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August 09 2012


How User-Centered Design Powers FrontlineSMS, Version 2

I'm going to be honest: When I first joined FrontlineSMS, I had no idea how much goes into the design of software. Every screen, every button and every function has principled thought behind it.


In 2011, we worked alongside Gabriel White, a user experience designer from Small Surfaces, to help translate FrontlineSMS users' needs into the new design of Version 2. I came to realize that no matter how advanced and amazing a piece of software might be, it has no relevance if users can't access it or work out how to use it. I think that the user interface -- that point of contact between a user and the functionality (or what the software can do) -- is the most important entry point in the way users experience a tool.

It's now been over a year and a half after the design work first began, and I recently spoke with Gabe to share his reflections on how we ensured users' priorities were central to the design of Version 2.

What user design experience involves

I'm sure that for many of us it's not clear what User Experience Design really involves, so I asked Gabe to explain. "To me, it means creating products and services that address real user needs, and defining how people can interact with software in a way that's useful and meaningful. The most important things to consider in this process are what you (as an organization) are trying to achieve by creating the product or service; what the needs of the end users are; and then bringing those two sets of goals together through a design solution that is usable, useful and engaging."


At FrontlineSMS, we have always endeavored to put our users first and be responsive to their needs -- to make our software work better for them. This user-centered design process is at the heart of Version 2. I was curious to ask Gabe how he got involved in the FrontlineSMS project. "I decided to move to Uganda to focus my work on projects which were meaningful to me in terms of positive social impact," he replied. "I found out about the Mobiles for Development Conference in Kampala in 2010. I'd heard that FrontlineSMS' founder, Ken Banks, was going to be there, and the FrontlineSMS project was exactly the kind of initiative I wanted to get involved in. So I basically cornered him and said, 'We have to have a coffee together!' When I later found out that he was thinking about how the user experience would evolve in the then-upcoming Version 2 of the software, it felt like serendipity. Working with FrontlineSMS turned out to be one of the highlights of my design career."

step one: personas

The first step in working together was when Gabe asked us to draw up profiles representing the characteristics of different types of FrontlineSMS users ("Personas" in design-speak). We asked volunteers who represented diverse projects using FrontlineSMS to be involved in the design process. Gabe explained the importance of this: "It's really critical to involve users throughout the entire process so that you can continuously ensure that you address users' real needs in appropriate ways. First, we interviewed existing users of the software to understand their aspirations and pain points. This helped us frame the problems we wanted to solve with Version 2. As I began to craft a design solution, it was important to continue to engage end users through the process. So even when we had only very early design concepts, I shared the alternative solutions with users to understand how effectively the design ideas met the needs I'd earlier uncovered."

"One of the things we found was that, while it was often easy to do basic things in Version 1 of the software, it was sometimes harder to do more sophisticated things with it. For example, FrontlineSMS users often want to use the tool to gather together messages from a group of people on a range of specific topics, or create a poll and easily understand the responses. Essentially, it's great to be able to gather or disperse information using FrontlineSMS, but that's only the beginning of the story -- it's often what users do with all those messages afterwards that counts. Making it easier for people to use FrontlineSMS to do more sophisticated things was critical as we thought about building the new software."

the inspiration behind activities

This speaks volumes to a central feature of Version 2: the "Activities" which guide users through common tasks like announcements and polls, so I was keen to know more about where the inspiration for this came from. "In the research we found that most people were wanting to use the software to carry out three or four core types of tasks (such as conducting a poll)," he said. "Version 1 of FrontlineSMS required users to put the pieces together themselves when doing these tasks, which meant that many users were unable to unlock the full potential of the software. I realized we needed to do two things: Make it easier for people to do more complex things with the software, and also help people appropriately manage the information that was coming in and going out in relation to each of these different activities. So we created this idea of Activities -- if we know you wanted to create a poll, for example, we could guide you through the steps of setting it up, and then help you manage and understand the responses coming back in. With Activities, people do not need to put the pieces together themselves -- the software now supports them through the whole process by providing pre-packaged sets of tools."

Activities FrontlineSMS 2.jpg

Moreover, the system was designed to inspire people to make the most of FrontlineSMS and explore more sophisticated uses of SMS. Gabe elaborated: "Activities expose people to the possibilities of what they can do with the system. FrontlineSMS users have always been aware there was potential, but some didn't know they could do more advanced things with the software. Activities make it much more explicit and easy to understand. It's now more obvious about potential possibilities and so makes everything much more approachable."

the elements of design

When we presented early designs to users to seek their feedback, one person highlighted the power of the "email metaphor," particularly in reference to the ability to star messages or select multiple messages using check boxes. I wondered to what extent Gabe's design was influenced by online tools like Gmail and Facebook. His response: "As a designer one of the things I think about is: What are the design approaches or metaphors that people are familiar with and makes most sense to them? Design most often is not about creating completely new and radical solutions; rather it's about bringing together elements and metaphors that people already deal with in novel and interesting ways."

Gabe's approach was logical and meticulous, sticking to predictable behavior to ensure the usability of the user interface. It wasn't until after building user personas, choosing the task-based "Activity" concept and creating over 100 pages of design documentation that we first saw the first line of Version 2 code and a blue hyperlink for "Inbox" in summer 2011. Now that it's fully working software, I sometimes have to rub my eyes to believe how far we've come. What I love the most is hearing what people think, because that is what's central to user interface design. So find out about what's new in Version 2 here and share your ideas on what you think of the design on our forum here.

Gabriel White's company Small Surfaces designs user interface solutions for smartphones, tablet computers and beyond. His award-winning designs have helped organizations including FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, World Vision, and Refugees United, as well as business leaders like Google, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Sandisk and Kodak deliver innovative, next-generation products and services. Gabe continues to work on new features and designs for FrontlineSMS.

Amy joined FrontlineSMS at the beginning of 2011 and is coordinating the FrontlineSMS:Radio project. This is a tailored version of FrontlineSMS's free and open-source software which is customized for radio DJs to help them interact with their audiences via text message. The project has involved offering user support to the growing community of radio users who are interested in solutions for the management of SMS and translating their needs into the software development process. Previously, Amy has worked for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, Amnesty International and Action Against Hunger.

A version of this post originally appeared on the FrontlineSMS blog.

August 07 2012


Tired of Text Spam and Dropped Cell Phone Calls? You're Not Alone

Think you're the only one ready to throw your cell phone out the window the next time you have a dropped call or text spam? You're not alone, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The survey found that cell phone problems are a common reality for the 280 million users in the United States.

The report identified four major cell phone problems: 72 percent of all cell users experience dropped calls, 68 percent of all cell users receive unwanted sales or marketing calls, 69 percent of text messaging users in the U.S. receive unwanted spam or text messages, and 77 percent of those who use Internet on their cell phones experience slower than desirable download speeds.


The report also surveyed the frequency of all four mobile phone problems as experienced by smartphone owners. And in all four cases, smartphone owners reported higher incident rates. The largest margins are in spam and unwanted texts -- 29 percent of smartphone owners compared with 20 percent of other cell owners -- and slow download speeds -- 49 percent of smartphone owners compared with 31 percent of other cell owners.

Limited Solutions to Block Spammers

There are several ways people may attempt to remove cell phone nuisances from their daily lives. Step one is to contact your mobile carrier and request the available spam-blocking services.

University of New Hampshire student Feier Liu uses a non-smartphone and first called her mobile carrier to block a spam number about three years ago. The service was free, but only blocks individual numbers. Liu said she hasn't received a spam call since. She is certainly a lucky one.

Another service introduced back in March also counts on mobile users to vigilantly report spam text messages. North American mobile carriers have adopted a centralized spam-reporting service, which collects spam complaints into a shared database to help carriers identify and stop spammers. In practice, users forward spam texts to the shortcode 7726 (or SPAM), prompting the carrier to request the spam number.


Allin Resposo, a web designer and smartphone user, has been reporting every spam text to 7726 since the service was introduced. Resposo hasn't seen an obvious decrease in spam and said that the spam texts are never from the same number.

While smartphones experience more problems, they paradoxically enable more possible solutions. A search for "block spam" on Google Play brings up dozens of apps created to block spam calls and texts. Most of these apps have ratings of four stars or more and could be worthwhile efforts for Android users. However, because of Apple's restrictions on developers, similar apps are not available for the iPhone, which, according to a prior Pew report, is used by some 53 million people in the U.S.

Finding Digital Authenticity

The Pew report stated, "It is against the law in the U.S. to place unsolicited commercial calls to a mobile phone when the call is made by using an automated random-digit dialing generator or if the caller uses a pre-recorded message." Yet spam phone calls, like those offering free cruises to the Bahamas with a pre-recorded "[fog horn] This is your captain speaking" are as real as ever. Clearly, spammers are evolving faster than legislation.

In fact, they may be piggybacking on our mobile dependence. The report also noted that non-white cell owners experience all four of the common cell phone problems at higher weekly rates than white cell owners, possibly due to the fact that "African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to rely on their cell phones as their primary or exclusive phones for calling and for Internet access."

Does all this indicate that more mobile usage equals more problems?

In a world where there are 14 million spam accounts on Facebook and probably similarly disturbing figures on other social networks, it's not hard to imagine that spammers on these mobile-enabled networks will find a way to spam our mobile devices.

Jenny Xie is the PBS MediaShift editorial intern. Jenny is a rising senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying architecture and management. She is a digital-media junkie fascinated by the intersection of media, design, and technology. Jenny can be found blogging for MIT Admissions, tweeting @canonind, and sharing her latest work and interests here.

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June 30 2011


FrontlineSMS, a News Challenge winner, connects people in places where the web is out of reach

Sean Martin McDonald, FrontlineSMS

There are more than 5 billion mobile phone connections on earth, by some estimates, far more than the number of people who have access to clean water. In much of the developing world, however, Internet access is either scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Knight News Challenge winner FrontlineSMS is open-source software that tries to plug the resulting information gap. The platform, which has until now focused on the communications needs of NGOs, has already found success in medicine, agriculture, and election monitoring. Now, with help from KNC’s three-year, $250,000 grant, FrontlineSMS plans to expand its focus to include journalists.

FrontlineSMS is a free download for Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It requires a computer and a cell phone — a cheap one will do — but, importantly, no Internet connection. “It enables people to have complex digital communications with people who may live beyond the reach of the Internet,” said Sean Martin McDonald, the director of operations, Americas, for FrontlineSMS.

The software allows for mass communication over SMS, akin to an email blast, and it supports complex, two-way communication. So a health care worker in India, for example, coud text an appointment reminder to a patient and request a response to find out whether the doctor showed up. The software can capture and store these responses programmatically, which is essential in situations that find you seeking input from dozens or hundreds or thousands of people.

A real-world example is Rien que la Vérité, a fictionalized, documentary-style television series about current events in Kinshasa. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, McDonald said, and viewers are polled via SMS about where to take the conversation next. Community radio stations, too, use the FrontlineSMS software to interact with listeners and solicit public opinion. Sure, American Idol does the same thing, but SMS is connecting people who might not otherwise have a chance to talk.

The Knight grant will enable the organization to build upon its FrontlineSMS:Radio spinoff and develop tools specifically tailored for journalists. The idea is still hazy at this stage: Before solidifying any plans, McDonald wants to survey the needs of people who work in countries where journalism is hard to carry out. A significant chunk of the grant project, he said, will be devoted to research.

“The amount of interest and demand that we get from journalism organizations is pretty intense. There’s a lot of need out there. We’re hoping definitely to work with Knight and their network and be able to get useful software into the hands of some people,” McDonald said.

FrontlineSMS developers are also improving support for MMS, which allows citizens people to share audio, video, and photos over standard cellular connections. The lingering problem: While there are plenty of reporting apps out there, there are none that work without an Internet connection.

Another challenge: The mission of FrontlineSMS can be tricky to carry out in countries with regimes that feel threatened by informed citizens and inquisitive reporters. “We’re not necessarily bringing an anti-censorship angle to this — although I think everybody’s anti-censorship,” McDonald said. “Our focus is really on helping bridge information gaps. There are lots and lots of things with SMS that can expose people to danger if they’re taking up positions that are contrary to government, so that’s not really the operational focus of what we’re doing.”

McDonald said the FrontlineSMS software has already been downloaded 15,000 times in more than 60 countries. It’s in the midst of a total redesign that should be be finished in the “not-too-distant future,” he said. Because the software is available on GitHub, anyone can download the code and improve it right now.

October 14 2010


New Media as a Force for Mobilizing Political Change

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

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

Digital Media Affecting Change

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

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

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

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

Mobile Applications

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

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

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

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

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

Zimbabwe's Traditional Media Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile Growth in Zimbabwe

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

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

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

May 24 2010


South African Paper's Mobile Site Focuses on 'Nowness'

There are no magic wands in the digital transition. Everything has to be built slowly and surely, as with legacy media. And failure is as likely, maybe even more likely, than in the analog world. But you have to keep trying because cell phones, the first true mass digital channel in Africa, are getting faster and smarter; if you don't exploit the power of the new channel, you're toast because others will and are.

Grocott's Mail has been serving the small community of Grahamstown, South Africa with local news and information for a long time (140 years precisely on May 11). Grocott's Online -- which got going properly a year ago -- caters to those who prefer pixels to paper, but until now, locals with mobile phones haven't had a comprehensive way of being informed about what's on the go in Grahamstown.

Launch of Grahamstown NOW

grahamstown now.jpg

Enter Grahamstown NOW, the first concerted attempt by Grocott's Mail to provide news and real-time information to Grahamstonians on a mobile platform. It's part of the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project and is led by Michael Salzwedel. Here's what Michael emailed me when I asked for some info about the technical side of the project:

It's not fancy or shiny - on the surface it appears to be just another mobisite. But there's a lot of depth below that surface. What it lacks in glitz and glam, it makes up for in its ability to serve up a snapshot at any given point in time of what's just happened, currently happening, or about to happen in Grahamstown.

Grahamstown NOW focuses on providing practical, immediately usable information directly related to the living out of the daily lives of people in Grahamstown. The idea is that Grahamstown NOW should become the central aggregator of as much as possible of Grahamstown's news and informational content, ultimately enabling citizens to make more considered decisions.

The launch version of Grahamstown NOW provides the following content:

  • Event listings: These are pulled in from the Grocott's online events calendar. Users can submit their own events directly from their phones.
  • Business specials: What's currently on special (at registered businesses) at any given time in Grahamstown, and how much longer those specials are on for (or time until they start).
  • News items: The latest and most popular stories from Grocott's Online.
  • Webcam snapshots: Users can see current views from a number of webcams across Grahamstown.
  • Movie screenings: What's coming up next at the local cinema.
  • Radio shows: What's on now and coming up next on local radio stations.
  • Weather conditions: Should you grab a jacket or an umbrella? Check on Grahamstown NOW.
  • Tweets: Latest tweets from @grocotts, and the latest tweets mentioning Grahamstown.
  • SMSes: Latest SMSes received by Grocott's Online (MMS support coming soon).
  • Ride offers/requests: A simple matching service.

The emphasis is on time and timing of events and specials and happenings around town. There is also an emphasis on freshness and "nowness." So while many sites allow you to see what's on in the next few days or weeks, or tomorrow's weather, Grahamstown NOW focuses only on today's happenings, weather, shows and commercial specials. If you want to know what's on tomorrow, check in with us again closer to that time.

All About Now

This approach might not work for congenitally forward-planning people, but it is, in testing at least, proving to be a great way to cut through the clutter of most sites, and curate information and news through the singular lens of currentness. Grahamstown NOW only gives you the very latest news story or two, not all of them. If you want to know what's coming up next on the local radio station, we'll tell you -- but not about the show after that.

Instead of comprehensiveness, Grahamstown NOW is much more like Twitter or a Facebook wall. It's about the latest, most current information. If you snooze, you lose that part of the stream.

Michael and his team are enthusiastic about how useful this could be.

"Most of the above can be displayed according to time (countdown until something begins or ends), so the home page and section pages are dynamic and never look the same," he said. "Users might see that a jazz concert is starting in an hour and 30 minutes, or that a 2-for-1 pizza special at a local restaurant started two hours ago, or that the next showing of a certain movie begins in 20 minutes, or that a public council meeting is scheduled for two days' time."

Grahamstown NOW is primarily meant to be accessed with a mobile phone, but there's also a desktop version. For now, that's simply the mobile version contained within a mobile phone graphic, with additional Javascript and AJAX functionality to enhance the user experience by allowing easier inputs and no page reloads.

Users can also interact with the site by leaving "chirps" (comments), submitting their own events and ride offers, and easily sharing content with friends via email or WAP pushes.

Integration With Nika

I asked Michael to outline why Grahamstown NOW will work in our small town, and how it fits in with what we're trying to do with the Nika system we developed. He replied:

The average Grahamstownian is not rich, does not have an expensive phone, and is very conscious of how much they're spending on data. Thus, the first version of Grahamstown NOW has been designed to be accessed on even the simplest of Internet-enabled phones, and the HTML has been 'minified' to reduce bandwidth consumption.

Later in the year, Grahamstown NOW will be integrated with Nika. The aim is for Nika to become the central CMS for all Grocott's Mail's offerings: The print edition, Grocott's Mail Online, Grahamstown NOW, our SMS headline service and our upcoming instant messaging offerings (which will include selected Grahamstown NOW content).

Nika 2.0, which is now available as a free download, is evolving into a more comprehensive and mobile-orientated CMS. At its heart Nika is an editing workflow suite and digital content manager; but Nika also has additional functionality for community newspapers in that it can take SMS and instant messages directly into editing streams, and send SMS and IMs back to cell phones. Overall, Nika is great for generating user generated content and for easily getting headlines (and soon whole stories) back out to users' cell phones.

Future versions of Grahamstown NOW will have more differentiation between what is served up to PCs and to mobile phones, will include geo-location functionality so users can see business or event locations on a map or tag their social networking interactions or content submissions with their location, and will have tighter integration with Facebook.

For now, we think Grahamstown NOW offers immediate benefits for citizens -- with a particular emphasis on "immediate."

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 16 2010


Taking Citizen Journalism to New Levels with Training, Payment, Participation

We've been going through the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and finding a lot of insights useful to our Iindaba Ziyafika project here in South Africa. Although focused on the U.S., the ideas explored under the commission's three core topics: "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," "Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals," and "Promoting Public Engagement" are helping refine some of our project's approaches.

As I outlined in my previous post, when you are small and local, and don't have much money to invest in investigative journalism, it's essential to have citizen journalists who can help out. But how do we provide them with enough skills and motivation to get information out of officialdom? How do we act on the Knight Commission's recommendations, in particular to "get government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records..." and to "develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes"?

This is a particular challenge when a big reason for the lack of "easy and low cost access" is not deliberate obstreperousness, (at least, I like to think it is not!) but rather a lack of skills on government's part, and a lack of easy ways for the public to find and access information. While parts of government are digitizing, and the typewriters are (mostly) gone, it is still amazing how little information is available in digital format in South Africa.

To overcome this, we're discovering you have to roll up your sleeves and, at least at a local level, if you have the resources, actually offer to help. Among other projects, we're meeting with the local police and we are close to a deal where we'll help them capture their daily crime reports in digital format. It helps them do their work better, and it could be a hugely important resource for us as a newspaper website.

We're also working with the city council to create and publish clear visual organograms on our website of 'who does what', 'who reports to whom', and how to contact the right city official when you have a problem. We have plans to publish our city council's meeting agendas and, post meetings, the minutes of those meetings, or record of decisions.

But we've also been thinking hard about the possibly even bigger challenges of "enhancing the information capacity of individuals" and the recommendation the commissioners made to "support the activities of information providers to reach local audiences with quality content through all appropriate media, such as mobile." This recommendation goes to the heart of the Iindaba Ziyafika project. We've had a very busy few months, and there are many new projects and sub-projects that directly address these issues of information maximization -- getting more out -- and ease of access -- getting it out in way that is easy to understand and useful. Here's how some of our projects are being taken to the next level.

Intensifying Citizen Journalism Training

In terms of citizen journalism, it's becoming ever more clear that even a modest amount of training goes a long way. We seem to be settling in at around 20 hours of training. More might be too much from a cost point of view (you can never have too much journalism training!), but it appears that 20 hours of well designed, assignment-intensive teaching seems about right. This training must builds on a selection process that helps find the kind of people who have what we believe are core journalism aptitudes: curiosity, a desire to change things, and the ability to persevere where others would give up!

Our second group of 40 adult citizen journalists are now a month into their training. They attend a two-hour session each week. After six weeks -- 12 hours of face-to-face training and a bunch of assignments -- we're confident they'll be ready to get to work. From our first adult group last year, we already have a few 'stars' writing some great stories -- stories we would otherwise have never got wind of.

We're also putting together a Citizen Journalism training manual, and I'm excited to be writing a paper for presentation at the World Journalism Education Council conference called "What do citizen journalists need to know and when do they need to know it." (Shameless plug: This is going to be a stunning conference, with more than 200 delegates confirmed from around the globe, and strong African participation. It also overlaps with the Highway Africa conference, the biggest annual gathering of African journalists anywhere, and with the Soccer World Cup. And, for anyone who wants to see what we're up to, I'll be giving tours of our pioneering citizen journalism newsroom, Radio Grahamstown, and Grocott's Mail).

All of this is a major escalation of our approach to citizen journalism -- we're going all out to see what will work, what is sustainable, and what will generate good and useful journalism.

A Citizen Journalism Editor

A big insight for us is that, at small papers, while it's great to have a group of trained citizen journalists at an editor's disposal, you need to provide the time and resources needed to nurture them, as well as to edit and fact-check their work. We have decided to appoint a new "citizen journalism editor" who will concentrate and focus on this group of neophyte writers.

This editor will also help us get on top of understanding -- and learning to explain better -- how power works in our small town: How do you get something done? Who delivers and who doesn't? How do you complain and get listened to without having to organise a small riot or, for the better off among our population, without having to pony up for a lawyers letter of demand?

Paying for Citizen Journalism

Providing training and close editorial support might be enough to generate some great stories, but we also believe that, in a town where about half the population live on about U.S. $4 per day, both material incentives (cash and mobile airtime) and non-material incentives (certificates, allowing the publishing of bylines) go a long way. Starting this month, we are experimenting with paying about U.S. $10 for a published story and U.S. $7 for a published photo.

As humble as these stipends might be, we suspect they are going to be just reward for good citizen journalism, and we are counting on these payments to make the whole experience more sustainable.

Opening Up Our Editorial Meeting

We've also decided to allow the most skilled and enthusiastic members of our first adult citizen journalist graduating class of 2009 to attend Grocott Mail's daily 8.30 a.m. news meetings.

These citizen journalists receive the same small payment as the other 36 graduates who are not coming to the meetings, but they have an edge on the others by having earned the opportunity to be in the place where stories ideas are thrown around and reporting tasks are allocated.

Headlines by Text Message

sms ad.pngFinally, we're going live this week -- after six months of testing -- with our text message news headline service. To the left is an ad for the service.

We're looking at signing up a few thousand people out of the local population of 100,000, all of whom will then get one or more of our various free short message daily news headlines, and our more occasional breaking news services. One of the big issues for us, once we got the tech right, has been around audience acquisition, figuring out what we need to know about our users, and when we should gather that information. There's also the challenge of getting the business model right. Our plan is first to build the audience, and then to start selling the last 20 or 30 characters of the text message to local advertisers.

In my next post I'll talk about three new radio shows on Radio Grahamstown, the first of which launched this week. For now, if you want to listen to the streaming audio of the first show or download the podcast, go here.

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