Bridging the Digital Divide: Mobile and Social Media

free software,GlobalVoices,ICT4D,technology — Danica @ 6:28 pm, April 23, 2014

In case you missed my article Going Mobile published by Index on Censorship, here is an update article published at Rising Voices.

Technology experts and activists have for years attempted to bridge the gap between those with access to technology and those without, using innovative products and initiatives, like the $100 laptop developed by the organisation One Laptop per Child.

But it takes more than a computer to bridge the gap. The mobile phone has emerged as a powerful tool for social engagement; mobile technology and social media applications are playing a vital role in giving excluded groups a voice. Around 70 per cent of mobile phone users are in developing countries, mostly in the global South, according to the UN agency the International Telecommunications Union. Mobile phones are the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users in the developing rather than developed world.

Photo by Africa Renewal CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Africa Renewal CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While access to the Internet is important, it is only the starting point, which is where mobile technology comes in. Unlike the Internet, mobile is not hampered by slow broadband speeds or electricity shortages, and can be used by those who cannot read or write. As a result, mobile phones are increasingly playing a vital role in shaping activism, raising awareness, and ultimately giving citizens a voice. New mobile platforms are simple and portable which require only simple text messaging capability to be used as a tool for a host of activities, from providing logistical support in natural disasters to tracking violence.

Despite the way in which social media and mainstream news like to talk about “new digital divides,” they are not new at all. From my own research in the field, it seems that the core issues are about social power, and access to information and skills.

Ushahidi – meaning “testimony” in Swahili – is a good example of this trend. This non-profit tech company specialises in developing free and open source software to enable users to share, interact and report on what’s happening in their society, available for anyone with a mobile phone. In a past analysis, Crowdglobe, which conducts research on crowdsourcing mapping systems, documented almost 13,000 Ushahidi crowdmaps in over 100 countries. The program allows people to set up their own map without having to install it on their web servers.

NT Mojos, a project undertaken by the Australian Government in 2011, gave citizens a voice as well asthe opportunity to become the creators of content, allowing allows them to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information such as governments, publishing houses and media organisations, which control access to services, debate and knowledge.

A similar project in India, CGNet Swara, a mobile-based news service, was launched as a portal for the Chhattisgarh tribe, which lacks access to mainstream media. The open-source software overcomes two barriers – literacy and lack of Internet access – by allowing individuals to report news in their own language to their community and beyond. With the program, “citizen reporters” call a number to record a news item, which is then verified by a trained journalist at CGNet Swara. Once a report has been approved, any listener can hear it by dialing into the same voice messaging service with their mobile phone.

Training Camp. Image courtesy CGNet Swara
Training Camp. Image courtesy CGNet Swara

A similar project in Australia’s Northern Territory funded and undertaken by the Australian Government in 2011 used storytelling to bridge the divide between the white and indigenous populations. NT Mojos allowed indigenous people to create and share their stories on their mobile phones. The project first taught participants the art of storytelling before moving on to the technology itself. For more about this project, watch the documentary on The Making of NT Mojo: 

In another example, Bangladesh’s Citizen’s Voice aims to empower individuals by providing a platform for feedback on public services. People can send text, voice or video messages in either Bangla or English via their mobile phones or the internet to express opinions on services, such as healthcare, traffic and water or gas supplies.

Maureen Agena, a programme manager at Text to Change, an initiative based in countries affected by poverty and conflict, says that in Uganda and many other African countries, mobile technology has quickly become popular as it does not require internet access or knowledge of the English language. Agena recognises the importance of this technology for women in particular, as it offers them more flexibility and accessibility than they have had before – important when considering that in 2012, UNESCO reported that out of the world’s 775 million illiterate people, 64 percent are women. Agena says:

In a country like Uganda and many other African countries, mobile technology has quickly become much more cost effective for telecommunication provision. But social media is not because of the fact that its use and application requires internet, knowledge of the English Language and skills which majority of the rural and Peri-urban who constitute the biggest part of a country’s population lack.

The benefits of mobile technology in helping to bridge the digital divide are not just limited to the developing world. A 2012 Pew report by Kathryn Zickuhr and Aaron Smith entitled Digital Differences noted that the rise of mobile internet use in the United States meant users on the wrong side of the digital divide were increasingly going online. This was not only to find information, but also to create content. The report stated that this was especially important for mobile users, noting: “those with no college experience and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.”

In Los Angeles, Mobile Voices – an academic/community partnership between the Annenberg School for Communication and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California – provides a platform for immigrant communities and low-wage urban workers to tell stories directly from their mobile phones. The aim of the project is to encourage participants to create their own narrative, countering the often negative images portrayed in the anti-immigrant press.

Even commercial enterprises are following suit. In January of 2012, Wikipedia teamed up with French telecoms corporation Orange to provide mobile phone customers in Africa and the Middle East with access to the online encyclopaedia free of data charges. Wikipedia is the sixth most visited site in the world. The following month, Telenor Group, the international wireless carrier from Norway, offered the same service to its customers in Asia and South-Eastern Europe.

It is clear that mobile technologies are already being used to share and access information, exchange ideas, educate, and directly engage. This trend will have more of an impact on individuals and communities as open source and decentralised methods of exchanging information are championed in a more significant way.

But ultimately, one size cannot fit all: the barriers to digital inclusion in different regions and communities can differ.

Meanwhile, new online publishers are striving towards open access repositories to break down those walls. Civil society groups are increasingly using more open source services, software, and applications. Around the world, communities are using social media and mobile technologies to unexpectedly bypass barriers.

Through mobile and innovative technology, communities have developed projects and solutions for local problems. The question is whether emerging mobile technologies and innovative social media software will build enough momentum to help overcome “real life” divides. Ensuring that it does should be our collective priority.

Literature Time: Reading the Story for the Global Voices Podcast

The 12th edition of Global Voices podcast is bringing you this month some international story telling.  This edition is about literature and publishing. Newsroom journalist, host of BBC Outriders, and blogger, Jamillah Knowles gathered well-read members of the Global Voices team and created the wonderful podcast of beautiful readings of original work by GV authors and the wider community. For those who are not familiar with, I do write literature sometimes, given the fact that I come from literary and musical family, literature and arts are the part of my persona. So, I read one of my short stories. More about the background on the Global Voices podcast page.

Many of you asked and tried to guess what was the inspiration for the story (You Should Date a Woman Who Writes). I won’t tell you everything as I avoid to explain myself too much, especially in arts and literature. I’ve communicated the background to some of my Facebook friends on the network, and I thought it would be fair to share a few notes on my blog. On a personal note, the inspiration for the story was the situation from the past with a person who sent me the novel of Italo Calvino - ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’. I was totally mesmerized by it. It was my type of novel, totally written in a non linear way, very geeky and peculiar, many characters intertwining into different stories. After reading it, I just sat and wrote the story.

Also, I want to share a very interesting communication dynamics from the Facebook: one of my Internet colleagues - Nathan Matias, a poet and software engineer from the MIT Media Lab, gave a beautifully written literary review and the critic of the story. With the permission I am quoting his words here:

” (..) I really like your story’s playful, imaginative diversity of viewpoints. I love how it lingers over tumbling overflowing listed items of possibility, avoiding essentialism while staying firmly grounded in the beautiful scene in the middle. And then we’re off again, situating the “I” in the shared stories of women writers and imagining the addressee among similar if narrower possibilities as the speaker. I love how writing, in this story, becomes life itself, unfinished, open to new chapters, longing to close the gap between imagination and experience.  Wonderfully appropriate in a response to being given a Calvino novel : ) Again, thanks for sharing!”

Indeed, the story is left unfinished on purpose, in order to leave the open space for the new, future, and upcoming stories, essays and tales that have a non-linear dynamic of writing. I hope you will enjoy my reading (jump to 26.36”).


Highlights from The World Wide Web 2012 conference

events,GlobalVoices,internet,media,technology,World wide — Tags: , — Danica @ 10:51 pm, May 3, 2012

Please check the summary of posts, articles, and media release after the World Wide Web 2012 conference (#WWW2012).

Scientific American published the article “Phatic Posts: Even the Small Talk Can Be Big” - where I’m discussing the paper I presented at #WWW2012 on ‘phatic’ communications online: on brief and apparently trivial or mundane updates posted on social media.
For Australian Science online, I published ”Global Web, Society and Knowledge at #WWW2012”, some of my thoughts on workshops, sessions, and presentations as Part I of the #WWW2012 highlights. Part II “Connected and Free: World Wide Web professionals at #WWW2012“ presents random notes and micro-opinion bits, focusing on people, attendants who have been actively participating in this web professionals meeting and their impressions of the conference. I’ve been tweeting before, during, and after the conference, you may check my Twitter stream and the hashtag #WWW2012.

This week Advocacy Global Voices Online published my article, reporting from France, on an inspiring keynote by Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), the inventor of the World Wide Web and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Tim Berners-Lee: Protect the Open Web! #WWW2012

On April 16-20, 2012 the 21st International World Wide Web Conference (#WWW2012) gathered around 2,500 internet and social science professionals, web and mobile technology creators, researchers and scholars, in Lyon, France to discuss matters of global concern for the Internet and the Web. The main themes were “Society and Knowledge” and “The Future Direction of the Web”.

The conference agenda covered both social and technological issues, as well as Internet and democracy, free access to services, freedom of expression, regulation and censorship, control and copyright. The #WWW2012 proceedings are available online, so the many interesting papers can be downloaded. Plenary keynotes videos are also available.

I was a program committee member for a Making Sense of Microposts (#MSM12) workshop. I also presented a research paper on “phatic communication” and why tweets and Facebook updates on weather, food, and mundane life are useful for online communities, human relationships and social networks (I have written about this subject herehere, and here).

“Imagine what you want the world to look like”

But perhaps the major highlight of #WWW2012 was an inspiring keynote on April 18 by Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), the inventor of the World Wide Web and Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). He shared insights on the current situation of the web, as well as future directions that could threaten the vitality of the Internet. Rallying the crowd, he said, “Democracy depends on an open internet. Go out in the streets and complain that your democracy is being threatened. (It’s) a duty, something you have to do.”

Tim Berners-Lee at WWW2012

Tim Berners-Lee gives keynote speech at WWW2012: photo by Danica Radovanovic

TBL touched on the most pressing issues of open data, open government, privacy and control, Net Neutrality, and future generations. (more…)

Internet on The Balkans

Blogging,communication,general,GlobalVoices,internet,Serbia,technology — Danica @ 9:14 pm, August 9, 2011

This weekend the Internet has celebrated the twenty years of the World Wide Web that on 6 August 1991 became publicly available; and Sir Tim Berners-Lee published the first ever website. Back then, he posted a short summary of the project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup. I was trying to remember my first html page back in 1996, probably stored on many floppy disks, maybe one day I will be able to extract the data and go back to the 90s.

Also, this weekend, I gave a short overview on the recent findings of a study of the Internet usage in the Balkan region. It is interesting to know (more…)

Better on Facebook Than in the Streets

The new school year in Serbia is about to start, and local newspapers are filled with techno anti-utopian articles on the bad effects of the Internet and social networks. A survey on the use of Facebook by the youth in Serbia has been published recently, too, however, and its results suggest that things aren’t really that bad.

More about the usage of Facebook among Serbian youth in my Global Voices article.  Those who’ve asked me about the photo I’ve contributed in the featured text:  it was taken in the downtown of Belgrade, in the Internet cafe, and I use it for my slides, for conference talks.

Feel free to comment.

Update: now this article is available in Serbian, Polish, Italian and Spanish language. Thanks to GlobalVoices colleagues for translation.

Global Voices: Digital School Project in Serbia

In my latest article for Global Voices I wrote about Digital School, a state-funded project that would allow to set up digital classrooms in Serbia’s primary schools. I’ve discussed some of the challenges that need to be addressed for the project to succeed. More about it in the Global Voices column. Feel free to leave the comment.

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