week and listeners can respond using SMS. The SMS posts are then put online, where youth can comment on each other's responses. Read more about the project on MobileActive.org.
  • Shubhranshu Choudhary and CGNet Swara have set up a citizen journalism service in India for tribal populations. The tribal citizen journalists call and upload content, and then that content is sent as SMS and email messages to a list of subscribers. Read about it here on the ICFJ blog; a MobileActive case study is coming soon.
  • Leo Burd and the VoIP-Drupal project are creating a voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) platform that interoperates with existing VoIP PBX implementations (Asterisk, FreeSwitch, and others) to provide Drupal users with the ability to, among other things: record, send and receive audio messages; create and manage audio groups; add audio events to a shared calendar; and organize phone-based polls.
  • In India, the BBC has started using a commercial service called Bubbly that works like Twitter, but with audio. Users can upload little bursts of audio to the service. The users' followers are then notified by SMS that an audio posting has been made.
As a result of these and other projects, we published a new how-to for citizen journalists, "Mobile Audio Recording in the Field (and How to Get a Clear Sound from the Streets)." The how-to includes instructions for recording high quality audio on the go, as well as how to self-publish audio content on the web.

We will soon publish a "State of Radio and Mobiles" white paper, as well as an article on how to deploy Interactive Voice Response systems in the near future. Keep on the lookout at MobileActive.org.

May 21 2010


The (Unrealized) Potential of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media

I had the pleasure of attending the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile earlier this month. The summit brought together bloggers, activists, and thinkers working to advance citizen media all around the world. While the discussions that took place were informative, most presentations and panels fell short in recognizing the role mobile phones have played and exploring the potential mobile phones can play in citizen media. I'd like to highlight some of the potential for mobiles in citizen media that were not adequately discussed.

The Potential of Mobiles in Citizen Media

Mobile phones have already played a significant role in advancing citizen media around the world. They were instrumental in helping capture photos and videos on the streets of Tehran during 2009 protests that followed the elections there. A video captured during that time even won a prestigious journalism award. Mobile phone technology has been used in Namibia to enable more people from around the country to express their views in one of the country's largest newspapers.

In the U.S., day laborers have been using MMS messages to blog about their daily lives. In South Africa, citizen journalists use SMS, MMS, and other phone-based technologies to submit content and commentary to a local newspaper. In India, mobiles are being used to enable both reporting and news dissemination in local languages. Many more examples exist.

These examples only scratch the surface of what is possible with mobile phones in independent and citizen media. The first panel at the summit, for example, featured online participation efforts around Chile. The government there is working to bring taxes and procurement data online. This was also a project that enabled citizen journalism in 12 local newspapers, as well extensive social media usage by Chileans. Non-profit organizations are also actively participating and responding to online conversations.

The projects were impressive, but panel and audience members rightly raised the issue of a "digital divide" in Chile. There were only 32 internet users per 100 Chileans in 2008. However, there were 88 mobile subscriptions per 100 Chileans in the same year.  It was noted in the panel that access isn't the only barrier to participation. But missing was the discussion of opportunities to use a widely-used technology that could increase participation.

A very interesting project, Biblio Redes, provides a blogging platform for local communities in Chile around a community's local library. The presenter for this project highlighted the difficulties of working with older participants who may have an oral rather than written tradition. Projects based on voice-based technologies present interesting potential to address this population, as has already been done elsewhere (see, for example, this project with indigenous tribes in India).

At the Summit, there were also many conversations about fostering online participation in other languages. Voice-based technologies on the mobile phone may play a role in helping there as well, especially with languages with weak association to written representation, or languages with tricky character sets. Mobile voice-based technologies also provide opportunities for information services and participation for non-literate audiences.

Bloggers and reporters also need to think more about using their mobile phones. In conversations I had with bloggers, I realized that most don't see their mobile phones as potentially helpful devices in normal reporting work. One blogger who had used his mobile phone to stream live video and take pictures of protests was the exception rather than the rule.

Our discussions managed to identify at least three distinctive advantages mobile phones have over traditional multimedia capturing devices:

  1. They are always in our pockets and therefore always accessible.
  2. When there is a data connection, they allow instant uploading and live coverage.
  3. Because they are light and seem more innocuous than large cameras and microphones in situations like protests, they allow reporters to capture multimedia in more situations.

So, Now What?

There were three unconference-style sessions at the summit, and each session had at least some discussion on the use of mobile phones in citizen media. In most of these conversations, I was glad to realize that the mobile phone's potential for use in citizen media was in the back of many minds. Given the potential, however, I kept wishing that this role was front and center.

As a way to push these ideas further, I pose the following questions:

  • How can you use mobile phones more in your daily reporting work? How can it let you become more creative, spontaneous, immediate in how you cover events and news?
  • Can we turn increased access that mobile phones provide into increased participation? What is required beyond access to facilitate participation using mobile phones? Can we include ways to participate via SMS or voice in every new participatory project that we envision?
  • Can we use voice-based technologies to interact better with communities that have richer oral than written traditions? Can we enable more participation in native languages by using voice-based technologies?

Add a comment if you have ideas, or of you are exploring some of these ideas in your work. If you would like to find out about the tools that you will need to do this work, find case studies of other organizations doing similar work, or a myriad of other resources having to do with mobile phones, check out the MobileActive.org mDirectory.

If you want to read about case studies, tools, and resources specifically to do with media production and dissemination, have a look at this page

This post was cross-posted on MobileActive.org.

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November 09 2009


Using Mobile Phones to Map the Slums of Brazil

In the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, unnamed streets meander through the hillsides. There are hospitals, coffee shops and restaurants, none of which appear on a map. Mail carriers struggle to deliver letters to homes without addresses.

A new project by Rede Jovem, a Brazilian non-profit that loosely translates to "Youth Net," seeks to change that. With the help of five young "wiki-reporters" and GPS-equipped mobile phones, the non-profit is building a map of five Brazilian favelas: Complexo do Alemão, Cidade de Deus, Morro do Pavão-Pavãozinho, Morro Santa Marta and Complexo da Maré. 

Mapping the Unmapped

By uploading information to the phones, the reporters are mapping the unmapped, one road and cafe at a time.

"The main goal was to mark public interest spots on a map and show places like schools and institutions and hospitals and restaurants," said Natalia Santos, the executive coordinator for Rede Jovem. "We wanted to spread the news about what slums do have, so all the people can get to know that the slum is not just a place for violence and marginality and robbery."

All the reporters are women, according to Santos. Although the project originally intended to have male participants, the men were nervous about being in the favelas with costly mobile phones.

"The boys in the last phase of the selection said they wouldn't have the guts to walk with a cell phone in a slum," said Santos. "Girls can walk with a lot more freedom than boys, and boys get approached by the police."

The reporters are between the ages of 17 and 25, and all are in their final year of high school.  The person that maps the most information will receive a scholarship to study communications or journalism at a private university.

The reporters use GPS-equipped Nokia N95s and a mobile application developed by Rede Jovem that uses Google maps. As they move through the favelas, they label corners, streets and bystreets. The reporters can also add photos or video directly from their phones, and label places like restaurants and hospitals. There is both a website, www.wikimapa.org.br, and a mobile site for the resulting maps. Content added to the maps is also automatically added to a Twitter feed.

Expanding to New Platforms

Funding for the project comes from a 150,000 Brazilian reais (U.S. $87,310) grant from Institutional Oi Futuro, which is affiliated with Oi, the largest telephone operator in Brazil. The project is scheduled to conclude when the funding runs out in December. But Rede Jovem is applying for other grants, according to Santos. In the future, the organization hopes to build a mobile application that works on other operating systems. Currently, the mobile application (available for download here) only works on Symbian phones. "We want everyone who has a cell phone with GPS to be a wiki-reporter," said Santos.

As the maps expand, they will provide more and more useful everyday information. On a larger scale, they also give legitimacy to the residents. "I think they are very happy because they're seeing that they exist," said Santos. "And the mailman says that now he can deliver the mail."

Photos courtesy of Rede Jovem

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