Mobile Voices: Developing a Citizen Media Platform

Posted by PrabhasPokharel on Jan 20, 2010

Note: This is the first of two articles about Mobile Voices, a project based in Southern California. The second article is here.

Voces Móviles / Mobile Voices is a Los Angeles-based citizen media project, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (ASC) and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). Mobile Voices is "a platform for immigrant workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones. Vozmob helps people with limited computer access gain greater participation in the digital public sphere."   

For the last eighteen months, three programmers have been working on Mobile Voices. I talked to Sasha Constanza-Chock, one of the developers of the project, about the process that went into building the Mobile Voices platform. I wondered why Mobile Voices built a custom platform for the project, why they chose to use multi-media messaging (MMS) for content delivery, and the lessons they have learned about using MMS.   


David Sasaki has previously written a good introduction to Mobile Voices.  The project's primary goal is to develop a platform through which day laborers can broadcast their voices to a wide audience using mobile phones. The software would need to be scalable to be used by many day laborers: the initial group only had 10 laborers but a much larger audience is expected eventually. Another goal of the project, especially relevant to building the software, was the idea of using so-called participatory design: the technology would be designed according to needs and requests of the laborers, and built with their direct input.   

The platform   

The current Mobile Voices platform is a customized Drupal system that lets day laborers blog by sending an MMS message to a Mobile Voices email address. Users can also text in via SMS, or call a local number to leave an audio message, and register for mobile blogging just using their phone. They can also subscribe to blogs using MMS, translate posts if registered onto the site, and more.    

Why custom software?  

Sasaki, in his review, offers three points of criticism (or "push-back" as he calls them) about the Mobile Voices project. I started my interview with Sasha with his third point, questioning the cost and resources needed to build a custom Drupal system in favor of using a pre-existing commercial software platform like Brightkite, for example.

Sasha noted that there were four reasons: participatory development, scalability, customizability, and privacy. To enable participatory design methoids for the project, the Mobile Voices team wanted to be able to modify the software in any way requested by the users. They did not want limitations imposed by a commercial platform to hinder a particular feature the day laborers wanted.

Moreover, Mobile Voices needed targeted scalability; they eventually want to extend the platform so that any day laborer can use it. Day laborers also tend to use low-end phones but most commercial platforms are geared towards tech-savvy smartphone users -- iPhone apps are routinely favored over lower-end phones. Vozmob anticipated bending over backwards to fit each of its user's needs, and needed a customizable platform.

Sasha also explained that an open-source framework was chosen for so they could protect their users' privacy completely - a must when dealing with immigrant workers.

Why choose Multi-Media Messaging?

MMS is not very frequently used in most projects we come across. Most mobile projects focused on social development use primarily SMS, WAP browsing, the Internet, and even voice-based applications. However, the Vozmob team uses MMS heavily. They have even written software to take a set of pictures audio and captions to make up soundslides in their blogposts (see an example here--click on the picture to see the slideshow). So I asked Sasha why VozMob chose to use MMS as one of its primary phone technologies.

Vozmob, true to good participatory design principles conducted extensive user surveys. The team looked at what phones, what plans, and what kinds of non-mobile Internet access the laborers had. Seeing mostly voice-based usage (only 31% sent texts), the team proceeded to build an audio-blogging system accessible by simply calling a number. They used a simple voicemail-based system which they could access from Drupal through email, with minimal effort.

But soon after, users asked how they could upload pictures and other content to the site. The initial survey results showed 47% of the laborers taking pictures, and AT&T prepaid plans (which a fair number of users were using) had cheap messaging plans. So Vozmob decided that the technology that fit the users' desires and needs best would be an MMS-based solution. (Sasha tells me they also considered J2ME-based applications, but that prototypes showed little promise).

How has using MMS fared?

In the United States, all mobile carriers offer email gateways to their SMS and MMS services. The Vozmob team chose these email gateways for getting their users' MMSs. While Drupal already had a module that would import email, the team needed to put in some work to specifically receive email that came from MMS.

One basic difficulty working with MMS-generated email is that different carriers format these messages differently. Some carriers attach text or multimedia ads for their networks, others send WAP links to media files (but no file in the message), and yet others send files as email attachments. Vozmob wrote the filtering and processing software necessary to get multimedia content in each of these different formats.

Another problem Vozmob encountered was that unlocked phones are often hard to configure to use MMS. Sasha says that providers were unwilling or incapable of working with the project in enabling non-carrier-bought handsets to work with MMS, and that highly technical engineers stumbled in making some phones work.

On the other hand, the team also encountered some pleasant surprises working with MMS. According to Sasha, most phones (even low-end phones that the laborers tend to own) can compose elaborate MMS messages. With some digging, phones can compose a single MMS message that contains multiple pictures, sound, as well as text (the example from above was created using a single MMS). Mobile Voices has used this functionality to allow laborers to blog intricate slideshows, all using one MMS message.

What Worked Well

After a year and a half of development, Sasha is happy that most of the core functionality (for uploading) is there. Day laborers can upload photos, audio, and video using cheap MMS messaging. And they are excited about doing so: Sasha says that users have introduced some friends to start using the system.

For the development process, Sasha says that use of an issue tracker was very helpful. The project ran participatory workshops to help design the software. The laborers would report problems and desires, which would turn into bug reports and feature requests on a RedMine issue tracker. Face-to-face code sprints, as well as face-to-face meetings between developers and the clients also helped the project along.

Challenges and Sticking Points

When I asked Sasha about the challenges the project faced, he pointed out that the telecommunications operators were hard to deal with. Not only did they refuse to work with MMS configurations on unlocked phones, they had unpredictable price changes in MMS packages. Sasha was also frustrated by expiration dates of MMS messages bought by clients (AT&T prepaid sells messaging packages that sells a certain number of messages that expire in one month).

Sasha also said that working on a project such as this requires a lot of time and energy. There are often many possible ways of accomplishing a goal, especially when using free and open source software. Simply evaluating the pros and cons, and finding the right tools take a lot of work. A sustained project that is designed to provide a certain service to a user-base simply needs sustained time and energy, Sasha said, which can be challenging.

Future Work

The project is not yet complete. Sasha told me a few ways they are looking to further the project.

The team has focused on building the core software so far, and haven't focused on marketing or outreach to many day laborers yet. IDEPSCA, the resource center the laborers use, is building training kits so more laborers can start blogging on the vozmob platform.

The project will also focus on actually broadcasting the laborers' voices. Going forward, the Mobile Voices blog will get a face lift, there will be more publicity, and tools to share and spread the workers' stories using social media will be added.

Finally, the Vozmob developers will also re-factor the code they have produced so far, so it can be integrated into Drupal modules. The work on MMS and SMS filtering and processing using email gateways will be put back into the Drupal mailhandler and SMS Framework modules.

(Picture: Screenshot of the media player on the Mobile Voices Blog playing a series of images by user Troy1 Madelou, under the title Working Hands).

Part 2 of the Mobile Voices article focuses on the challenges of implementing a citizen media platform with marginalized populations.

Prabhas Pokharel is Project Lead for the Mobile Media Toolkit at He tweets at @prabhasp.

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