Technology experts and activists have for years attempted to bridge the gap between those with access to technology and those without, using innovative products and initiatives, like the $100 laptop developed by the organisation One Laptop per Child.
But it takes more than a computer to bridge the gap. The mobile phone has emerged as a powerful tool for social engagement; mobile technology and social media applications are playing a vital role in giving excluded groups a voice. Around 70 per cent of mobile phone users are in developing countries, mostly in the global South, according to the UN agency the International Telecommunications Union. Mobile phones are the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users in the developing rather than developed world.
While access to the Internet is important, it is only the starting point, which is where mobile technology comes in. Unlike the Internet, mobile is not hampered by slow broadband speeds or electricity shortages, and can be used by those who cannot read or write. As a result, mobile phones are increasingly playing a vital role in shaping activism, raising awareness, and ultimately giving citizens a voice. New mobile platforms are simple and portable which require only simple text messaging capability to be used as a tool for a host of activities, from providing logistical support in natural disasters to tracking violence.
Despite the way in which social media and mainstream news like to talk about “new digital divides,” they are not new at all. From my own research in the field, it seems that the core issues are about social power, and access to information and skills.
Ushahidi – meaning “testimony” in Swahili – is a good example of this trend. This non-profit tech company specialises in developing free and open source software to enable users to share, interact and report on what’s happening in their society, available for anyone with a mobile phone. In a past analysis, Crowdglobe, which conducts research on crowdsourcing mapping systems, documented almost 13,000 Ushahidi crowdmaps in over 100 countries. The program allows people to set up their own map without having to install it on their web servers.
NT Mojos, a project undertaken by the Australian Government in 2011, gave citizens a voice as well asthe opportunity to become the creators of content, allowing allows them to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information such as governments, publishing houses and media organisations, which control access to services, debate and knowledge.
A similar project in India, CGNet Swara, a mobile-based news service, was launched as a portal for the Chhattisgarh tribe, which lacks access to mainstream media. The open-source software overcomes two barriers – literacy and lack of Internet access – by allowing individuals to report news in their own language to their community and beyond. With the program, “citizen reporters” call a number to record a news item, which is then verified by a trained journalist at CGNet Swara. Once a report has been approved, any listener can hear it by dialing into the same voice messaging service with their mobile phone. Continue reading “Bridging the Digital Divide: Mobile and Social Media”