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.
I’ve been volunteering with the FrontlineSMS:Radio project and recently had the pleasure of speaking with Colin Spurway of BBC Media Action, an organization which helps people around the world to harness the media to promote change in their communities. Colin is the Project Director of Loy9(pronounced ‘Loy Pram-booun’), a multimedia initiative in Cambodia geared towards encouraging youth participation in civic life through the use of a television series, phone-in radio shows, online discussions and roadshows. We had a great discussion about the significance of the Loy9 initiative in promoting youth engagement in civic society through mobile technology, as well as some of the challenges.
The team at Better FM, a radio station in Fort Portal, Uganda, were the most recent testers to install FrontlineSMS:Radio as part of the ongoing trial. Florence Brisset-Foucault, a researcher for the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at Cambridge University in the UK, is currently in Uganda, and helped with the installation, saying “I'm excited to report that it is running perfectly!” Here, Florence shares some updates from the station and the way they engage MPs in dialogues with listeners about public service delivery. By Dr Florence Brisset-Foucault
Better FM was created in 2008. Despite the fact it's a relatively new station here at Fort Portal, it seems very successful in terms of audience and reach. It has a high degree of response from local politicians, who are keen to engage with local citizens and hear their feedback. Honourable Alex Ruhunda, Member of Parliament for Fort Portal Municipality, District councillors and Tooro Kingdom officials regularly frequent the studios. Better FM has several programmes which focus on ensuring more transparency and accountability on public service delivery, especially concerning procurements and the building of infrastructure, particularly road, electricity and water.
One programme is called 'Know your leaders' which offers an opportunity for listeners to interact with their community’s decision makers. Another is called the ‘Listeners’ Forum’ and is sponsored by a local organisation called Tooro Development Network who specialize in empowering grass root organizations with ICTs and promoting transparency. Both shows are hosted by Better FM presenter Wilfred Mukonyezi, and have a heavy emphasis on being interactive with the community. Wilfred takes around 10 calls during each show and usually receives around 50 SMS, some of which are read on air.
For the past two weeks the station had a technical problem with their internet provider meaning they were not able to receive text messages. On 19th April, we installed FrontlineSMS:Radio – which does not rely on internet connection - on the studio's computer, and Wilfred was really excited.
We played with the software for an hour in order to get more familiar with it; sending text messages and testing functionality by creating imaginary polls. Wilfred immediately created "shows" for all his colleagues, a functionality in FrontlineSMS:Radio which allowed him to set up a space for each presenter to manage SMS relevant to them within the same system. After two weeks without SMS, Wilfred is glad he won't have to depend on the internet to receive messages any more. He said "All my workmates will enjoy this software! It's cheaper, it's easier, and [unlike relying on an internet connection] it doesn't give me a headache!"
To find out more about FrontlineSMS:Radio click here
To find out more about the research of Cambridge Centre for Governance and Human Rights click here. Find out about the Africa's Voices project as part of CGHR research on their website or join the conversation on Facebook
To read a recent update on the trial and research in Uganda and Zambia click here
Earlier this month, Amy and Peter from the FrontlineSMS:Radio team based in London, UK made the short trip north to Cambridge to meet the University’s researchers at the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR). In this post, we share an update on the trial of FrontlineSMS:Radio and research being carried out with Breeze FM, Zambia and Radio Buddu, Uganda.
In 2012, the Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR), as part of its project on 'New communications technologies and citizen-led governance in Africa’ (2010-12), is piloting Africa’s Voices, a collaborative platform aimed at enhancing debate, discussion and knowledge on contemporary issues of public interest in Africa. Designed as an African-wide research initiative, Africa's Voices is aimed at analysing citizens' opinions on a wide range of issues as radio stations all over the continent ask a monthly question and audiences are invited to reply via SMS. Stations are then provided with comparative analysis and can create innovative broadcasts that put their communities’ views in an pan-African perspective. Researchers have recently visited Uganda and Zambia working with local radio stations who are getting ready to ask audience questions. This research will lead to comparative findings on how SMS is used by listeners to discuss issues which affect their community.
Sharath Srinivasan who has been working with presenters in the studio at Breeze FM, Zambia reported that one 45 minute show - based on the role of the police and community in arresting criminal suspects - attracted 60 incoming SMS's and generated a very lively debate. The DJs have been testing FrontlineSMS:Radio’s "shows" function for the first time. Shows are designed to be a space where different presenters can organize their own area within the FrontlineSMS:Radio system. By clicking an “on-air” button, all SMS received from that moment on are fed into the current show, making it easier for DJs to organize messages relevant to them. DJs can click "off-air" when they finish so messages are filtered to the main inbox or another DJ's show. With the awareness that many stations have volunteer staff coming and going, this FrontlineSMS:Radio function is designed to be simple and not restricted to user names or passwords.
Meanwhile, Florence Brisset-Foucault has been at Radio Buddu in Masaka, Uganda, where they receive around 30 text messages per day and are trying to develop their use of SMS. The most popular topics for interaction from the audience seems to be shows on domestic and personal problems. Presenters are enthusiastic about the future for FrontlineSMS:Radio software especially since they previously relied on a premium rate number. A shift to using FrontlineSMS means they can use a local number, reducing the cost for listeners to text the station by 50% or more. Previously people would pay 220 or 250 sh to text the station but now it will be 110 sh or 50 sh if on same network. (1 £ = 3900 sh).
"FrontlineSMS:Radio makes it much cheaper for audiences to interact with us and we hope it will increase access to our debates," Pascal, Radio Buddu's head of news told Florence. Pascal is confident this will enlarge the number of people able to contact the station and share their views.
Another new FrontlineSMS:Radio function is polls, which allows stations to ask listeners to respond to a question using a keyword followed by a letter denominating their answer. When messages are received, FrontlineSMS generates a visual representation in a graph and introduces a system to cope with misspelt keywords through a manual override function. Umar, the programme manager is very excited about the polling activity which he thinks will have great potential particularly in Radio Buddu’s development and health programmes. With a smile, Umar observed that "the polling function will definitely help those of us who are bad at maths, as it displays the results automatically! It will make things easier to announce the results live on air".
You can also hear Hassan Korona of Radio Gbath, Sierra Leone's promotion audio for Africa's Voices here.
For more photos from Radio Buddu see the online album.
By Hussain Abdullah. Reposted from the FrontlineSMS:Radio blog
The increasing penetration of mobile telephony in Africa is widening opportunities for people to take part in discussions about governance. Radio is a widespread medium through which communities can tune-in to listen to debates on topics such as health, the environment and politics. FrontlineSMS:Radio is a software which is being designed to help facilitate radio listener interaction via text message.
The FrontlineSMS:Radio project is generously supported by the Cairns Charitable Foundation which was founded by Lord Simon Cairns. Simon was the chairman of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) between 1981 and 1992, chaired the Overseas Development Institute between 1995 and 2002 and is currently a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Created by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese businessman, the Foundation is focussed on enabling African civil society to hold their governments to account and improving the quality of governance across the continent. Simon also has a longstanding interest in mobile telephone technology, and he was appointed chairman of the African telecommunications company Celtel in October 2007.
Amy O’Donnell met Simon in the Mo Ibrahim Foundation offices, just off Oxford Street, to speak with him about how he thinks new technologies, such as FrontlineSMS:Radio, can help African citizens to influence processes of governance which affect them. The interview is written up here by Hussain Abdullah from FrontlineSMS:Radio.
Simon began the interview by recollecting a discussion he had with Mo Ibrahim many years ago, which eventually led to the creation of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance: a framework enshrining the foundations of good governance. “Mo Ibrahim and I both had, from our separate standpoints, views on why certain countries worked and why certain countries didn’t work.” Simon explained, “We found that it came to thinking in terms of ‘have you got the right leader?’ Then almost everything else will follow. In due course countries can build good institutions, but in the first instance they have to have good leaders... We then got together with the Kennedy School of Governance At Harvard to try to describe what made good governance.” (Read more)