Let the Vojo workshops begin!

On Friday, Becky Hurwitz, Paolo Rogerio, and I had the opportunity to conduct mobile media-making workshops with two community based organizations (CBOs) that form part of Boston’s large and vibrant Brazilian community. The first workshop was with staff from the Brazilian Immigrant Center (here’s their new Vojo group), and the second was with about 20 members of the Vida Verde Co-Op (here’s the Vida Verde Vojo group). It was an exciting moment, since these were the first real workshops to use the VoJo hosted mobile blogging platform in a community setting. This post provides a little bit of background about VoJo, then reflects on the two workshops and the lessons learned.

tl;dr: vojo.co is live! F2F workshops rock. People <3 mobile blogging via voice calls and MMS. Group creation and customization works nicely; new users are easily able to post and create accounts directly from phones. But: we need printed how-to materials; in big f2f workshops, we need to demo each feature before switching to hands-on; changing your username is still fairly difficult; calling in stories needs simpler UX; we have to make SMS broadcast to groups work.

Background: VozMob

Prior to accepting my current position at MIT, I lived, studied, and worked in Los Angeles for six years. I spent a lot of time with immigrant rights organizations, especially the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), where – together with a diverse team of day laborers, household workers, community organizers, students, researchers, software developers, and designers – I was one of the cofounders of the Mobile Voices project (VozMob). VozMob is a community-led project that appropriates mobile phones to amplify the voices of immigrant workers. It was developed through popular education and participatory design, and this approach led to a number of key features that work especially well in the context of communities that don’t have great access to computers (for example, access limited to libraries and community centers, or dial-up rather than home broadband), but do use inexpensive mobile phones – not necessarily smart phones with data plans. Some of these key features include the ability to create new accounts for users directly from non-smart phones, via voice calls, MMS (picture messaging), or SMS; call in audio stories that post directly to the web; geolocate stories even from non-GPS phones simply by adding location in the body of the message, and more. For more background, check out these articles on MobileActive.org or the book chapter coauthored by the project team for Communications Research in Action.


How Can I Be Down?”

As VozMob grew, gained increased visibility, won competitions (from Netsquared and DML) and awards (from the United Nations World Summit Awards), and conducted hands-on mobile blogging workshops with organizations around Los Angeles and across the country (at the Allied Media Conference and the US Social Forum), we started to receive a lot of requests from groups and individuals who wanted to become VozMober@s. This was wonderful, but VozMob’s model is closer to a community-run newspaper than to a social media site: the goal isn’t to gather huge numbers of users, but rather to center the voices of those who take part in VozMob’s regular, face to face, popular education workshops. To become a mobile blogger for VozMob.net therefore requires participating in workshops led by accredited VozMober@s, based either at IDEPSCA or at one of the other community organizations that has gone through VozMob’s Affiliation process.


Just Download and Install Our Code!”

Of course, the VozMob Drupal Distribution or VozMobDD is Free/Libre Software, so anyone is free to use the code we developed to set up their own mobile blogging site. Several organizations have done this so far, including Partour.net, who use it to create participatory bicycle maps in Los Angeles, and healthycity.org, who use it as middleware to gather stories from cell phones that are then passed on to their California-wide civic mapping platform. However, the vast majority of the community based organizations that express the most interest in VozMob don’t have the resources to install, configure, host, and maintain their own instance. This is an issue that troubles the free/libre software community more broadly: those who theoretically might benefit most from the freedoms afforded by free/libre software often, in practice, are in the worst position to do so (because of structural inequalities in access to digital literacies, tools, skills, and resources).


Enter VoJo

Because of this, a year ago the VozMob Community Board decided that it was time to create a hosted instance of the VozMob Drupal Distribution – a platform where anyone would easily be able to create a group mobile blog, and take advantage of the affordances developed by the VozMob project. To realize this vision (a hosted version of VozMobDD), over the last few months I’ve been working with the insanely talented team of developers Rahul Bhargava and Squiggy Rubio, codesign facilitator Becky Hurwitz, graphic design by MIT UROP Stephen Suen, testing and documention support from Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, occasional dev support from Mark Burdett, and Voip Drupal support by Leo Burd. After a lot of work, we were finally able to soft-launch VoJo.co during the 2012 Allied Media Conference. VoJo generated a lot of excitement, and we set up a number of VoJo groups for interested organizations. However, it wasn’t until last Friday that we actually did a workshop focused on the most likely end-users of Vojo groups (rather than informal demos focused on showing organization staff how to set up and configure a Vojo Group).



Brazilian Immigrant Center (http://www.braziliancenter.org)

Friday afternoon we biked over to Allston to prepare for our first workshop, with staff from BIC. According to their website:

Our mission is to support workers’ struggles in the Greater Boston area around issues of workplace rights and immigration. Through organizing, advocacy, education, leadership, and capacity building, we join immigrant workers and their families in the fight against economic, social and political marginalization and in working to create a more just society.

Everyone at BIC was extremely friendly. Becky had been there once before, to show them Vojo and set up their group. After a round of intros, I walked through the history from VozMob to Vojo, then everyone got out their iPhones (they all had iPhones!) for some hands-on experimentation. Here’s the link to their group on Vojo: http://www.vojo.co/en/groups/brazilian-immigrant-center-new-england. After sending test stories by MMS and via voice calls, we took some time to discuss the possibilities.

What they might want to use Vojo for.

  • Documenting things they do, especially legal defense, workshops, actions and events. This is what mostly happens on VozMob.net, as well.
  • Reminding people about upcoming events. In theory, Vojo group administrators can send messages to all the group members. Currently this is done using a web form, and it hasn’t been fully tested. We need to get it working so that we can start testing it out and improving this feature (for example, group admins will likely want to be able to message their group by sending an sms or mms, rather than having to log in and use a web form). If this is the main goal (group sms broadcast notifications), there are many other tools that are more focused around the use case and will probably be better options.

We ended by working with BIC Exective Director M. Natalicia Tracy to customize the audio clips that users hear when they call the group’s extension.This can be done directly in the browser on the group settings page, which is a really nice feature and worked well despite some minor UI glitches.

After that, Becky, Paolo, and I grabbed some incredibly delicious soondubu Tofu, then headed over to the Mass Alliance of Portuguese Speakers for the second workshop.


Vida Verde Cooperative (http://verdeamarelo.org/vidaverde)

Vida Verde Vojo Workshop


This time we were expecting a larger group, since Becky had coordinated with Brazilian Women’s Group cofounder Heloisa Maria Galvao and Vide Verde organizer Su for the workshop to take place just before the regular co-operative meeting. From their site:

The Vida Verde Co-Op supports Brazilian housecleaners in their professions while creating community and promoting healthy and environmentally friendly methods. We are a team of 15 women and 1 man trained about cleaning alternatives that do not harm the environment and protect our and our clients’ health. We make cleaning products with natural ingredients and all products have labels listing the ingredients and providing instructions for use.

For more background on Vida Verde check out this article “The Vida Verde Women’s Co-Op: Brazilian Immigrants Organizing to Promote Environmental and Social Justice.”

We set up in the large basement meeting space at MAPS, and started with some coffee and a round of introductions. This time we used a projector to walk through the slides about the history of the VozMob project, then switched to three groups to get hands-on with test stories. Becky, Paolo, and I each took a group – those who were comfortable with English went with Becky, Portuñol with me, and Paolo ended up with a ‘small group’ of about 10 people – really larger than is ideal when trying to troubleshoot mobile media making, but he managed! Almost 20 people took part in the workshop.

After about 25 minutes of exploring test picture messages, voice calls to the group, and sms registration, we returned to the meeting space to look at stories on the projector and discuss the possibilities.

What Vida Verde members said they would like to use Vojo for:

  • Creating a portfolio. Several people were really excited by the idea of taking before and after pictures of their work. They want to create documentation and portfolios of jobs they’ve done, which could be shown to potential employers and help them get more work. Some folks on VozMob.net have had this idea as well, see Marcos’ images of a sound system he installed. They noted that they’d have to get permission to do this, if they’re going to share images taken in someone’s home.
  • documenting their work in general.


Part II: Key lessons

This next section is about to get even longer and more detailed, so if you’ve made it this far here’s a quick summary:

  • The core features of VoJo are working pretty well! It’s now very simple to create, configure, and customize new groups
  • MMS and voice based story submission and account creation is also working well! It’s easy for new users to register accounts by MMS or voice calls, even in the context of a large and chaotic workshop.
  • We need printed how-to materials, and we need to improve the username creation experience;
  • The process of calling in stories needs to be simplified even more and should be demonstrated by workshop facilitators to the whole group before the hands-on small group workshops begin.


Generic How-to materials designed for face to face workshops

We need these. Each Vojo Group has its own phone number (or extension), as well as its own email address, used to post stories to the group. During workshops, facilitators work with small groups (ideally 2-3 people, but in reality sometimes up to 10-15) to walk through the process of posting your first story to the site and registering a new account. In general, the facilitators ask everyone to write down the phone number, extension, and the email address of their group; in practice, not everyone does this, and the steps to posting and registration seem simple but the wide variety of phones and plans inevitably results in a lot of ad-hoc troubleshooting during the hands-on part of the workshop. Nicely designed, graphic, printed (or easily printable) versions of our already existing generic How-To documentation (especially post your first post, change your default username, and login later to edit your stories) would be a great addition to the basic materials used in VoJo workshops. Workshop participants should each receive a small sheet or mini-booklet with these basic instructions, with a spot to write in their group’s number, extension, and email addy.


Creating a VoJo Contact

Creating and storing the VoJo Group number, extension, and email address as a Contact in the user’s mobile phone is also a key step that should be included in every workshop.


Mobile user registration

The user registration process is one of the things that’s simultaneously most awesome, and most frustrating, about Vojo/VozMobDD. Awesome because we automatically create new accounts for users when they send their first story to the site, either by calling or by sending an MMS or SMS. People immediately see the value in this, especially people whose primary form of ICT connectivity is their mobile phone. One woman from Vida Verde posted her first story to the site, received her welcome SMS from the site, turned to me and said (in Portuguese):

“That’s it, I’m leaving Facebook behind!”

So, this part of the process tends to work pretty well. The frustrating part of the process comes next: changing the username.


Changing the username

The account we create for a new user has an automatically created username (Vojo-12345, for example) and password, which we send to the new user with their first welcome SMS. This is followed by a second SMS, which tells the user that if they’d like to change their username, they should text the name they’d like to our registration email (reg AT vojo DOT co). This part generally works in tests, but almost always fails in real world workshops. In our workshop at Vida Verde, out of about 15 new user accounts, only 5 ended up successfully changing their username via SMS dialogue. There are several reasons for this:

  • People don’t notice the SMS inviting them to change their username. Especially in the middle of a noisy and fun workshop. The facilitator really needs to let everyone know this is going to happen, to look for the message, and to reply to the message.
  • The SMS is currently in English. We forgot to translate the welcome SMS text to Portuguese and test that a Group with language set to Portuguese would correctly send that version. Oops.
  • People don’t really read the SMS. I’ve seen this many times in VozMob workshops. Even when the SMS is in the person’s native tongue, many times they don’t actually read it. There are lots of reasons for this, including: print literacy – many people don’t read very well. Eyesight – it can be hard to read SMS on a small screen if your eyes aren’t great. Social norms and attention in a group workshop setting – everyone is talking, excited, thinking about the stories they just created, and most importantly, doing something in a group with other people – so pausing to carefully read some instructions in an SMS removes you from group interaction and may or may not be socially OK.
  • The text is confusing. Even when people read the message, it is confusing. As creating user accounts via SMS is not common, there are not yet many common ways of communicating about it or familiar steps. We need to make these registration messages simple and clear and probably, to demonstrate in the workshops and in a video online.
  • The filters are broken. We have to write and maintain filters that clean up incoming messages from mobile operator mms and sms to email gateways. Currently we have working MMS filters for most major mobile providers; however, in this workshop it became clear that the SMS gateway filters for several key providers (AT&T and I think T-Mobile as well) are not working yet. So, the user gets a message that their phone company is not supported.
  • Don’t tell users their mobile company is not supported. When they get this message, they think nothing worked – actually, they can still send stories by calling or MMS; they just can’t send SMS stories or change their username. We need to tell them something friendlier, like “Oops! To change your username, login at vojo.co with username [username], password [password], then click ‘settings’ and edit your account.

So, how do we do this better? Improved experience, translation, fix filters, test, and in workshops, hand out physical how-to guides, good facilitation, demonstrate to everyone (screenshots of what’s going to happen before breaking to small groups!), remind them during the small group. Finally: if possible, work with people one by one afterward to change the usernames of everyone who wasn’t able to successfully register. Also: send reminder messages later!


Calling in stories and customizing group audio menus:

In a future post, I’ll write more about some of the issues we’ve encountered as we work to build an intuitive experience for users to call in stories and for group creators to customize their group audio menus. We’re doing this using VOIP Drupal to create interaction scripts, with third party voip service Tropo. Briefly, a few takeaways from Friday:

  • It’s currently a lot of steps to select a language, enter a group extension, choose whether to post anonymously or create an account, then record a message, listen to it, and press a key to save it. We need to radically simplify this. VozMob voice stories worked like this: call the number, hear a welcome message asking you to leave your story, beep. That’s it.
  • Any group that gets serious about using Vojo will probably want its own number, not just an extension. How much will this cost, and how will we cover it? For now we can eat the cost, but eventually it may be something groups would pay a small fee for, perhaps as part of a regular fee to cover vojo operating costs.
  • Don’t record group menus just before your workshop, in a crowded coffeeshop with rock music playing loudly in the background :/



Overall, the first face to face workshops were awesome, and a good reminder that people and community organizations really are excited by the idea of doing mobile blogging via voice and picture messaging. We need some good printable how-to materials for workshops; changing your username after registration is still fairly difficult; the UX for calling in stories can be simplified more and should be demoed to the whole group (with speakers!) before we switch to the hands-on part of the workshop; we need to fully test SMS broadcast to groups so we can do follow-up. Audio UX will also need work. Still, its also obvious that Vojo is already exciting to a lot of people. We’re looking forward to the next community workshops!