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May 18 2011


SaferMobile Helps Protect Your Cell Phone Data from Threats

Activists, rights defenders and journalists use mobile devices and communications for reporting, organizing, mobilizing and documenting. Mobile gadgets provide countless benefits -- relatively low cost, increased efficiencies, vast reach -- but they also present specific risks.


Mobile communication is inherently insecure and exposes you to risks that aren't easy to detect or overcome. SaferMobile is a project that aims to help people, including journalists and citizen reporters, assess and better protect themselves from mobile threats. The project launched with content and announced tools (currently in beta) in April, and development began in January. SaferMobile is a project of MobileActive.org.

Understand the risks

The first step toward better protection is to understand the vulnerabilities. While some risks may not apply to your work, the SaferMobile motto is: The more you know, the more you can make smart choices regarding your mobile communications.

Your mobile service is operated by your wireless network operator.  But did you know that as it manages your communication, it's also able to record certain types of messages you send, as well as information about your communication activities and your device?

Monitoring or eavesdropping can also occur with text messages, calls and mobile Internet use. As a reporter, this is something to keep in mind if you need to protect anonymous sources or sensitive content. The contents of your text messages are visible in plain text and stored in network records. Text messages (and emails if sent unencrypted) with certain keywords can be blocked and the sender singled out.

In addition, mobile phones can easily be lost, stolen or taken from you. If your phone's address book stores your contacts, anyone with access to the device can see them. With many phones, an attacker can gain unauthorized access remotely if he or she installs an application on the device. To do this, an attacker might trick you into downloading a file from the Internet or opening an infected MMS, or simply take advantage of having temporary physical access to the device.

The SaferMobile project assesses many other risks you may or may not be aware of. You can read more about them here.

Better Protect Yourself

The SaferMobile project also presents general tips on how to better protect yourself. For example:

  • As much as possible, avoid linking your identity to your phone number. Buy prepaid SIM cards; if at all possible avoid registering the SIM in your name. And buy a cheap, low-tech phone that you don't mind throwing out if necessary. More suggestions are in this guide.
  • Take your battery out of your phone during and when traveling to and from group meetings to avoid cell phone triangulation and location tracking.
  • Delete messages, photos/videos, and call records to deter an unsophisticated attacker, but remember that deleted data can sometimes be recovered from the phone. Don't use the phone contact list if you can keep numbers in a safe place without it. Don't store numbers and names together.

Check Back and Add your Comments

Check back often on the SaferMobile project. A unique SaferMobile site will be up this summer, and for now, updates and new content are posted on MobileActive.org and the SaferMobile wiki. We have more content coming down the line, including:

  • online and offline educational and tactical resources (risk evaluation tools, case studies, how-to guides, security tool reviews);
  • trainings and curricula;
  • and specific mobile security software focused on the needs of rights defenders, activists and journalists.

SaferMobile welcomes your comments to keep us on track and stay relevant to your needs. We're particularly interested in suggestions for additional content topics and tools. SaferMobile Tweets at @safermobile. You can also contact us via email at info@safermobile.org, or leave a comment below.

August 10 2010


How Freedom Fone Helped Create Participatory Radio in Africa

Two years ago, Bev Clark, the co-founder of Kubatana.net, was awarded a large grant in the Knight News Challenge for Freedom Fone, an open-source software platform for distributing news and information through interactive voice response (IVR) technology. Freedom Fone was officially launched (version 1.5) in late February of this year and has since been downloaded about 200 times, according Amy Saunderson-Meyer of Freedom Fone. (She blogs for Idea Lab and her most recent post, about Freedom Fone version 1.6, is here.)

Freedom Fone leverages audio as a mobile function using IVR, a technology that allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input. IVR allows a user to call, enter or say specific numbers, and listen to or contribute audio content. (Many people are already familiar with IVR -- you've likely encountered it when you call a customer service number and are prompted with instructions to press numbers for different issues or service departments.)

Since launch, Freedom Fone has provided support to specific organizations, including Equal Access in Cambodia, Small World News TV, TechnoServe, One Economy Corporation, and Africa Youth Trust. Saunderson-Meyer said they have also received about 100 inquiries from individuals and organizations interested in a broad spectrum of potential uses of Freedom Fone outside of news and information distribution.

Freedom Fone in Tanzania and Ghana

Recently, Freedom Fone was adopted by two farm radio stations through the African Radio Research Initiative, a 42-month project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented by Farm Radio International in partnership with the World University Services of Canada. The aim of the AFRRI project was to assess the effectiveness and impact of farm radio in many parts of Africa.

We at MobileActive.org thought it was high time to learn how Freedom Fone was being used, including any challenges these users encountered. We ourselves had considered implementing Freedom Fone in Zimbabwe with an organization we were working with, but at the time (early this year) the software was still lacking critical features we needed.

Bartholomew Sullivan, a regional ICT officer for AFRRI, was on site to set up Freedom Fone at Radio Maria in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was the first time Freedom Fone partnered with a group outside of its own projects.

AFRRI works with 25 radio stations in five countries in Africa. Stations include private, public, national, and community radio stations with established listeners in varied agricultural zones. Freedom Fone was introduced at two of these radio stations: Radio Maria (a faith-based station that also broadcasts health and agricultural information across the country) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Volta Star radio (the national broadcaster) in the Volta region of Ghana. Before the project, neither station had an existing IVR system in place and the primary feedback loop with listeners was through written letters.

Sullivan and Farm Radio International had been in touch with Kubatana, the parent organization of Freedom Fone, in Zimbabwe and thought IVR technology could be used to improve programming at the stations by making the experience and content more interactive.

"We're looking for something that can enhance radio," Sullivan said. "Because at this point for us, radio has been very effective in reaching people, but it's not always the most effective for getting a feedback loop or making it interactive."

Why Radio Maria and Volta Star?

There are several reasons why Radio Maria and Volta Star were chosen from among 25 possible radio stations to incorporate Freedom Fone.

First, reliable, accessible, on-site support was an important qualifier, especially for more complex projects. Radio Maria was a candidate for Freedom Fone in part because of Sullivan's proximity to the station. Because of the learning curve involved with using the software, he wanted to be able to be on site on a daily basis.

Another factor was language. Most Radio Maria listeners understand and speak Kiswahili, and using a single language simplifies the language interface for the IVR system. Interestingly, Volta Star radio in Ghana was chosen because multiple languages (Akan and Ewe) were spoken and could be integrated with Freedom Fone, making it a good experiment for AFRRI.

Radio Maria was also chosen because it had an existing support system and infrastructure, including far-reaching coverage and existing funding which allowed for electricity, back-up systems, Internet, and technicians. In addition, Freedom Fone funded half of the project at Radio Maria, while AFRRI funded the Volta Star project in Ghana.

"We figured if were going to start a pilot project, let's give it the best possible chance of succeeding," Sullivan said.

Capturing Voices from the Field in Tanzania

One of the first steps in Dar es Salaam was getting supplies. Sullivan shared a list of things needed to get Freedom Fone up and running at Radio Maria. (Since they were working in a radio environment, the group already had access to a great deal of audio equipment and office supplies. The Freedom Fone site also lists other general-use items that may be needed.) Here's the list, along with the cost of each item in U.S. dollars:

  • A dedicated computer to use as a server (minimum specs 1GB RAM, processor: 1.6GHz). About $700.
  • One or more SIM cards (depending on how many lines you want). Price varies locally.
  • A Mobigater SIP to GSM gateway. About $160 for each SIM card/line.
  • A USB microphone or other way of recording audio to the computer for creating IVR menus. About $50.
  • Internet connection to download the latest Freedom Fone DVD software (approximately 800 MB).
  • Any electricity or utility costs associated with keeping the Freedom Fone server running for 24 hours. Price varies locally.
  • UPS backup power. About $120.
  • A mobile phone to call in and test the IVR. About $35.
  • Any airtime costs needed to use the above phone. Price varies locally.

    For the SIP to GSM gateway, the group bought a 2N VoiceBlue Lite that holds four SIM cards for four different lines in to Freedom Fone. The VoiceBlue Lite allows a user to call in on a mobile phone and interact with the server, built on Ubuntu 8.1. Where Internet access is slow and downloading difficult, Freedom Fone has sent the file on CD in the mail (version 1.6 is an ISO file, 935MB in size). Sullivan also bought a local, second-hand computer to run the Freedom Fone software.

    As part of the Farm Radio International participatory radio campaign, the group worked with community members to identify an agricultural improvement that would make a difference for listeners if they had more information or encouragement. At Radio Maria, the group chose to focus on a weekly program called Heka Heka Vijijini, which means "busy busy in the village" in Kiswahili.

They decided to add a weekly, four-month segment to the program on how to improve local chicken management via housing, diet, and vaccinations. Unofficially, Sullivan said, they referred to the program as the "Kuku Hotline" ("kuku" means "chicken" in Kiswahili). Each of the 25 radio stations that were part of the project came up with a different program topic based on local needs.

Thumbnail image for chickens2.JPG

At Radio Maria, Sullivan and the group used the IVR "very simply," almost as a "glorified voicemail service." During the Heka Heka Vijijini program, broadcasters announced an upcoming competition which asked for "the best story of how you're using the knowledge you've gained from this radio program in your life." Listeners could call in to the radio station and leave a message on the IVR system.

The station received "wonderful stories from the field," lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes. They received a total of 2,499 calls to the hotline, with 1,448 unique callers during the month and a half that it was available.

They also received a total of 297 SMS messages, which were usually requests for information or greetings. Many of the audio responses were later rebroadcast on the program.

"People love to hear their voices on the radio," Sullivan said. "And what we've learned from the farmers was that radio programs that have the voices of farmers are far more entertaining and interesting than not."

Making radio more accessible in Ghana

Where Radio Maria collected and re-broadcasted incoming voice content, Volta Star in Ghana focused on improving access to radio segments by posting outgoing content. The Volta Star program topic was organic fertilizer and included information for farmers such as market prices. Each one-hour segment was reduced to about five minutes, and this audio summary was made available every week on the IVR system.

When listeners called, they were able to choose their language. Sullivan said this dual language ability increased the complexity of the Freedom Fone interface quite a bit.

The listener could then choose a specific summary to listen to. They received a total of 4,503 calls to the "farmers fone" and 2,041 of these calls proceeded past the welcome message (meaning that the user accessed the information or left a voicemail).

At Volta Star, a lot of people called, but a smaller percentage called on a regular basis, Sullivan said. One question Farm Radio International is currently looking into is what made these repeat users call again and again and really use the IVR. Sullivan suspects that it was because some people didn't really know how to use the system; whereas an IVR system might be intuitive to some, many Radio Maria and Volta Star listeners are not as accustomed to the technology or the process.

What worked well (and why)

One benefit to integrating Freedom Fone at an established radio station is the ability to promote the IVR service. At Radio Maria, the broadcasters relied on the large number of existing listeners to promote and explain the service including the specific local numbers to call. The group created a special jingle and message to promote the competition. Listen to the jingle here.

In the above clip, Radio Maria presenter Lilian Manyuka announces the final segment of the four-month radio campaign. She invites listeners to join the competition and share their stories. Manyuka gives an example of a submission, shares the four numbers that callers can use to access the Kuku Hotline and provides information on how to leave a message (wait for the beep, say your name, and leave your message).

lilian-with listener and his maize.JPG

Another thing that Sullivan said worked well was the ability to set up multiple call-in numbers for each of the main local mobile providers in the region: Vodacom, Zain, and Tigo. This allowed listeners to call from their respective networks, making it cheaper. The group used similar sounding numbers for each of the networks.

The participatory radio campaign approach was to enhance existing systems, not add new content or processes to the farm radio stations. So, Sullivan and others were able to incorporate and adapt Freedom Fone to best match the needs and uses of the listeners.

At the end of the day, it's an open-source IVR platform that you can adapt to what your needs are, Sullivan said. "It's very basic. You can nest menus. You can have a voicemail service."

Challenges and issues

The projects at Radio Maria and Volta Star (and specifically in regards to Freedom Fone) were not without challenges and issues, including reliable hardware, cost, human error, power, and training.

One challenge is obtaining high-quality or dedicated hardware. In Tanzania, Sullivan bought a second-hand computer locally to host the Freedom Fone software. But he wouldn't do this again. At the most crucial moment, Sullivan said, the hard drive didn't work and the group lost several days of uptime because of the crash. Cost can also be an issue with some hardware, but often there are less expensive alternatives.

Human error is a challenge inherent with Freedom Fone, which ironically stems from the high adaptability of the platform and the ability for control many parameters of the IVR process. When adjusting the settings on the modem at the Radio Maria station, for example, Sullivan said he had turned up the amp to the highest level. This resulted in significant audio distortion because the responses were so loud. Because of this, the IVR system was not recognizing user input. People called and were prompted to input a number. But no matter what was pressed the system would do nothing, until it would eventually hang up on the caller.

Power is an issue, especially in areas with unreliable power because, "when the computer is off, then Freedom Fone is down," Sullivan said. Similarly, infrastructure is really important, including having backup power supplies for power outages.

Another issue to incorporating Freedom Fone at established organizations is training. At Radio Maria, for example, there were three parties involved: Farm Radio International, Freedom Fone, and the local station employees. Most people involved with the training were able to speak English, but language translation could be an issue for multi-party projects in other areas. It's important to be able to train local employees to continue to use the IVR technology after the project concludes, Sullivan said.

freedom-fone building IVR menus.jpg

"Working with their staff -- their technical team -- so that they really feel like they own the technology, is a challenge but it is definitely worth doing," Sullivan said. "Because it means when something comes up they can handle it on their own."

Finally, another challenge with Freedom Fone was the ability to deal with user error or confusion. At Radio Maria, the group also used the IVR system to establish an SMS poll, asking listeners what they wanted to hear more about on the program. The radio station would broadcast the poll and the number and explain the process, such as "press one for maize," "press two for chickens," and "push three for other garden crops," and so on.

But, many users had never completed an SMS poll before and were confused on how to submit a vote. First, there was a lot of information being conveyed over the radio (the number to text, the specific code for a poll, and the value of each numerical vote).

"It's a lot for people to remember over the radio if you've never done it," Sullivan said, so some people would spell maize instead of pushing "1" for maize, or spell out the word "one" rather then sending the number 1, or mix up the order of things. These responses would not register in the Freedom Fone system as a vote and instead "would just sit there as an SMS."

Despite user and technical challenges, "people really like it," Sullivan said. The station received well over 100 votes when the polls fist opened up, and the responses helped to shape future broadcasts.

Of Freedom Fone, Sullivan said, "they've got a really great idea but I think if it's going to work with rural people, especially in a radio context, who don't have a lot of experience with voting or using their SMS that way, it's going to need some foolproof methods."

What's ahead for Freedom Fone

Farm Radio International is currently analyzing results of the initiative and plans to publish a report this fall on the findings. The Volta Star IVR content is still accessible to listeners and the mobile competition at Radio Maria has since closed, but they are starting another deployment based on what they learned at Radio Maria and Volta Star. The project will be at Rite FM, a radio station outside the greater Accra region in Ghana.

Sullivan said he is interested in exploring different revenue models for Freedom Fone including a subscription model. Currently, the caller incurs the costs in a typical IVR system, which usually amounts to the same prepaid deduction of making a phone call or sending an SMS. Early on, Sullivan said, many didn't think this was a good model, and that somehow people, especially rural farmers, wouldn't spend money to interact with an IVR system.

"But, turns out, they do," Sullivan said. "People are willing to spend money on information that is important to them."

A potential future subscription model, for example, could allow a user to purchase prepaid airtime for unlimited monthly access. A subscriber's number could then be added to a list, which IVR technology would identify as a "to call" list whenever there is pertinent information. Saunderson-Meyer said Freedom Fone version 2.5, which is due out this December, will include this call-back functionality.

For now, simplicity is the goal for projects like Radio Maria that involve news and information distribution to rural populations. Simplicity is also important for other projects that do not involve long-term, on-site support from Freedom Fone or Farm Radio International.

"We believe that voice is still the richest medium for getting information to rural people, and that's why we chose the IVR. But the challenge is to also not cut out those people who are not super savvy," Sullivan said. "You've got to try and keep it as simple as possible."

For more information about IVR systems, you can read MobileActive.org's "other articles about this topic"http://www.mobileactive.org/search-ma?keyword=ivr&op=Search&form_id=search_block_form.

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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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