Posts Tagged Mobile

Empowered by Information: CGnet Swara in Chhattisgarh

26 April 2010

In an online story yesterday, the BBC covered a project in India that is taking advantage of mobile phone penetration to combat ignorance, isolation and apathetic governance among the rural poor. The project, called CGnet Swara, is based in the state of Chhattisgarh, and allows citizen journalists to “report” stories by calling a Bangalore number and recording voice messages. Mobile-phone owning citizens then receive a text message and can call a unique number to hear the recorded story.  The service has seen considerable popularity since its launch in February– and I think the factors that yielded success can be a model for other m4Dev projects:

Mobiles Leapfrogging- The project was formed in response to a clear and persistent problem. Too often, technology is seen as a panacea, a solution in search of a problem. To paraphrase an old axiom, connectivity is a powerful hammer, but not every problem is a nail. Here, the poor rural citizens of Chhattisgarh were living in serious information poverty. There was virtually no private media available: their TV access is limited to soap operas, Bollywood films and government sponsored news, and radio is state-run as well.

- The project accounted for the characteristics of the local population. What works in one place won’t work everywhere. In Chhattisgarh, a huge percentage of the population is illiterate. By having citizen journalists report these news reports in audio, rather than in text, they are able to reach a much bigger slice of the population.

- The project leverages existing technology. People often seem to assume that m4Dev (mobiles for development, duh) projects are about handing out cell phones to poor people.  That couldn’t be further from the truth; foisting new technologies on people rarely works. Rather, the real power of the mobile phone is in the fact that people around the world are adopting them of their own accord, and that the rapid expansion of the network is happening naturally. This project capitalizes on the fact that mobile phones have leapfrogged not just land-line phones, but TV, radio, and nearly every other information & communications service, and brings information into citizens’ hands directly.

Whether this project will ultimately improve the lot of Chhattisgarh’s villagers remains to be seen, but it CGnet has already given voice to some of the most systemically disenfranchised people in India. Access to information is a truly empowering force, and at the very least, I hope this project will allow citizens to hold their government accountable. (h/t SSG for the link)

UPDATE: A similar project is Iindaba Ziyafika (“the news is coming”), based in South Africa, which also uses mobiles to bring the work of citizen journalists to otherwise hard-to-reach people. PBS’s Idea Lab has an older article on the project, and Ethan Zuckerman wrote about it last week. Curious to find out more about the quality of journalism produced by an older, more-established project like this one.



Mobile Technology: Good, Bad, or Just a Tool?

30 November 2009

Much is made of the power of mobile phones.  Indeed, much is made of them right here on this blog.  But, as with all seemingly magical tools of development/healthcare/education/whatever, there is a tendency to get swept up in the zeitgeist and to think of the mobile phone as a silver bullet. And as with all things, it’s not. In fact, we can’t think of the phone, or the internet, or any other technology as inherently good or bad. They’re simply tools. New, powerful, disruptive tools– but just tools.

Bear with me while I illustrate my point by weaving a thread through two articles published recently in faraway parts of the world:

  • Yesterday, a Sri Lankan newspaper covered a recent leak that the government intelligence services had been tapping the phones of an influential former general and his associates. The tapping was motivated not by any security concern, but by political concerns– the general represented a powerful opposition group.
  • An opinion piece in the African Business Daily last week looked at the “pros and cons of increased access to mobile phones” in Uganda. The “pros” were the usual litany of access to information and services– but it was just that: access. (The “cons” had mostly to do with Uganda’s highly regressive taxation scheme, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

Just a toolThe point here is twofold.  First, mobile technology, like any other technology, is subject to misuse and abuse by those in power. Part of NDN’s big argument about new technology (and the reason that we got involved in this space in the first place) is that new technolgoies are changing society in a similar way to how radio changed the world in the 1920s and 30s. But just as FDR used the radio to speak directly to the American people, Hitler used radio to speak to Germans.

As we see in Sri Lanka, and as we saw in Iran, mobile technology can be used equally by those on either side of any struggle. This is by no means an argument against the technology itself– as I said, it’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad– but simply a reminder that we must be watchful for the same evils as ever.

Second, in Uganda as everywhere, access to a phone and a network is never the end in itself. The power of the technology lies in the information you can access and the services you can take advantage of. That’s why we see our mission at Global Mobile as greater than simply expanding access to mobile technology– even moreso, we’re thinking about how we can leverage this technology to improve lives and socities around the world. Technology and services– one is useless without the other.



India Bans Pre-Paid Mobiles in Kashmir – Security or Suppression?

10 November 2009

For eight years, the Indian government dragged its feet until, in 2003, it finally permitted mobile phones in conflict-torn Kashmir. Intelligence officials had feared that Kashmiri and Pakistani militants would use the phones to plan attacks on Indian army outposts throughout the region, but in ’03 they relaxed the ban, and the past six years have been the most peaceful since the conflict began in 1989. Causation? Probably not. But correlation, anyway.

Srinagar Cell PhoneLast week, the Indian government walked back on technological freedoms in Kashmir, banning pre-paid mobile connections. In Kashmir, as in much of the developing world, pre-paid is a popular option thanks to its known costs, and low commitment; the new ban will take phones out of the hands of 3.8 million Kashmiris. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Kashmiris have taken to the streets of Srinagar, the capital city, to protest the law in recent days.

The stated reasons for the prohibition are that mobile vendors are not conducting proper background checks on new subscribers, and that militants are using mobile phones to detonate bombs– a practice observed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. I suspect the actual reasons are considerably more Machiavellian.

Srinagar is one of the most heavily-militarized cities in the world, and the dense presence of Indian troops has led to frequent clashes between Kashmiri civilians and the military. As the BBC documented earlier this year, young Kashmiris have been using their cell phones to bear witness to the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. With a camera phone in every hand, every citizen is a journalist, and the explosion of photos, videos and other first-hand accounts of the violence in Kashmir has brought images of the violence to the world.

What’s more, the Indian intelligence services have met with some success finding and killing militants by monitoring the cell phone conversations of Kashmiris. The consistency and higher background-check requirements for post-paid cell phone plans makes it much easier to monitor those subscribers.

It’s my strong suspicion that the pre-paid ban in Kashmir has more to do with suppressing critical citizen media and monitoring civilian phone conversations than it does with preventing phone-bomb attacks. The ban consists of a suppression of basic freedoms and a violation of privacy in an already repressed state. Further, the government is denying citizens a valuable tool for economic development and access to the global ICT network– increasingly a fundamental right in itself.

FD: I spent some time reporting in Kashmir. My views are certainly informed by that experience. My reporting is published here.