Media

FrontlineSMS transforms Community Radio in Malawi

FrontlineSMS transforms Community Radio in Malawi

Nkhotakota Community Radio Station, along Lake Malawi, is a Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognized broadcaster and has been in operation for eleven years. More than 500,000 people live within our coverage area- transmissions reach Nkhotakota and Ntchisi districts and parts of Nkhatabay, Salima, Dowa, Mzimbaand Kasungu.

Accessibility and Accountability: Social Impact Lab's Governance Project Plans

Accessibility and Accountability: Social Impact Lab's Governance Project Plans

From Colombia to Ghana to Canada, communicating with members of parliament, tracking city council spending, and advocating for environmental oversight of extractive industries are among a wide range of governance activities that have become possible for anyone with access to an internet connection, a computer, or a smartphone. That’s a lot of people, but not nearly enough. 

Now Showing: Africa's Voices

Now Showing: Africa's Voices

Coming to you from the University of Cambridge's Centre of Governance and Human Rights, we are pleased to feature a short film about the Africa's Voices project.  This research pilot project supported local radio stations to use FrontlineSMS for audience participation, in an effort to continue to enhance citizen-based dialogue. Radio is still the killer app in Africa for sharing information. Adding mobile turns a one-to-many medium into a two-way interactive opportunity, empowering people to ask questions and hold their leaders to account.  

Combining Local Radio and Mobile Phones to Promote Climate Stewardship

Combining Local Radio and Mobile Phones to Promote Climate Stewardship

According to the report, with support from the Foundation to Promote Open Society, Developing Radio Partners (DRP) launched the one year pilot project, working with three local radio stations in each country. The primary aim of Zachilengedwe Tsogolo Lathu, as the participants named it ("Our Environment, Our Future"), was to empower rural Zambians and Malawians to address key climate change issues, especially local deforestation, by improving their access to information on the subject via radio and mobile phones.

News That is Node-Worthy: An Idea For Connecting Community Radio Stations in Indonesia

News That is Node-Worthy: An Idea For Connecting Community Radio Stations in Indonesia

Worldwide, media outlets are increasingly mastering two-way communications channels. Radio and television stations are equipped to receive text messages, phone calls, and social media inputs. Staff can then decide to respond over broadcast, or back through the incoming channel. Yet these communications are often restricted to a single node; one community radio station, or a single television outlet, connecting to its own audience. There are often gaps in transmitting that information to other outlets who might also find that information relevant.

7 Ways Newsrooms Can Boost Citizen Reporting

7 Ways Newsrooms Can Boost Citizen Reporting

In my previous post, I argued that established, traditional newsrooms tend to be most comfortable accepting citizen reporting or user-generated content during a large-scale, widespread emergency event. In these circumstances, newsrooms often accept photo and video submissions from the public, or even seek them out on Instagram, Vine or Twitter. Professional journalists or editors may curate tweets or blog posts to summarize the experience of citizens. They may also make a public request for input from those affected, or to clarify incoming information.

FIRST Response Radio - Life Saving Information in Disaster

FIRST Response Radio - Life Saving Information in Disaster

A big thank you to Mike Adams, the INTL Coordinator, for sharing his experiences with FrontlineSMS and further schooling us on how radio can facilitate in saving lives!  In times of disaster radio not only saves lives, it can also bring hope and critical information to the affected community. When the 2004 tsunami struck Banda Aceh, Indonesia, all the radio and TV stations went off air. Similarly, during the 2005 South Asian earthquake, the only radio station near the epicentre lost its tower and went off air. In times like these, people are in desperate need of news and information on how to get to safety and how to survive. However, the unfortunate trend seen recently is that when radio is so important, many times it goes off the air and does not come back until well after the emergency is over.

Can Citizen Journalism Move Beyond Crisis Reporting in Traditional Newsrooms?

Can Citizen Journalism Move Beyond Crisis Reporting in Traditional Newsrooms?

Citizen reporters broke much of the news, though they still needed broadcast media to help spread it. In some cases, citizens were able to capture iconic photos of events. Others were able to tell compelling stories about how the emergency affected their lives, including obeying the "stay in place" request by government officials during the manhunt. It has been widely reported how quickly social communities also got information wrong, including falsely accusing suspects. But I've seen a nearly equal number of reports showing how quickly these communities were able to self-correct their own misinformation.

Low tech adaptations for a community communications system

For the past month, I’ve been in Sudan working to set up the information flows and tech that will support SUDIA’s Community Communications System. From the tech and information management perspective, SUDIA’s System is interesting because it adapts to a low tech environment by integrating SMS and radio, and processing information largely offline. The System collects and disseminates information useful to communities that live along the migratory routes in Blue Nile State. It focuses on information that communities themselves can use to make their livelihoods more sustainable and more peaceful. In other words, the System is not aimed at organizations (Government or non-Government) that can use information to provide services or design interventions. Rather, it is aimed at communities helping themselves, and provides information that is useful to community leaders in organizing local community responses to livelihood challenges.

News Participation Starts at 'Home'

Seemingly every major news event worldwide is heightening participation in news. People are eager to share updates and photos of an unfolding news event, ask questions of media outlets, and share important information. But there are two important aspects to this type of participation: (1) people are most interested in sharing news about the community around them, specifically with others in their community and (2) the mechanism by which they choose to share information is dependent upon personal habits and access. In other words, people write about their immediate world using their 'home' or go-to platform.

FrontlineSMS at 7: Al Jazeera gives a voice to the people of Uganda via SMS

In the third of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns 7, Trevor Knoblich, our Media Project Manager reflects on how Al Jazeera, the media house, gave the people of Uganda a voice, via SMS, in response to the controversial Kony 2012 video which went viral a few months ago. 

"As the media project manager at FrontlineSMS, I've heard many inspiring stories of journalists and media organizations deploying the software in creative ways. One of my favorites is relatively recent: the FrontlineSMS component of Al Jazeera's Uganda Speaks program. Members of Al Jazeera's New Media team felt Ugandan voices were lacking from the global debate around the controversial Kony 2012 viral video. To help connect Ugandan voices to the debate, Al Jazeera established an awareness-raising campaign, which consisted of showing the video and then inviting Ugandans to post their reactions to the debate via Twitter, e-mail and SMS. They even connected the responses to a map, allowing people from around the world to see where respondents were located.

"I had the pleasure of meeting one of Al Jazeera's New Media team, Soud Hyder, pictured here, and asked him about the project. Specifically, I was curious about the value of SMS in such a campaign. He told me that SMS allowed Al Jazeera to reach people who had no other option for participating in the debate - a voiceless population. 'Text is an equalizer that allows us to elevate more voices, which amplifies the conversation,' Hyder said.

"I've heard similar reactions about our software globally. Many people worldwide have an increasing ability to share and participate in news, but millions more are left out of this conversation. FrontlineSMS, combined with the proliferation of mobile phones around the globe, opens new possibilities for citizen engagement."

We’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

FrontlineSMS at 7: Rite FM, Ghana

FrontlineSMS is coming up to 7 years old in October 2012 - seven years ago, our Founder Ken Banks made the first, prototype version available for download. We're celebrating this milestone by highlighting the people we work for - our wonderful users. That's you, folks. See a slideshow of our users showing off their work here.

To kick us off, our FrontlineSMS:Radio Project Manager, Amy O'Donnell, highlights one of the many radio stations using FrontlineSMS - Rite FM, in Ghana. You'll hear more from our team, including Ken, in the next four weeks, as we highlight more of the incredible work done by people using FrontlineSMS around the world.

Amy writes:

RiteFm: We Promote Agric & Social Development in celebration of FrontlineSMS 7th birthday... send in your photo with what you use FrontlineSMS for.

RiteFm: We Promote Agric & Social Development in celebration of FrontlineSMS 7th birthday... send in your photo with what you use FrontlineSMS for.

Rite 90.1 FM is a radio station in Ghana which focuses on agriculture and social development to inform and educate local farmers. They take the lead from their audience, using SMS, and make sure their shows are responsive and relevant to their community. This use case, for me, also shows how SMS participation empowers communities to seek information vital to their livelihoods.

The catchment area of Rite FM is diverse, with both rural and urban populations in the Eastern Region each having  their own unique challenges, so it's important to make sure programming is participatory and responds to local needs. This is why presenters, including Ike Obufio (photo above) use FrontlineSMS to encourage listeners to share their farming experiences via SMS. The audience are invited to text in their opinion to polls on the major causes of food insecurity or add their voices to debates on industrialized farming techniques and genetically modified foods.

Using SMS allows Rite FM to dramatically increase the number of people who can contribute -  there is high mobile penetration in Ghana and because SMS is digital there's virtually no limit to the number of votes in a poll, for example. One of the presenters, Asamoah, believes offering options in communication channels is very powerful. He says; “If you stick to only phone-in, you can’t progress. You can’t reach out to everybody."  SMS also adds flexibility to incorporate free-form comments fluidly -  as he points out: “Even when I’ve not gone on air, I can respond to you.”

You can get involved too:

Starting today, we're collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: 'I monitor elections', 'I safeguard children' or 'I make art'. You can see a slideshow of the photos we've had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn't matter what language it's in as long as it's legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we'll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we'll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

The Unheard Millions: A New Audience Joins Global News Conversations

On Friday, August 31st 2012 PBS featured a blog post written by Trevor Knoblich, our Media Project Manager. The post focused on our plans to integrate journalism tools into FrontlineSMS, enabling news-gatherers all over the world to integrate SMS more easily into their work. Thanks to PBS for allowing us to repost the piece here - you can find the original on the PBS Media Shift website. If you are interested in hearing more about our work, please email services@frontlineSMS.com to get in touch with the team.

By Trevor Knoblich, Media Project Manager

The field of journalism has faced a number of technology-driven changes in the past decade, including the advent of blogs, the generating and sharing of news via social media, and the tentative move by many governments to provide open data.

So many elements of news have evolved that many experts think we're on the verge of a revolution in digital journalism, including Google's director of news and social products, Richard Gingras. "The media landscape is in the process of being completely transformed, tossed upside down; reinvented and restructured in ways we know, and in ways we do not yet know," Gingras argued recently during a keynote address at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass and Communication. "The process of change is far from over. Indeed, it will never be over."

NEWS AS A PARTICIPATORY PROCESS

When thinking about all of these changes, I find one shift particularly inspiring: the growing concept of news as a participatory process. In the past, news was produced largely by media outlets and consumed by readers, viewers, or listeners -- a passive audience. Of course, now we view news as a lively and active discussion, in which former "consumers" participate in sharing stories, providing news tips, raising questions, and adding depth and context to stories.

Chris Lehmann, former chief of Yahoo News, recently told the New York Times' David Carr, "News is an activity, a verb really." He was primarily referring to the editorial room, but I think this now equally applies to all people who regularly read, share, write, and contribute to news. We live in an active news culture, in which stories are rarely static, breaking news reaches the world in a matter of seconds, and average citizens have access to many tools to provide news tips, content, and context nearly instantaneously.

This access has been described as public, participatory or citizen journalism, with varying definitions for each -- and no definition that everyone can agree on. That said, regardless of the title we give to this shift in news culture, the combination of ways in which people can contribute to news is encouraging. The more people are seeking, discussing, and shaping information, the closer we may get to a common understanding of the issues and challenges we face in our community, region, nation, or planet. This shift also allows information to spread quickly, and reach more people.

EXPANDING GLOBAL PARTICIPATION

With this in mind, I accepted my role at FrontlineSMS with a specific purpose: to extend global participation in news to people who otherwise would be left out of this shift, meaning those with no or infrequent access to the Internet. Lack of Internet access should not exclude people from receiving, discussing, and shaping the news that affects their lives. And while many people still lack Internet access, nearly everyone has access to a mobile phone, and by extension SMS.

SMS is the most pervasive digital communications platform in existence. As such, news outlets can use SMS to invite more people to participate in news in a variety of ways. Participants may be trained citizen journalists, eyewitnesses sharing news tips or photos, or even commentators on important stories.

Yes, this brings with it the challenge of vetting information, verifying senders, and devising clever mechanisms for being inclusive of a variety of different voices. But I believe we can meet those challenges, and the result will be a more robust audience participating in news in a more informed way. In fact, I've already seen inspiring examples of this from our user base at FrontlineSMS.

In one example, Al Jazeera noticed that while many people around the world were discussing the viral, controversial Kony 2012 video, there was a glaring gap in input from people in Uganda, where much of the discussion is focused. In response, Al Jazeera established the Uganda Speaks program, allowing people in Uganda to join the conversation in a variety of formats, including SMS, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. For those without Internet access, SMS became a critical channel to weigh in on the global dialogue.

In another example, Indonesian television station RuaiTV trained citizen journalists in a method for texting information on illicit activities by palm oil companies. Citizen journalists would text or call with information about suspected wrongdoings, and RuaiTV would follow up on the news tips. In this manner, citizens were actively working to hold companies and governments accountable to the local legal framework.

At FrontlineSMS, we are motivated by these and similar user stories. These organizations are working to lower the barriers for participating in news debates, whether they are local or global. Via SMS, we can now invite many more people to receive news, share new ideas, and foster discussion around topics that are important to them. In many cases, people have this type of access for the first time in their lives. Thanks to the creativity of our users, potentially millions of new voices are now invited to participate in news. It will be thrilling to hear what they have to say.

Trevor Knoblich works as Project Manager for FrontlineSMS, a 2011 Knight News Challenge winner. He began his career as a federal policy reporter in Washington, DC,then spent 5 years working as a humanitarian specialist. He currently works on issues at the intersection of journalism, technology and developing countries. At FrontlineSMS, he is building tools to help journalists and media outlets around the world improve their ability to gather, track and share news.

Slate.com features FrontlineSMS usage for a Radio station in Malawi

On 19th July 2012 Slate featured how FrontlineSMS was used by a Radio station in Malawi in a great article stressing the importance of radio as an accessible, locally appropriate technology in developing countries. Thanks Slate! Watch this space for the launch of FrontlineSMS: Radio, a version of our award-winning platform designed for use by radio stations, coming soon ...

So radio is important—but not perfect. Although community radio stations often involve local residents in programming and long-term planning, getting real-time feedback from listeners can be challenging. Voice calls are expensive, and stations have a limited time to take calls from their audiences. This is where mobile telephony and text messaging can be a game changer, transforming radio listeners into active participants.

Another example: FrontlineSMS, an organization devoted to leveraging mobile phones for development. Unlike similar organizations, Frontline has devoted significant resources to radio initiatives. Frontline’s platform has been used by community radio stations like Radio Mudzi Wathu in Malawi, which uses Frontline SMS to solicit questions, comments, and ideas from listeners. During prime listening hours, Radio Mudzi asks its audience questions like “why do you think that HIV/AIDS is increasing despite interventions?” and asks them to text their responses. They then aggregate the responses, analyze them, and take them to local policymakers and aid workers.

In addition to facilitating audience participation, SMS-oriented radio initiatives allow for unprecedented levels of audience research. After receiving feedback on any given issue, stations have a repository of information that they can analyze and look back on in order to better serve needs of audience. As they identify trends, needs, and concerns, radio stations can catalyze a profoundly fruitful cycle, using more relevant programming to drive audience engagement, thereby soliciting more feedback and dialogue.

So how can we encourage more hybrid radio/mobile projects? First of all, we need to adjust the way we approach technology intended for the developing world. When designing, funding, researching, or discussing technology for development projects, we need to stop being fixated on one technology or platform and instead consider how new technology can be integrated with existing needs, values, and networks.

"Making Our Own News" - Sharing Women's Social Knowledge in Sri Lanka

FrontlineSMS has huge potential as a tool for news-sharing, and this user guest post shows an example of this from a womens news network in Sri Lanka.

By Ananda Galappatti, Minmini News

Minmini News is a local SMS news service for women in the Batticaloa District of Eastern Sri Lanka. Batticaloa is the poorest district of Sri Lanka, still slowly emerging from the destruction of a three-decade-long civil war that ended in 2009. Throughout the war, and following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Batticaloa's coastline, women played a crucial role in responding to the difficult circumstances that their families and communities had to endure. The same is true now, during the difficult recovery after the war. However, the important concerns and remarkable experiences of women in Batticaloa are rarely reflected in the mainstream media that reaches their towns and villages. The news they receive, it seems, is not produced with them in mind.

The Model

In mid-2010, a small informal collective associated with women's groups in Batticaloa decided to trial a model for sourcing, producing and sharing news relevant to women of the area. The small founding group decided to field test the model through two pilot-testing phases in 2011, with small groups of 15-30 readers, who also served as the sources of news. There was initially some scepticism from colleagues and friends about the added value of providing women's news by SMS. However, the data from the pilot phase showed that not only were readers overwhelming positive about the service, but that it exposed them to novel and useful information, and had some influence on their perspectives.  Minmini Seithihal (translation: Firefly News) went public in August 2011.

The model tested continues to be used, and is directly based around sourcing news from the strong network of women community workers in different parts of the district. News information is collected fact-checked and written-up in text messages by a central 'news team' of one or two women. The prepared news messages can then be reviewed by an editor, and between one and three messages are sent out to readers (who subscribe to the service via text message) through FrontlineSMS each day.

Content

Minmini News delivers a broad range of content to its readers.  It provides information about public services relevant to women, including: details on government health clinics, special mobile services for basic official documentation or land registration, services for migrant workers and their families, or information about government schemes for persons with disability. Minmini News also covers local crises, such as floods or local conflicts between neighbouring communities. It also reports on services for gender-based violence and challenges faced by women in post-conflict recovery.

In addition, Minmini News  hashighlighted women's achievements, both large and small; within Batticaloa and beyond.  It covered issues related to livelihoods, costs of living and accessibility of markets for women's products. It drew attention to local cultural activities and social interventions by women. Minmini News represented a series of life-histories of women whose lives illustrated the diversity of experience within the district.

In all its coverage, Minmini News has tried to highlight the meaning that the events or processes have for the lives of women - often drawing attention to individual stories to convey this. However, rather than provide explicit editorial commentary on issues, SMS stories are used to provide a series of factual reports for readers to interpret themselves. The stories themselves are sourced from the team of volunteer 'reporters', and also from readers.

Impact

Independent interviews with readers and women contributors to Minmini News showed that the service was appreciated, and that it had changed their relationships to consumption of and sharing of news and information. One reader said, "it is difficult for me or others to go out and get news in our environment. Now we all have mobile phones in our hands, so it is good to get news from where we are [located]. Without any expense, I am getting news [on things happening] around me."  Another said she felt that women often found it socially more difficult than men to share their views or information publicly, and therefore, "were treated as second class [citizens]." Minmini News and its content, she felt, offered an opportunity for women's abilities to be highlighted and their views to be taken seriously.

In another  remarkable case, after hearing a news story via Minmini News, a community worker assisted a family to file a report on a woman who had been missing in the Middle East for over a year. When she was traced, it was found that she had been severely maltreated, and she was repatriated for care and recovery at home. Many of the effects of Minmini News are more subtle, but it is clear women who are subscribing to the service feel that the way they are engaged with mainstream media has changed, and they are now more sensitive to issues related to women's lives and rights.

Financing Ethos

Minmini News seeks to operate at a minimal cost. The start-up equipment (an old laptop and 3G dongle) was donated by members of the news team, who also collectively paid for the cost of messages during the pilot phase. Since its public launch, the policy of Minmini News has been to finance the service through small voluntary or in-kind contributions from its readers. Whilst the news team donate their time and personal resources to support the minimal operating infrastructure, Minmini News readers contribute to the cost of SMS messages by 'reloading' (ie. topping up) the pay-as-you-go number used by the service.  These contributions are effectively pooled so that all readers may benefit from what is paid. Those who can afford more, pay more so that others can receive the service. Others pay when or what they can.

Scaling Up

Minmini News is now entering a new phase, with active recruitment of women readers in rural communities in Batticaloa. This brings new opportunities in terms of prospects for broader sources of news, but also challenges in terms of verification. Plus, the financing model that has worked very well with a 100+ readers in the first phase of the service will also be tested as the service scales up. Minmini News is will be looking to expand in future, fostering similar networks in other districts of Sri Lanka, through which relevant news from local women in other areas can be exchanged bilaterally between 'sister' services.

- - -

Here at FrontlineSMS we really look forward to staying in touch with Ananda and all those at Minmini News, and hearing how this innovative news service develops! o/

About the author of this post:

Ananda Galappatti is a medical anthropologist and a practitioner in the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in situations of emergency and chronic adversity. He is a co-founder of the journal Intervention, the online network mhpss.net and the social business The Good Practice Group.  Ananda lives in the town of Batticaloa on the East coast of Sri Lanka, where he volunteers as an editor for Minmini News.

Uganda Speaks: Al Jazeera use FrontlineSMS to hear from Ugandans on Kony 2012

FrontlineSMS has been featured in an article from Fast Company's co.Exist blog, which covers how Al Jazeera's "Uganda Speaks" campaign is making innovative use of communications technologies, including FrontlineSMS. You can find a short extract of the article below, and the full article can be found here.

The groundswell of focus on Uganda and Joseph Kony continues today with the launch of Uganda Speaks, an ambitious project from Al Jazeera that will allow ordinary Ugandans to post text messages - via local SMS numbers - to let the world know what their country is really like (instead of just the #kony2012 version).

Hundreds of users, most of them Ugandans with Internet access, have already posted tweets with the #ugandaspeaks hashtag. Most of these criticize the worldwide response to the Kony 2012 video, which many of the Ugandans (and worldwide observers) claim grossly simplifies a complicated war. Al Jazeera’s Riyaad Minty told Co.Exist that “we launched Uganda Speaks to get responses from people across Uganda via text message, email, Twitter, and Facebook. The idea is to have ordinary Ugandans talk about the [Kony 2012] video in their own voice, as this has largely been missing from the conversation.”

Al Jazeera began working on Uganda Speaks on March 5--two days after the Kony 2012 video first went online. The project is using two pieces of technology for the backend: FrontlineSMS for the SMS-to-Twitter conversion, and Ushahidi to visualize and map data. The station’s The Stream program solicited a video Kony 2012 response from Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire of Channel 16 as well.

To read the full article, please visit Fast Company's co.Exist blog.

Using Radio to Promote Peace: The Tea Garden Tamils

In an interview with Francis Rolt from Radio for Peace Building, Hussain Abdullah reflects on how radio can be used for promoting peace. To read the full article on the FrontlineSMS:Radio website click here

"Radio for Peace Building is an organisation which provides advice and training on using radio for behaviour change communication, in particular for the peaceful transformation of conflicts in pre-, current or post conflict contexts. In this post, Francis describes Radio for Peace Building’s most recent support on an SFCG project working with the Tea Garden Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Francis told us about his recent work with Search for Common Ground. “SFCG is working with the Tea Garden Tamils, who are quite distinct from the Tamils in the North – a different sort of demographic – who came to Sri Lanka at a different time. As part of an inclusive citizenship project, we are helping to organise a series of radio talk shows and audio dramas.” The drama narratives and topics of the talk shows would be guided by the use of mobile to make it a truly inclusive project."

To read the full article on the FrontlineSMS:Radio website click here

A Crowd-Seeding System in Eastern Congo: Voix des Kivus

With thanks to Ushahidi for letting us re-post the below from their blog.

Guest blog post by Peter van der Windt, PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University focusing on Africa. Peter has been directly involved in Voix des Kivus from the start in 2009 when he presented the project (see video) at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009). More on Peter's research, teaching and background available here.

Voix des Kivus

A crowd-seeding system in Eastern Congo that uses cell phones to obtain high-quality, verifiable, and real-time information about events that take place in hard-to-reach areas. This pilot project is led by Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys from the Center for the Study of Development Strategies at Columbia University.

The pilot

Atrocities in hard-to-reach areas – for example many areas in Eastern Congo – often go unnoticed because of the lack of accessibility, both due to poor infrastructure and to the simple fact that fighting makes it too dangerous to get close. The inability of international organizations and humanitarian NGOs to collect information under these conditions hampers the provision of assistance in a timely and effective manner.

There is fast growing recognition of the role that technology can play in addressing these problems. But a real challenge faced by many approaches is the difficulty of getting data that is not just real time, but representative. Columbia University (with support from USAID) began the Voix des Kivus pilot project in summer 2009 to assess the technical feasibility of a decentralized, representative, SMS-based information system in the region and to assess the utility of the program to participating communities and potential users. Presently (beginning 2011) the program is operating in a random sample of 18 villages from four territories of the war-torn province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Phoneholders and the goal

It works like this. In each village participating in Voix des Kivus there are three cell phone holders: one representing the traditional leadership, one representing women’s groups, and one elected by the community. Holders are trained extensively on how to send messages to the system. They are provided with a phone, monthly credit, and a codesheet that lists possible events that can take place in the village. Sending messages to the system is free but it is also voluntary – while users do not have to pay for each message they do not get any financial rewards for sending content to the system.

For participating communities Voix des Kivus provides a system for creating histories, archiving testimonies, and communicating with the rest of the world about events that affect their daily lives. For researchers and practitioners working in the region the information gathered forms an important resource to learn more about the situation on the ground in hard-to-access areas.

Technology and the data

The technology for Voix des Kivus is cheap to set up and simple to use. Built on the freely available FrontlineSMS software, the system allows holders to send numeric or full text posts from almost any cell phone. On the receiving side a standard cell phone linked to a laptop linked to the internet comprise the necessary equipment. With other freely available software (R and LaTeX – our code is available upon request), messages received are automatically filtered, coded for content, cleaned to remove duplicates, and merged into a database. Graphs and tables are automatically generated which can then be automatically mounted into bulletins spanning any period of interest and with different levels of sensitivity. Translations of non-coded text messages (often from Swahili into French and English) are undertaken manually.

Over the last 18 months phone holders have sent thousands of pre-coded and text messages ranging from reports of attacks and abductions to reports of crop diseases and floodings. The constant flow of data from our phone holders is kept in a database and captured in weekly bulletins. Each Monday a bulletin is produced and disseminated that presents events that took place in the preceding week. These bulletins are shared with organizations that have received clearance from Voix des Kivus and its phone holders. The latter includes several development organizations based in Bukavu, DR Congo who can use the data to evaluate the situation on the ground throughout the region.

Crowseeding vs crowdsourcing

An important question for a system like this is whether the messages received can be trusted. Here we find the true value of crowdseeding. In most crowdsourcing approaches anyone can send information directly to the system. Crowdseeding works in a more restricted way with phone holders that are pre-selected, and only they can send in information. Crowdseeding has three main advantages for data quality: 1. The data is received from a representative set of areas; 2. All senders are known to the system and are in a  long term relationship with the Voix des Kivus program; 3. Because more than one holder is selected in each village “internal validation” is also possible. The system can also be used for sending information to holders and for engaging in more interactive forms of data collection. There are also disadvantages of this approach relative to crowdsourcing, the most obvious is that because of their relation with the program there may be concerns about the security of holders.

What we learned from the pilot

We have learned a lot from the pilot. The technical and social capacity is there right now. Interest in participating areas has been very great as witnessed by the steady stream of messaging. Technical barriers were also not as great as expected; solar technology can be used to power phones in the most remote areas and cell phone coverage is much greater than some maps suggest. Data quality appears good with fairly high levels of internal validation. Two questions though are still unanswered. First although we encountered no security concerns we do not know how safe the system would be for holders if it operated on a larger scale. Second, we don’t know whether this information will get seriously used. At the scale in which we have been operating many organizations expressed great interest in the concept and the data; but we do not know of any serious reactions from international actors to the messages coming in, including real time reports of attacks and abuses. Phone holders have continued to engage with the system despite the poverty of reactions, but we cannot expect that to continue forever.

Continuation?

After operating for more than  a year and a half as a pilot in Eastern Congo, the Voix des Kivus experience suggests that obtaining verifiable, high-quality data in real-time from these hard-to-reach areas is not only possible, but needs much less expense and oversight than previously thought. Our pilot is now coming to an end and Columbia is bowing out from Voix des Kivus. The big question we face now is whether and how to continue the system after the pilot, whether this should be run by a domestic group or an international group, whether this should continue as an open resource or as a resource tied to the operations of organizations that can respond. Please post your thoughts here.

For more information see: http://cu-csds.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Voix-des-Kivus-Leaflet.pdf and www.cu-csds.org

Human rights, SMS and the power of film

Tonight sees the screening of "The Reckoning" - a film about the battle for the International Criminal Court - at The Soul of The New Machine human rights conference in Berkeley, California. In this - the sixth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts - Paco de Onis, the films' Director, talks about how they plan to use FrontlineSMS as a way of engaging their audience as the film is shown around the world

"The Reckoning"The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague represents the most ambitious attempt ever to apply the rule of law on a global scale to protect the most basic human rights. It emerged from and reflects a world where sovereign nations are increasingly interdependent and at risk. In order to increase awareness of the ICC and highlight the essential role that justice can play in moving societies from violent conflict to peace and stability, Skylight Pictures produced the feature-length documentary film The Reckoning.

To accompany the release of The Reckoning, Skylight Pictures and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) are co-producing IJCentral, designed to be the core of a global grassroots social network and resource for the international movement to bring perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide to justice. IJCentral will implement a multi-platform strategy with online mapping technology to visualize the movement, aggregating blogs, news feeds, short films and media modules created for education and advocacy.

One of the most exciting features of IJCentral will be FrontlineSMS two-way "listening posts" that will allow us to hear from concerned citizens around the world using their mobile phones to join the global conversation about justice, and respond to calls to action coming from the IJCentral social network. These "listening posts" will be deployed through the global network of our strategic partner the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), an umbrella organization of 2,500 NGOs and civil society groups that has been at the forefront of the international justice movement since 1995.

IJ Central

A high school class in Indianapolis will be able to have a real-time SMS exchange with an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Uganda, for example, or in a presentation to Congress the IJCentral map could light up with geolocated SMS messages calling for an effective international justice system. As it accumulates content from users engaged with international justice, IJCentral will become an invaluable database for defending human rights around the world, and a powerful action tool.

For more than 25 years Skylight Pictures has been committed to producing artistic, challenging and socially relevant independent documentary films on issues of human rights and the quest for justice. Through the use of film and digital technologies, we seek to engage, educate and increase understanding of human rights amongst the public at large and policy makers, contributing to informed decisions on issues of social change and the public good. We see FrontlineSMS as a hugely valuable tool in enabling us to open the debate further, and to include individuals and communities who may have otherwise been excluded.

The International Center for Transitional Justice assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse. The Center works in societies emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict, as well as in established democracies where historical injustices or systemic abuse remain unresolved.

Thank you. You can also follow our work on Twitter via @pacony and @IJCentral

Paco de Onis Director, "The Reckoning" www.thereckoningfilm.com

FrontlineSMS: Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

In this, the second of a series of guest posts on how FrontlineSMS is being used around the world, Dr. Mohammad Akbar and Kenneth Adam - Director and Business Advisor respectively at Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) - talk about their current and planned uses of the platform, and the impact it is having on their work "A recent special edition of a radio programme for young people in Afghanistan was devoted to one topic – the shocking recent acid attack on girls attending school by violent extremists allied to the Taliban. The impact on the audience was recorded in some 300 phone calls from listeners – a record for the long running programme "Straight Talk", produced by a team of young broadcasters from Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA).

This audience response provides an example of what is possible given the enormous growth in mobile phones in Afghanistan, well over 6 million and rising at over 100,000 a month. Young people in the troubled south often feel isolated and bored, trapped in a conflict which shows no sign of going away. Development activities have largely been suspended because of insecurity. They want to hear and view programmes on issues important to them, and to contribute to the debate, and with 84% of households possessing working radios and 38% TVs, there is great potential in this approach.

MSPA "Straight Talk"

MSPA will be using FrontlineSMS as one of the tools in a new project as part of a British Government-funded media initiative to engage with young people specifically in conflict affected regions though interactive radio programming, tied in with a national competition for young people to produce short video films on their mobile phones. FrontlineSMS will play a key role in the competitive process of selecting the individuals to be given the new mobile phones and trained in their use. This project is planned to start in April 2009. Initial trials using the software are underway, with a view to collecting information on listeners’ views on a variety of topics and feeding these back to them with the help of FrontlineSMS. This will allow active dialogue on issues as varied as the activities of NATO forces in the country and whether Afghans should bear arms, to commenting on education and health services.

Another important application this year will be in the run up to the Presidential Election  in September. The media is key to informing the population about the rights of voters, and about the policy of different candidates. FrontlineSMS could be used to elicit the views of listeners in different categories and feed back the results to listeners, prolonging the debate and in so doing capturing the interest of people who are actively engaged in the debate".

Dr. Akbar, MSPA Director Kenneth Adam, MSPA Business Adviser Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) www.mspa.org.af