The Potential of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media: Thoughts from the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit

Posted by PrabhasPokharel on May 12, 2010

I had the pleasure of attending the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile last week. The summit brought together bloggers, activists, and thinkers working to advance citizen media all around the world. While the discussions that took place were informative, most presentations and panels fell short in  recognizing the role mobile phones have played and exploring the potential mobile phones can play in citizen media.  I'd like to highlight some of the potential for mobiles in citizen media that were not adequately discussed.

The Potential of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media

Mobile phones have already played a signifcant role in advancing citizen media around the world. They were instrumental in helping capture photos and videos on the streets of Tehran during 2009 protests that followed the elections there. A video captured during that time even won a prestigious journalism award. Mobile phones technology has been used in Namibia to enable more people from around the country to express their views in one of the country's largest newspapers. In the US, day laborers have been using MMS messages to blog about their daily lives. In South Africa, citizen journalists use SMS, MMS, and other phone-based technologies to submit content and commentary to a local newspaper. In India, mobiles are being used to enable both reporting and news dissemination in local languages. Many more examples exist.

These examples only scratch the surface of what is possble with mobile phones in independent and citizen media with room for exploration. The first panel at the summit, for example, featured online participation efforts around Chile: the government's efforts to bring taxes and procurement data online, a project that enabled citizen journalism in twelve local newspapers, extensive social media usage by Chileans, and non-profit organizations who were actively participating and responding to online conversations.

The projects were impressive, but panel and audience members rightly raised the issue of a "digital divide" in Chile. There were only 32 internet users per 100 Chileans in 2008. However, there were 88 mobile subscriptions per 100 Chileans in the same year.  It was noted in the panel that access isn't the only barrier to participation. But missing was the discussion of opportunities to use a technology that already provides increased access to increase participation, in turn.

A very interesting project, Biblio Redes, provides a blogging platform for local communities in Chile around a community's local library. The presenter for this project highlighted the difficulties of working with older participants who may have an oral rather than written tradition. Projects based on voice-based technologies present interesting potential to address this population as has already been done elswhere (see, for example, this project with indigenous tribes in India).

At the Summit, there were also many conversations about fostering online participation in other languages. Voice-based technologies on the mobile phone may play a role in helping out there as well, especially with languages with weak association to written representation, or languages with tricky character sets. Mobile voice-based technologies also provide opportunities for information services and participation for non-literate audiences.

Mobiles are also interesting for individual bloggers and reporters. In conversations I had with bloggers, I realized that most don't see their mobile phones as potentially helpful devices in normal reporting work. One blogger who had had used his mobile phone to stream live video and take pictures of protests was the exception rather than the rule. Our discussions managed to identify at least three distinctive advantages mobile phones have over traditional multimedia capturing devices: (1) they are always in our pockets and therefore always accessible (2) when there is a data connection, they allow instant uploading and live coverage and (3) they allow reporters to capture multimedia in more situations, by being lighter to transport, and appearing more innocuous in situations like protests.

So, now what?

There were three unconference-style sessions at the summit, and each session had at least some discussion on the use of mobile phones in citizen media. In most of these conversations, I was glad to realize that mobile phones' potential in citizen media was in the back of many minds. Given the potential, however, I kept wishing that mobile phones' role in citizen media were discussed front and center.

As a way to push these ideas further, I pose the following questions:

  • How can you use mobile phones more in your daily reporting work? Will they let you become more creative, spontaneous, immediate in how you can cover events and news? Will they help you in your reporting as they are innocuous devices, much less likely to be confiscated by authorities if you are covering sensitive events? Will they be handy simply because they will always be in your pockets?
  • Can we turn increased access that mobile phones provide into increased participation? What is required beyond access to facilitate participation on mobile phones? Can we include ways to participate via sms or voice in every new participatory project that we envision?
  • Can we use voice-based technologies to interact better with communities which have richer oral than written traditions? Can we enable more participation in native languages by using voice-based technologies?

Tell us if you have more ideas, or whether you are exploring some of these ideas in your work. If you would like to find out about the tools that you will need to do this work, find case studies of other organizations doing similar work, or a myriad of other resources having to do with mobile phones, check out the mDirectory. If you want to read about case studies, tools, and resources specifically to do with media production and dissemination, have a look at this page

Prabhas Pokharel is Project Lead for the Mobile Media Toolkit at, to be released in early summer. He tweets at @prabhasp.

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