Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Developing Nations

Mar 72012
  • During Social Media Week in Washington, D.C., Ben Colmery, deputy director of ICFJ's Knight International Journalism Fellowships, explained how Knight Fellows in Panama, India, Indonesia and the Middle East are leveraging technologies for media development.

It is hardly news to say that social media offer unprecedented opportunity to empower change through collaboration. We’ve seen this in American elections and the Arab Spring, alike. With over one billion people now active on social media around the world, and two billion Internet users, it has never been this technologically easy to connect people and work together, the world over.

But what about the billions of people who aren’t active on these social media, or don’t have access to the Internet or smartphones? Are they completely cut off? Are the prevailing social media just not designed to reach them? What kinds of innovations are bridging these gaps? How can social media connect people and empower change through collaboration in these environments?

These were the questions we tackled in our Social Media Week panel, hosted by Powell Tate, titled “Innovations in Social Media in the Developing World.” I was joined by Tim Scheu, senior change manager of Ashoka Changemakers, Jon Gosier, co-creator of Apps 4 Africa, and Jennifer Dorroh, director of the International Journalists’ Network, who moderated the panel.

At Ashoka, Scheu has been driving local innovation through competitions, such as the Google-sponsored Citizen Media competition. Now, he is building an online platform that connects social innovators with investors and philanthropists who provide financial support, and growth partners that offer in-kind guidance to turn ideas into reality. This platform also enables others to launch their own innovation competitions.

Gosier helped launch Apps 4 Africa, a U.S. Department of State competition to promote local technology entrepreneurs as they build digital solutions to local challenges, such as transparency, governance, health, education, and this year, climate change. Like Ashoka’s competitions, Apps 4 Africa awardees don’t just receive funding, they also have access to a network of mentors and additional funders that help them turn ideas into plans, and plans into action.

For my panel contribution, I focused on four projects of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships:

India: Use Mobile Technology to Bring News to Isolated Tribal Communities

Knight Fellow Shu Choudhary launched CGNet Swara, which uses interactive voice response technology (IVR) and mobile phones to provide a two-way news service to indigenous rural people in India. The innovation here, beyond the technology itself, is that these rural people – many of whom are illiterate – now have access to independent news that they, in fact, create. A moderator screens incoming reports and posts them on the Swara system and a website. Mainstream media have followed up, seeking more information. Interested citizens have gone further, confronting officials and demanding action. We have counted at least 29 instances of societal impact resulting from reports to the system. This follow up that bridges the gap between citizens, media and government has been the critical step.

Indonesia: Launch a Mobile Environmental News Service for Rural Communities

We employed the CGNet Swara model in Indonesia, where Knight Fellow Harry Surjadi has partnered with Ruai TV to establish two news services for indigenous people in West Kalimantan – RuaiSMS and RuaiSwara. RuaiSwara, our first implementation of the Swara technology outside of India, provides two-way voice news. RuaiSMS uses FrontlineSMS to enable citizens to submit SMS reports, and receive SMS blasts, via mobile phones. Through this collaboration between local media and citizens, indigenous people in West Kalimantan now have a voice in news in a region where it has been very challenging for journalists to reach. In fact, the very first SMS to RuaiSMS paved the way for a company that was violating labor regulations to be penalized and begin recruiting local workers.

Panama: Develop a New System to Map and Investigate Crime and Corruption

Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra is using online mapping to put citizens and journalists together into a collaborative information community. In Panama, he created Mi Panama Transparente – a map built on an Ushahidi platform where citizens can report incidents of crime and corruption – with the help of the Forum of Journalists. Now, citizens send reports via a mobile phone or the website, and a moderator vets these reports and publishes them on the map. Sierra added a layer of collaboration beyond just citizen reporting that has made all the difference. He works with news media in Panama, including La Estrella and La Prensa, to monitor the map for trends and turn citizen reports into investigative stories.

Middle East: Launch a Network to Connect Journalists with IT Experts

Knight Fellow Ayman Salah is taking this idea of community building one step further by establishing Hacks/Hackers groups in the Middle East. Hacks/Hackers groups bring journalists, citizen journalists, digital experts and computer programmers together to explore and create technology through meetups and hackathons. This is crucial in the Arab world, where Arabic is an underrepresented online language, much of the population outside of cities does not have a voice in news, and people have to rely on foreign-made social technologies to overcome a lack of local innovation. These groups are now creating Arabic mobile and web applications to engage citizens with media partners to create and share information.

In the Q&A afterward, someone asked a great question: What has been the role of women in these tech projects and competitions, and how does this innovation address the gender divide?

In response, I pointed out that the key people with whom we are working in Argentina and Brazil to launch data journalism and technology projects are women who had come to us with their own project concepts. That project is being led by a woman.

Gosier added that it was important, however, not to impose Western values on these projects. This built on an earlier point he’d made that local innovation, rather than merely importing solutions from outside, is crucial for solving local challenges and getting communities to buy into the these innovations.

Without building communities of support around projects, great ideas often fall flat. It requires new thinking and new ways of connecting people who have a stake, people who perhaps have not yet had the right catalyzing reason or a new framework within which to work.

That is why we – the Knight Fellowships, Ashoka and Apps 4 Africa – conceived these initiatives around the idea of collaboration. Each leverages available technologies and expertise in ways that are new for their environments. And each builds communities that buy into the results, which has sparked extraordinary societal change along the way. This was no accident. We knew how crucial collaboration was going in.