Learning from others using digital tech | In focus | DW | 15.03.2016
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In focus

Learning from others using digital tech

Digital technologies are the new darlings of freedom of expression. Co-author of DW Akademie's digital innovation study, Kate Hairsine, talks about the diverse ways these technologies are being used in the Global South.

Photograph of two people sitting in a room in front of a giant screen

Open Development Cambodia workshop on using and sharing development data

DW Akademie's study "Advancing Freedom of Expression: Using digital innovation to foster Article 19 in the Global South looks at best practice for using digital technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet to advance freedom of expression.

Co-author Kate Hairsine, a digital technology journalist, shares with #mediadev the inspiration for the study, the need to learn from failure and people's amazing dedication to sharing ideas and information.

#mediadev: Where did the idea for the study come from?

Kate Hairsine: A while ago, DW Akademie ran a blog reviewing digital technology for journalists in developing countries. Those of us working on the blog would often stumble across some glowing media report about a digital tech project which was going to single-handedly save the developing word – by doing something like curbing police bribes or keeping an endangered language alive through citizen reporting. But when we searched for more details, such as how the project was panning out, if anyone was actually using it or what problems they were encountering, we usually couldn't find anything. And because of this, the blog's editor-in-chief, Steffen Leidel, and Jan Lublinski, who is Head of Research and Evaluation at DW Akademie, had the idea of taking a closer look at several digital technology projects and seeing what was working and what wasn't. That's how the study came about.

When carrying out your research for this study, what did you find most striking?

During the preliminary research, I repeatedly came across digital technology projects that sounded fantastic on paper. But when I followed up, the projects had ceased to exist or had so few users, they basically weren't achieving anything. I was struck by how few of these projects analyzed their failures – it was like there was this code of silence around admitting something wasn't working. When you consider the money that's often spent funding digital tech projects, it's such a wasted opportunity for others not to learn from the obstacles they faced. That really clarified our goals for us – we wanted to learn from the mistakes, and the successes, of others.

Obviously as a researcher you started with an open mind – were there any discoveries that surprised you?

There were several things. One was the sheer diversity of how projects use digital technology to help people communicate their ideas or create and engage with information. Just take the small subcategory of data, for example.

The project Mera Swasthya in India is creating data about pregnant women being charged illegal fees at clinics. Because the women are often illiterate, the system is set up so that someone who is charged a fee rings the number and then is prompted to report the fee by a voice message, “Press 1 to report a fee, Press 2...”. On the other side of the world, TracFm in Uganda also uses mobile phones to create information – in this case opinion poll data. But the responses are sent in via SMS because users are more comfortable sending texts.

Poderopedia is another data project but it's completely different. It is an online database that visualizes links between items in it by drawing lines on the screen between bits of data. This makes it easier to see, and therefore find links between public people and businesses in Chile. But it's obvious targeted at more sophisticated users. While in Nigeria, the fund-tracking project Follow the Money is targeting as wide an audience as possible so it creates very simple posters with basic facts about missing funding. And these posters can easily be shared on Facebook and social media. All of these projects are dealing with data in some way but they use a range of technologies and platforms that are finely tuned to meet their users' needs.

You mentioned there were several things that surprised you doing your research. What else was there?

Something else that was surprising – and inspiring – was how many projects depended on the ideas and commitment of single individuals. By that, I mean, it wasn't a development organization that came in and devised a project but rather someone in the region who saw a need, and then committed their time and energy – and even their own money – to making the project happen.

Can you give us an example?

When the war correspondent Shubhranshu Choudhary went to report on a Maoist insurgency raging in India's Chhattisgarh state, where he had grown up, he found many villagers were following the Maoists because they felt they had no other way of changing the status quo. They were fed up living with corruption and poverty and unpaid wages but had no voice. So Choudhary quit his job with the BBC to search for a way for these tribal minorities to be heard. He founded CGNet Swara, a mobile phone news service. It's a platform that uses basic mobile phones to let people record their stories and listen to reports from others. And it took years of commitment to get the technology off the ground and get people using the service.

And really the vast majority of the projects in the study had similar stories. While these individual commitments are inspirational, relying on one person can have the downside of making a project difficult to sustain in the long run.

Was there anything you think the projects overlooked in general?

Working at DW Akademie, viability and sustainability are terms that are bandied about all the time. So I was quite surprised to find so many project founders gave little thought to how they were going to finance their project. As I mentioned, projects are often started up by enthusiastic individuals who work incredibly hard to get their projects off the ground. It seems that only once it is up and running, do they stop and think about financing. But it's important to create a budget and consider different revenue streams from the very beginning. This isn't just true of digital technology projects, of course. Projects involving tech tend to have extra costs that often aren't factored in, such as updating software and hardware, paying developers or training staff to use the technology.

In addition, something that the majority of the project founders said was they underestimated the time, effort and cost of implementing the technology. They were plagued by a variety of problems, from the software taking much longer to develop than initially thought to the lack of in-country technical support.

What do you think digital innovation could target vis-à-vis advancing freedom of expression in the future?

I can't answer that question because it's the people living in these communities who best know a community's needs. But something I feel is important is for projects to target a more diverse group of people. Something the study highlights is that even those projects that try to include a broad range of people still primarily attract young males. Projects using digital technology should explore ways of getting more women and older people on board, otherwise they could be perpetuating the kinds of divides they’re hoping to break down.

What digital technologies are you most excited by for fostering Article 19?

Obviously there's a huge amount of excitement around the potential of mobile phones in the developing world to get people connected and online relatively cheaply. But studies such as ours continue to reveal that it isn't the technology that makes a project successful. Rather, it's about meeting a real need and using the technology as a bridge. And then you need to know the particular community, test the technology with different groups within that community, get feedback from the community and adapt the technology before testing it again. A project needs to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances.

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