Combating the digital divide in the developing world with mobile phones

Last week, the Guardian reported on a few promising citizen journalism projects in Africa that use mobile phone technology effectively to not only communicate with people but to also allow the audience to contribute to newsgathering. As opposed to the excessive – and even frivolous – growth of smart phone applications in the Western world, mobile phones in developing countries, which are nowhere near as sophisticated as ones in America and Europe, are being used as a reliable proxy for high-speed Internet access to perform basic functions, such as paying grocery bills and delivering medicines. Cell phone companies have bought into this as well, developing cheap, reliable phones with ease of use and practical functionality.

The Ushahidi crowdsourcing project that the Guardian article elaborates, is perhaps one of the best known and most successful mobile journalism exercises in Kenya. Ushahidi–which means “testimony” in Swahili–attempts to gather as much information from the public as possible and then verify this collected data with the help of computer and human confirmation. Launched during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi has since been implemented worldwide — from monitoring unrest in the Congo, tracking violence in Ghaza, to reporting on the Indian elections earlier this year.

The project allows people to contribute in the form of simple text messages, photos and video delivered through smartphones, or reports submitted online; this is posted in real time to an interactive map, accessible directly through smart phone technology. This information can also be converted to formats that are readable in various communities by news organizations in developing countries. The technology itself is open source, so anyone can help enhance and develop it. In order to verify the accuracy of information obtained in the case of breaking news events, Ushahidi has also launched the Swift River Project, which helps voluntary participants worldwide to separate good information from ‘noise,’ or in the team’s own words, in “crowdsourcing the filter.”

Basically, the way it works is that once the aggregated data comes in through multiple streams, be it Flickr, Twitter, or Ushahidi, people can go in and rate the data – the information is thus verified by the sheer power of numbers, as in any crowdsourcing project. In addition, the information is filtered through machine-based algorithms to confirm accuracy. Ushahidi used a similar method to track the Indian elections earlier this year through VoteReport.in. In India, “moblogging” or microblogging, made possible through the explosive popularity of cell phones, has been growing for the past few years. Sites like smsgupshup.com and Vakow.com – Indian versions of Twitter – allow people to disseminate 160-character messages to groups, enabling amateurs to deliver personalized, customized news through sms messages. This makes up for the relative lack of interactivity from mainstream Indian news organizations.

Cell phones as tools for information dissemination are particularly valuable in countries like Zimbabwe where radio transmission is often blocked. Text messages can allow an uninterrupted flow of information in such cases. The Guardian‘s Activate 09 project sends out headlines to tens of thousands of citizens in the Southern African country through sms messaging. In addition, the paper has been crowdsourcing ideas from its global audience on the different methods available to reach thousands of people during breaking news events.

The Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit, has partnered with Google and a Uganda-based telecommunications provider MTN, to answer important queries sent in by residents via text messages; questions range from clarifications about deadly diseases to agricultural problems. In Kenya, RSS feeds from the Internet are fed into mobile phones to educate and inform people, and text-to-speech tools that convert sms messages into audio files are helping the visually impaired. Some Western companies are encouraging Kenyans to take part in crowdsourcing projects in return for micropayments. Citizens perform small tasks such as transcribing audio and tagging photos for small sums of money. The BBC is now providing English language learning capabilities in Bangladesh through cheap audio and SMS lessons through a partnership with mobile service providers.

Despite the availability of hi-speed Internet access in Western countries, the versatility of the cell phone as a vehicle for citizen journalism is very special indeed. The ability of a phone to provide real-time, on-the-ground coverage is undisputed, whether you see an unusual occurrence on the street on your way to a mall in Los Angeles or witness a riot in a displaced community in Darfur.

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1 thought on “Combating the digital divide in the developing world with mobile phones

  1. Dhara

    It is nice to know such things are working in Africa and this concept can also be applied even in countries such as India. Though there is plenty of radio coverage but the news is restricted and hence sms could be ideal provided internet facility is made cheaper through mobile to get RSS Feed.

    Reply

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