Repost from http://technoholik.com/news/internet/social_media/taking-back-the-tech-interview-with-the-cofounder-of-mojolab/3414
You could call it podcasting for the masses – as it turns a basic cellphone into a broadcast tool. Based out of open-source software, Swara is a simple IVR (interactive voice response) system that has been instrumental in bringing the voices of India’s marginalised online. We talk to Arjun Venkataraman, co-founder of Mojolab.org, about how technology can expand people’s participation in democracy.
About Swara, Mojolab
Mojolab specialises in maintaining and deploying websites like CGNet Swara, a community news over mobile service that enables tribals in the Central Gondwana region of India to share and listen to news and messages that concern them. These voice messages are translated, moderated and uploaded to a website for anyone to access online or over the phone, and helps communities in regions without media access to report violations, express grievances, as well as archive their music, stories and culture in a world that is fast losing the wealth of knowledge transmitted via oral cultures and traditions.
The service receives over 200 calls a day, out of which the most impactful are transcribed and posted on CGnetswara.org. The website, in turn, has become a useful resource for journalists across the world, helping raise concerns over everything from illegal mining, non-payment of NREGA wages, non-functional schools and hospitals, pending forest rights claims and human rights violations that would otherwise go unreported.
Arjun Venkatraman, co-founder of Mojolab at a training session for Swara mobile journalists.
Could you tell us a bit about Mojolab’s origins?
Mojolab shares its roots with CGNet Swara, a community news-over-mobile service started by Shubhranshu Choudhary as part of his Knight International Journalism Fellowship, in partnership with the International Center for Journalists in 2010.
CGNet Swara has been pioneering citizen journalism from the most marginalized tribal regions in India since 2004. After almost two decades of working in mainstream media, former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary decided to dedicate his energy towards finding a more democratic medium that wouldn’t exclude the 80 million tribals in the country, a majority of whom do not speak the national language.
The premise of Swara is that everyone should have a voice and when people are denied communication and representation, it increases tensions and eventually breeds violence. Mainstream media today works as a “top-down” model in which decisions regarding what content is important are made by an elite minority. This news then filters down to those people who have access to mainstream media. People who have no access to mainstream media, either because they cannot afford it, or because it is in a language and form that they cannot consume, are left voiceless.
Founder of Swara, Shubhranshu Choudhary teaches Adivasi women learn how to use the service
A similar situation exists in technology, where innovation is driven primarily by monetary profit. Cellphones may have been invented 20 years ago, but they didn’t become accessible to the poor until recently.
At Mojolab, we’re trying to turn that over on its head and use the tools that are available today to build better and more useful systems for people to use without having to wait for someone to “bring” it to them. We’re also working on developing and delivering training programs for communities to start using their tools and, to steal a phrase, “taking back the tech”.
Our current focus is on expanding people’s participation in democracy using technology platforms like Swara IVR, Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS to set up hyperlocal communication platforms for communities and then proving on-the-ground support, as the community adopts and eventually takes over running the platform completely.
Do you think there’s a basic lack of understanding of the Indian mobile audience, especially in a country where more people have access to mobile phones than toilets? Why did you choose IVR over creating an app for the smartphone?
I love this question and it’s not one I get asked often. In my opinion, there’s too much app development happening at the moment. Apps cater exclusively to smartphones and the cheapest Android I know of at the moment is still priced at three times the cheapest voice phone. Moreover, using apps requires basic skills that are beyond most rural users. Try getting granny to play Angry Birds if you want a direct experience of what I mean.
Moreover, most of the communities we work with have strong oral traditions and information is passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. If you look at a rough correlation of technology adoption in India, speech has always been a major player. While the US was making it cheaper to get on the net, India was going through the PCO revolution thanks to Sam Pitroda.
“We went from trunk calls to PCOs to mobile phones around the same time that people in the US and Europe were going from “shell” and TCP/IP accounts to broadband and now mobile internet.”
Mobile phones are definitely the convergence of a lot of lines of evolution. So my take is that since there are enough people developing apps, the field is pretty clear for low tech. From an operational standpoint, we’re not opposed to apps; it’s just that we have no idea what we would do with one at the moment. We are, however, discussing apps to help CJs (citizen journalists) in the field better.
On an average, how many calls do you get a day? What happens in the time between when a story is recorded and when it is shared online?
At the moment we get approximately between 200-300 calls a day. Once we receive a story, the moderators team listens to it, edits it for quality and if needed makes calls to the caller and possibly the sources to verify the story. Once the story is verified and edited, the moderator will write a short summary in English and then release the message. Once it gets released, it goes on to the web, i.e. social media sites, email lists and so forth, as well as back on to the IVR.
How difficult was it to operate in Chhattisgarh, considering the kind of stories that were coming out of Swara, while there was a virtual blockade in the mainstream media?
It was an uphill task to maintain a neutral stand while representing the ordinary man. People on both sides of the conflict doubted the credibility of the stories and it was only by staying out of the region, maintaining the platform on the internet and checking and rechecking facts many times over that the platform could be kept running. At an individual level, many contributors suffered harassment. Through rigorous quality control of the content, though, we’ve been able to establish our credibility as a source of real grassroots information.
What do you look for in your ideal moderators/trainers? how are Swara workshops typically conducted?
Ideally moderators/trainers should come from the community that is deploying the platform. This ensures that they are sensitive to issues being talked about and are able to take informed decisions on what constitutes news. Local language skills are pretty much a hard requirement.
However the most important requirement is for the person to genuinely like other people and have a basic desire to cause positive change. The rest are skills that can be taught, but commitment is tough to find and even tougher to preserve.
Who listens in and what has been the response from civil society? could you share some of Swara’s success stories that make it all worthwhile?
We have all sorts of people listening in. CGNet originally started as an e-mail discussion group which has members of civil society, administration, development organizations, journalists, activists and social workers on it, all of whom are interested in Central India and its issues. This is the core listening group since they have the most direct influence on outcomes. We also have a substantial social media following, as well. The response has been fantastic.
“We’ve found that when people have an opportunity to make a difference that’s within their reach, they usually take it. “
The reports that come out of Swara have simply provided that opportunity and many people have taken it. Most of the impact that has occurred through Swara has happened because someone from the listening community took action. In that light, Swara is acting as a bridge over the digital divide, connecting communities at the grassroots with people in cities.
From a Swara workshop on Adivasi Rights and Identity and Democratization of Media
Some of the latest impact stories below. Older impact stories are archived here:
Swara report delivers food to adivasi children in forest area
District official inspects NREGA non payment
Cheated tribal to get legal help after Swara report
Swara beneficiary turns activist, finds others suffering alike
Hurray! We have got tubewells in our village, Thank you
Chief secretary assures help in getting Forest land under FRA
While messages are already pouring in from different parts of the country, do you have plans to officially extend to other states and languages?
We are already in the process of expanding to other states. The model we are pursuing is the hyperlocal deployment approach, wherein we would be setting up ultra low cost communication platforms and then providing training and community mobilization support to get it off the ground. We are now talking to partners in almost every state across Central India.
Are you looking at creating customisable communication solutions for communities and co-operatives?
Absolutely! You pretty much outlined one part of our mission statement there. However, the approach we’d like to take is to develop as little new technology as possible before we’ve exhausted the uses for the existing alternatives, and even when developing, we’d like to develop with a focus on getting up and running in the shortest time. To quote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, we like to release early and release often, with the additional step being field validation at each iteration.
We heard that Swara was in Afghanistan and Indonesia. What were these projects part of?
There are now two Swara deployments in Indonesia. Mojolab and Internews and partnered with Knight International Journalism Fellow Harry Surjadi and Jakarta-based non-profit tech company Air Putih to set up one deployment in Pontianak, West Kalimantan (Borneo) for RuaiTV, a community television station.
Later, this was expanded with Air Putih’s support to two deployments, one moderated (for news collection, Ruai Swara) and one unmoderated (as an open audio bulletin board, Swara Publik). You can read more about the work we did here and watch a video of the presentation below.
In Afghanistan, Mojolab was at the Kabul Innovation Lab, organized by Internews. We engaged with participants to find solutions to development challenges in Afghanistan using cheap and open source technology, particularly crowdsourcing tools like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS and Swara IVR. Since then, several people have contacted us about setting up Swara to experiment with it and we are looking for other projects to collab on.
How much does it cost to set up a Swara server? Are you hoping to make this crowd/community funded in the future?
The basic hardware is about USD 600-700. Mojolab provides technical assistance on a consulting basis for communities who require it, the cost of which depends on the amount and type of assistance required. However, anyone with a decent understanding of Linux can set up and maintain the system and we’re always happy to train people to deploy in the field.
The hyperlocal model is completely targeted at making these platforms crowd/community funded. For example, someone could use a system like this to aggregate grievances and file them officially for a nominal fee. Communities could also syndicate content from their platforms to mainstream media as a revenue source. The exact method to get to community funding would really be dependent on the community.