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September 19 2011


Cool Apps Roundup: Green Apps

In my companion blog post on Why Apps Are Green, I talked about how apps permit the use of lighter IT infrastructure like mobile phones to accomplish things we previously used to do just on PCs. Mobile phones use much less electricity than PCs, and another benefit is that they make Internet and IT readily available in developing countries.

Another way that apps can be green is because some of them do environmental things. There's a surprising array of them actually. Planet Green's 7 Best Green Apps for Mobile Phones are a good example.

The ones I like are:

  • Ecorio which uses the GPS system on your phone to track your carbon footprint as you travel.
  • 3rd Whale searches for green businesses near you.
  • greenMeter tracks your vehicle's fuel and power efficiency.
  • Carticipate is a social media app with a very clever name to connect you with people who want to carpool.
  • PedNav tells you how to walk, bike or mass transit to wherever you're going and sets you up with an itinerary.
  • The Locavore app offers government and NGO info on which food items are in season in your locale. It also offers Epicurious recipes for them. It doesn't have a market-finder feature specific to in-season foods, however. Too bad.
  • Zerogate's MeterRead is an iPhone app in which you record your electric meter readings and it suggests ways to improve your energy efficiency. It doesn't connect up via the Internet to your smart meter. I found that one on Reuters Green apps that can save you money.

Consumer Reports' 7 free green mobile apps has some good ones as well:

  • The Eco Buzz Widget, for Android, is a configurable environmental news feed.
  • Eco Defense for Android is a game that pits angry plants against dastardly pollutants - for those of us with environmental passive-aggressive issues.
  • Green Gas Saver is an iPhone app that emulates a vigilant back seat driver, reminding you of when you're getting reckless behind the wheel. I don't know if I want that app.
  • iRecycle is Earth911's app for iPhone and Android that helps you find recycling locations for more than 240 types of materials.
  • IP Thermostat is an iPhone app that controls Proliphix Internet-connected thermostats from your phone so you can save on heating and cooling bills. There are now several brands of remote control thermostats that can be controlled from the Internet.
  • Schlage Link is an iPhone and Android app that controls several Schlage home devices including a module for lights, entry door locks, thermostats, and home video cameras. An example of a Schlage home device is the Schlage LiNK Wireless Keypad Entry System. It's much more expensive than a regular door lock, but then the app is free.

Here are a few more green app top picks from sundry publications:

This post was authored by Jim Lynch, Program Manager for GreenTech, and originally appeared on The TechSoup Blog. This is the first in a series of blog posts that we'll be doing as part of our new App It Up project called Cool Apps Roundup.

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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May 04 2010


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!

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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April 13 2010


The Namibian Turns Text Messages into Letters to the Editor

Many news organizations use SMS to send out news alerts, but the Namibian, a daily paper in Namibia, has set up pages in its print edition and on its website to publish text-message letters to the editor submitted by readers.

The Namibian is an independent newspaper with newsstand sales of 27,000 a day (with an estimated 10-person pass-along rate), and a popular web edition. It launched the SMS pages in August 2007.

The SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to specific articles. The editors would place an image of a mobile phone beneath certain stories in the paper, and invite readers to text in their responses. The program became so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the print edition three times a week, and a section of the website, to the SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

namibian sms.jpg

"We wanted letters to the editor, but that only allows literate people to communicate in quite a long way," said Carmen Honey, an editor with the Namibian. "This way allows more people to have their say and it's quick and it's simple -- everybody's got a phone, it gives everybody a chance to be involved."

The Namibian uses the program to reach out to the community, and to give readers an easy way to share their opinions. Submitting to the SMS page costs the sender $2 Namibian per text (roughly US $.02), which is the typical cost of a text message. The Namibian derives no income from the program, according to Honey.

Citizens, Government Leaders Send Texts

Honey said the program has taken off without much promotion, and that the SMS pages have provided readers with a level playing field on which to air their complaints, share their opinions, and promote their interests. Honey expanded via email:

On a technical level the readers have embraced the cell-phone medium with enthusiasm. Concerning content, the contributors have realized they can -- and do -- approach their elected officials about problems in their areas, like service delivery. What is more, the officials, in some cases, have been quick to deal with the issues raised leading to profuse thanks from the writers. This empowers both parties. Readers also know there is nothing wrong with commenting on and even criticizing actions of elected officials right up to the President, which they do very politely.

To be honest, we did not really know what to expect but the messages have come thick and fast from all corners of the country and on every topic under the sun.

Even senior Cabinet members, and the Prime Minister, have added their opinions. What is useful now, in certain instances, is that members of the public are suggesting solutions to problems opening the way to national debate.

Texting a Controversy

The SMS pages have also led to some challenges for the paper; although English is the national language of Namibia, there are more than eight other commonly spoken languages. According to Honey, the paper doesn't have the staff to accept and translate text messages in other languages, so users must submit in English. Also, in an October 2009 controversy, leaders of the political party SWAPO claimed that Namibian publisher/editor-in-chief Gwen Lister personally wrote SMSes that criticized the government.

Lister responded in a letter to the editor:

I have never submitted an SMS to our pages and if Ithana remains unconvinced, I am sure that through the 'Spy Bill,' she can get the answers she seeks. Her allegation though, is an affront to the people of this country who see the SMS pages as an opportunity for dialogue with Government and others on matters close to their own hearts.

Many readers responded with text messages of support for the Namibian, and cited the SMS pages as a place where they can express themselves freely.

In spite of the SWAPO/Lister controversy, Honey said the program has been a positive force for both the paper and its readers over the last three years.

"It's gone pretty smoothly," she said. "Some people don't like things, but we offer the full right of reply -- if somebody complains about somebody's X, Y, or Z, we will immediately give them the space so that they can publish the answer, so they can defend against whatever the complaint is equally quickly."

She added that the paper does reserve the right to edit the messages for grammar, in order to make them more understandable, and to remove anything that could be potentially libelous.

The process for receiving and managing the text responses is fairly simple. Users submit their via SMS and the messages are sent to an online aggregator. From there, Honey logs into the aggregator's webpage and exports all the messages into an Excel document. She then chooses the texts she feels gives the best picture of the day's responses, and edits as needed.

She said one of the more interesting aspects of the SMS pages is that the texts are so varied. People write about everything from political issues and complaints about power companies, to thoughts on the national radio and television service. She said the paper has also received news tips through the SMS pages, and that they are currently working on making the program more interactive.

For now, the SMS pages are a way for readers to quickly and easily have a voice on national issues. Honey summed up the goal of the pages as being, "To give as many readers as possible, whoever and wherever they are, a chance to take part in the democratic process by sharing their views at the lowest possible cost."

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March 06 2010


Agriculture and us

I attended an Ashoka conference in New Delhi yesterday on rural innovation and farming. There were so many new things I realized about agriculture's deep rooted connections with our culture and society and economy that I decided to immediately write about it before the memories weaken. Plus I watched Avatar later in the evening, which gave a perfect icing on the cake!

Agriculture and women

Agriculture can be looked upon from many perspectives. Food as a commodity, where farmers are considered merely as factory workers and we talk about increasing their productivity though machines, technology, etc. Agriculture as an economic activity with linkages into the global market, so that it becomes important to streamline supply chains, improve irrigation, and prevent price fluctuations. From an ecological perspective, in terms of organic farming, local supply chains, and keeping a small footprint. Or it can be looked upon from a cultural and humanist perspective by putting a face to the farmer, and this face is often that of a woman. As you read on, try to keep this context in mind by linking back the people in agriculture with the bigger landscape of the economic and ecological settings in which all of us are living.

It is well known that women in India and elsewhere have always played a huge role in post-harvest processing of food grains. What is probably less well known about India is that because of poorer economic rates of return in agriculture, men are moving into the cities for various unskilled jobs leaving their wives to manage the farms. At times many villages are only left with women, kids, and old people, while the men have gone off to work in factories in the cities or to pull a rickshaw. This is even more common during the off-season of farming because the lack of proper irrigation prevents any farming from happening at all during those few months. So you can see how policies for proper irrigation, increasing incomes in agriculture, market linkages, and other economic and political factors can influence the culture of farming communities.

A second arena where women again come into prominence in agriculture is because of development activities. Microfinance institutions and various not-for-profit organizations often like to work more closely with the women than with men. And in Satara near Pune, over 3500 loans have been taken by women to buy mobile phone based remote starters for tube wells and water pumps in their farms! Similarly, when a community radio station was set up in the area, one of the first advertisements go out on air was from a woman calling others to aggregate their little amounts of farm produce, and now they have rented a truck which goes back and forth each week to the city markets!

A third example came from Karnataka, where a not-for-profit organization helped set up a network of retail and produce collection points, again run by women. And here the women requested their local self-help-group organization to train them on selling mobile SIM cards through the same retail points! Cellphones, as many would know, are gaining tremendous outreach in rural areas. Companies therefore need a distribution network in rural areas to sell value added services, prepaid recharges, and such. And women are again the preferred ones to do it, what could be better than to leverage the existing agriculture distribution networks which are already in place.

Agriculture and productivity

If we think about argiculture as a food producing activity, many issues arise related to operational scale and efficiency. There is a question of proper education and training in disease control for example. Over 98% of a potato crop under contract with PepsiCo was once completely wiped out because of blight. And here we are talking about small farmers for whom one crop can make a difference between sustainance and falling into deep poverty. PepsiCo has since engaged a large army of extension workers who make sure that farmers know about the correct methods to control pests and crop diseases, and also provide weather insurance to their contract farmers. Similarly, the correctness of methods is very important. Paddy seeds can either be sown in a flooded field, or first sown and then flooded with water. It turns out that in the former approach over half the water is lost in puddling. There is no new technology here, no new seeds, only a different method of cultivation. And if we add that over 80% of water in India is consumed for agriculture, you can imagine the impact that good methods can have here! There are many similar examples where using the right methods can alone improve productivity, and these have even been tested in small pilots here and there, but very few practices have managed to make their way to farmers in a big way.

GM seeds are seen as another method to increase agricultural productivity. I will not go into the details of this hotly contested topic, and assuming that biotechnology is the way to go to grow more food for more people, the one probematic issue is the tradeoff between price and innovation. Companies such as Monsanto are innovating and developing new seed lines -- pest resistant, drought resistant -- and want to earn back the investments they have made. Exercising IP rights by putting in a stopper gene for re-planting seeds is one way, higher prices is another way, but effectively these methods do increase costs for the farmers at least in the short term. Can new methods be developed for companies to capitalize on their investments made for innovation, instead of simply a higher price? Governments can provide subsidies, for one. Alternately, the government of India chose to instead invent their own seed lines which could be sold at lower prices. To add a footnote here, the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow actually successfully did this for cotton seeds. But these genes have not seen the light of day as yet because government run institutes are completely lost in getting regulatory approval and passing food safety tests!

Society and agriculture

But productivity should not be the only goal. It is inextricably linked with society and ecology. Here is an example. Contract farming normally comes with strict regulations about crop rotation patterns, seed varieties, etc. But this has often resulted in farmers losing touch with their lands and passing the age-old wisdom to their next generation. In Uttaranchal, there is a concept of 12 anaja (seeds) which are supposed to be sown in rotation to preserve the soil health and the water table. The water table by the way is in most rapid decline in the Gangetic plains of north India than anywhere else in the world. Highly optimized contract farming however often neglects these principles because even if the soil deteriorates in one part, companies can always relocate their operations to other areas. The losers are actually the communities in these areas because they are losing the wealth of their lands, and likely at a price which does not take the soil and water table decline into account, and to make matters worse, they are losing agricultural wisdom over the generations.

Another interesting example, again from the hills of Uttaranchal, was the destruction of local supply chains because of increasing capitalization of agriculture. A village on one side of a hill could be producing rice while the other side could be barren. However, rather than sustain local supply chains, pricing and infrastructure are rigged in such a way that food first travels all the way to Delhi and then back. Not only is this ecologically nonsensical, but it also damages the cultural fabric that may have united the two villages together in the past.


Those were quite some eye-opening issues for me, and underscored the importance of seeing agriculture in a more holistic setting. Economics, policies, technology, ecology, and culture all come together. To drive the point deeper, I coincidentally happened to watch Avatar the same evening, and realized the important link we have with nature. We cannot think in terms of us and nature, it is all one, we are a part of nature, and so are the technologies we develop and the policies we follow to live.

Can Gram Vaani help here? I definitely think so, because we are building a vehicle to spread this message and help everybody realize how rural areas are fundamentally interconnected to our lives, something that the mainstream media completely neglects. Stay tuned in for a formal announcement about the release of our GRINS box for community radio stations. We are almost there, I personally cannot wait for this having waited for it since almost three years now! We are also in conversation with Video Volunteers, a fellow Knight awardee, of how we can extend our radio based setup to video as well, and together build what we call a YouTube for the Next Billions.

Credits: All these examples and insights come from the panelists and attendees of the Ashoka conference. In particular, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Anita Paul (Community Initiatives), Chetna Gala Sinha (Mann Deshi), Uma Swaminathan (RUDI-SEWA), Prema Gopalan (Swayam Shiksha Prayog), Bharat Ramaswamy (ISI), and Vivek Bharati (PepsiCo).

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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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January 14 2010


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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December 09 2009


The 2012 Journalist: Your future?

Top Journo and  launch editor for Guardian local Sarah Hartley was one of the delegates at our recent Meld event to look at the future skills of journalists (and the world they will be working in). She’s been pondering  the future, how close it is and what others think it will have in store.

This post first appeared on Sarah’s Blog

A journalistic world where personal branding is a lifestyle, managing micro communities is second nature and developing areas of specialist knowledge is essential for survival in what is a freelance work sphere where multiple revenue streams as a sole trader are the norm.

Welcome to the lot of a journalist in 2012!

That’s my personal summary of far more detailed discussions spent considering such things as part of the MELD experience last week.

Held at the futuristic Sandbox at UCLAN, the two-day industry think-tank to consider what skills the journalist of the future might need prompted some interesting dilemmas.

Looking forward such a relatively short amount of time was a tricky experience, not least because the audience who will be old enough to vote in three years time, are one of the first who will be true digital natives.

Today’s teenagers have only ever known mobile phones, games, the internet and on demand services. They are also unlikely to have got the newspaper habit, so how will their experience of the world impact on journalism?

But as we all wrestled with the issues of who will be funding the journalistic endeavour of the future, how organisations will need to change their structures and the skill sets individuals might be faced with, there was one aspect which sparked little controversy – that the next generation journalist is most likely to be a freelance worker.

And for that individual journalist, the future which emerged from our discussions operated in a complex personal ecosphere where some sort of web presence was the essential hub of activity, where earnings could come from sponsorship and affiliate relationships alongside mainstream media commissions for content packages, or access to the special interest networks which they had nurtured and managed.

Contemplating the short-term with some of those who may help shape the future of the industry was a thought-provoking experience  – and wasn’t purely an intellectual exercise.

Some of the input from the sessions will help inform journalism educators about the tools the journalists of the future might need.

I’d be very interested to hear what other journalists think the future might hold – join in with the time travel if you will! What do you think lies in store? Is the scenario detailed above a world which you’d embrace or recoil from? Where do you see the journalist of 2012? Thoughts most welcome.

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November 26 2009


It's 7:05pm in Dar es Salaam

Amanda and I have just returned from Dar es Salaam. We were on the road with Freedom Fone.

Last Tuesday it was 9 degrees at 9am in orderly Johannesburg and 28 degrees with sweat inducing humidity at 7pm in chaotic Dar. After negotiating the jam-packed arrivals hall we smiled in relief when we discovered John holding up a torn piece of cardboard with Freedom Fone scribbled on it. We couldn't speak Swahili and he couldn't speak English but we made our greetings and jumped into his car for the ride of our life to a lodge off the Old Bagamoyo Road in Michokeni B.

Dar was thrillingly alive, jumping with activity of all kinds. Flashing past us . . .

Two guys on a bicycle. One of them had a goat draped over his knees. A beggar with buckled legs dragged himself through an intersection, craning his neck to ask for money from people in cars. He wore slip slops on his hands. The storm water drains on the sides of the roads were full of water breeding malaria and other diseases. Little boys' trawled homemade fishing lines through the muddy ditch water hoping for a catch. We saw a young man fill a water bottle from the litter-strewn canal, and we hoped that he wasn't going to drink it.

The next day we met up with Bart, Margaret and Lilian the Farm Radio International (FRI) crew who we'd come to train to use the Freedom Fone software.

FRI is a Canadian-based, not-for-profit organization working with about 300 radio broadcasters in 39 African countries to fight poverty and food insecurity. FRI has partnered with Freedom Fone to engage our software in the support of small scale farmers in Tanzania. FRI have established 5 listening communities attached to 5 community radio stations in varied locations in Tanzania. These community radio stations broadcast programmes that assist farmers in achieving better yields as well as helping answer questions related to the various agricultural challenges they might be experiencing. FRI is currently exploring the use of information communication technologies to complement and extend the usefulness of radio broadcast programmes.

They selected Radio Maria, a Christian radio station based in Dar es Salaam, to deploy Freedom Fone. Three main reasons influenced their decision to do this:

- Radio Maria is a well-resourced radio station both in terms of human resources with high technical skills and experience, and equipment/infrastructure.
- Radio Maria broadcasts some of FRI's agricultural programmes.
- Radio Maria has very wide coverage in Tanzania.

FRI's listening groups with Radio Maria have expressed a particular desire for information about raising chickens. Local chickens are an excellent income source for small-scale farmers, as they have low input costs and high demand and a ready market. However, many farmers experience high chicken loss due to poor management: not keeping the chickens safely, feeding them properly or looking after their hygiene sufficiently. Better information helps farmers lose fewer chickens, and thus make more money out of them. FRI's Freedom Fone deployment will draw on this desire for more information about chicken management, and their broadcast programme called, Heka Heka Vijijini (Busy Busy in the Village), will be adapted into short segment audio programmes using Freedom Fone software.

FRI also intends to use Freedom Fone in Ghana . . . stay tuned!


Lilian, the presenter of Heka Heka Vijijini (Busy Busy in the Village)

November 13 2009


Reporting with Mobile Phones: The Experience of Voices of Africa

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(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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