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:
– 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.