Creating Technology for Social Change

Using tech to talk back

Here at the Center for Future Civic Media, we try to be careful not to be technological determinists when brainstorming ideas for new technologies that can foster civic engagement. Most students remain wary of thinking that a well-designed device will promote participation, no matter what. Instead, our discussions emphasize the need to keep the social mores and everyday practices of a community in mind, so that the tools we design are culturally sensitive, and thus more likely to be deployed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Revi Sterling, a Microsoft Research Fellow who designed Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR), a Digital Inclusion initiative of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sterling’s work serves as a good model of a project that has been tailored to accommodate for cultural practices and on-the-ground realities in her test community in Southeast Kenya.

AIR seeks to facilitate communication between radio audiences and broadcasters and aims to give women in rural communities the opportunity to ‘talk back’ to their community radio stations. The project has been developed on the premise that community radio stations are often the only source of reliable, relevant information in the rural areas of developing countries and that women tend to be the most underserved members of their communities. Sterling acknowledges that while community radio is typically focused on the needs of the community it serves, it often mirrors the gender gaps that exist in a given social system. For that reason, she hopes to make public through radio what often remains private, and in doing so give women the opportunity to have a voice, even if their views are represented by the few who choose to operate as broadcasters.

At the moment, Sterling is particularizing her project for Southeast Kenya. There are several reasons why the region is an appropriate space in which to introduce AIR. First, radios are ubiquitous in the region. Radio sharing is common and radios are viewed as a community resource. Second, the region is served by Radio Mang’elete, a community radio station launched under the umbrella of the East Africa Community Media Project, a program that is being coordinated by the non-profit organization EcoNews Africa. The tribes in Southeast Kenya speak Kikamba rather than Swahili, which is the national language, so community radio is the only source of information in the area. As Sterling puts it, “people in Southeast Kenya take their portable radios everywhere, into the fields, into the markets. They might tune in faintly to other Swahili-language stations, but community radio broadcasts in their own language are really the only thing they listen to.” Third, Southeast Kenya has a long history of women’s collectives–there are 34 in the region–that is, work-related networks comprising between 20 and 200 women who share tools and responsibilities. Sterling believes that it is better to distribute AIR devices to women in a collective who are accustomed to collaborating and articulating their needs and goals, rather than to an isolated woman.

AIR devices, which will be distributed arbitrarily to women in the collectives, are small, rugged, mobile computing tools that record user voice input and then asynchronously forward users’ voice feedback to the community radio station via an ad-hoc, delay-tolerant network. Keeping in mind the low literacy levels of the audiences that community radio stations typically serve in the developing world, Sterling has kept her hardware simple. The AIR device includes a microphone, a push-to-talk button, and a green, a yellow, and a red LED. The Women in rural communities who may not be technologically fluent can easily interpret the status of the device with the LEDs. Green means that the device is functioning normally; yellow means that the device needs to be charged when it is convenient; and red means that the device should be charged as soon as possible.

Sterling optimized the AIR devices, which run on rechargeable AA batteries, to minimize power consumption. The devices are expected to operate for a week without needing to be recharged. Since women in Southeast Kenya have to rely on their husbands to purchase batteries, Sterling has provided other recharging options for AIR devices. Charging stations can be powered by an automobile battery (a common practice in the developing world) or, alternatively, a medium-sized solar panel with a simple charging circuit. Women who will be using AIR are excited about having an additional power source, in anticipation of using the battery for other purposes, such as providing charging power to the primarily male cell phone owners in the community. Since the recharging stations have the capability to produce more power than AIR devices require, women can use them to generate extra income by offering an additional power supply source for the larger community.

In addition to accommodating for such on-the-ground realities and logistics, Sterling has also kept social practices and the constraints of the communications infrastructure in Southeast Kenya in mind when designing AIR. For example, Sterling remained cognizant of the fact that Radio Mang’elete has only two ‘investigative’ reporters generating content from across the region as well as occasional use of a vehicle provided by NGOs. For that reason, she hoped the radio station would be open to experimenting with AIR and the interactivity and flow of user-generated content that it would enable. Not surprisingly, Radio Mang’elete is excited by the prospect of more comprehensive coverage and has launched two shows that will make use of content submitted via AIR devices. “Women’s Hour,” hosted by the station’s two women broadcasters, will solicit topics from women using AIR, while “News from the Field” will air news reports that women generate regarding notable events in their immediate communities.

Sterling will be testing her work in Kenya this spring. She is prepared to find several other ways in which to tweak AIR so as to make it even more community-specific. As it stands, her research and implementation provides a useful example of how to design suitable civic technologies for hyperlocal communities.