MobileActive07 Preview! Mobiles as Alternative Media in Zimbabwe

Posted by CorinneRamey on Nov 17, 2007

MobileActive07 is quickly approaching, and as we get ready, we bring you a series of sneak peaks of some of the interesting people, projects, and technologies that will be at the conference.

Brenda Burrell, who will be joining us from Zimbabwe, is one of founders of Brenda sat down with MobileActive for a discussion about her work using mobiles as an alternative media source in Kubatana and Dialup Radio.

Kubatana, which Brenda called a "civil society portal initiative" and an "effective participant in the human rights space," provides an alternative to the government-controlled media in Zimbabwe. "We provide recipients with alternative voices, and they can make up their own minds about where truth lays," said Brenda. Kubatana provides information and discussion on human rights, HIV/AIDS, activism, the Zimbabwean judicial system, and other areas that are ill represented in the state-controlled media. Although Kubatana initially used predominately email and the Internet for disseminating information, they began to use SMS after gaining access to the FrontlineSMS application.

Brenda said that mobile phones have been a valuable way of reaching people in a country with enormous infrastructure, political, and economic problems -- high newsprint costs, an 80% unemployment rate, lagging electricity, and 14,000% inflation - the highest inflation rate in the world. "A hell of a lot more people have access to mobile phones than to any other medium," she said. "Because the mobile phone is seen as such an important device, people invest in them and they share them. There are far more people who are able to receive SMS than buy the newspaper." Kubatana maintains an SMS subscriber list, which they use to send out updates on public events, 160 character versions of website content, newsletter information and other messages. They also use SMS as a two way communication tool, asking people to respond via SMS with feedback and questions.

Kubatana has also used SMS to collect addresses and send people information in the mail. "Contrary to what you might expect, Zimbabweans are quite prepared to share their personal information," said Brenda. She said that Kubatana has received around 400 requests for information in the past six months, and have responded by sending out print copies of their newsletter, a series of DVDs produced by the Solidarity Peace Trust, and other human rights information. The service was advertised through the classified section of a daily government newspaper.

Brenda said that Kubatana has received really positive responses. "Our services are so popular because people are really hungry for balanced information, because they do perceive the government media to be propaganda," she said.

Brenda's other project, Dialup Radio, also works to share and distribute information within communities that lack independent media. "We needed to find another tool that we could use that wasn't as heavily censored as those other spaces," Brenda said. She first got the idea for the project when she heard about the Asterisk telephony engine at the first MobileActive conference in Toronto in 2005. She collaborated with Tad Hirsch, whom she also met in Toronto, to create the Dialup Radio system.

The system consists of the Asterisk-based server and a web-based content management system written in Ruby on Rails. The system can connect to a landline, use Voice over Internet Protocal (VoIP), or use pre-paid SMS cards. The software, which is all open source, allows users to upload audio files onto the server, which are then available to callers through interactive voice response (IVR) menus. "The whole thing is pretty much language independent," said Brenda. "People can upload files in their own languages."

Brenda said that the system can be accessed in a variety of ways. A person can call a phone number, and then pay for the call themselves. Or, a user can phone a special callback number or send an SMS to the system, and the system would then return the call at no cost to the user.

Dialup Radio is still in its early stages and just completed its first pilot study. The field test used materials from Auntie Stella, a Zimbabwean NGO that provides sexual health information to teenagers. Despite some challenges with power outages and congested mobile phone networks, the pilot was a success. Brenda see lots of potential for Dialup Radio, including election monitoring in next year's Zimbabwean election. She also hopes to use it in other African countries with fewer infrastructural and connectivity problems. Other future uses could include citizen journalism, legal rights information, and information for sex workers and refugees.

Photo credit to Brenda Burrell.

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