Reboot: Surveying Information Ecosystems in Pakistan

Fresh from a new research project with Internews on information ecosystems in media-dark conflict areas in Pakistan, Reboot has joined us to share and discuss their latest research project in Pakistan, as they start to compile and interpret their results.

Panthea Lee and Kate Krontiris of Reboot, a consultancy which focuses on the practical implications of design and technology in global governance. Their impressively broad range of projects stretches from service design and governance reform to mobile justice and civic media. They focus especially on global governance adn international development, with a particular interest in Africa, MENA, and Asia.

Panthea Lee and Kate Krontiris of Reboot

Reboot is trying to prove that human communities contain resources and knowledge that governments should take into account when designing impactful services. They use a variety of research methods to include that human experience into the design process. Reboot tries to put communities at the heart of problem solving, not just trying to develop systems that are most efficient for governments. As they work on impactful projects, they focus on designing solutions that meet institutional and community needs alike.

Most recently, Reboot has been working with Internews on design research to develop civic information systems in media-dark conflict areas of Pakistan. Internews is a media development organisation which started in the 1970s. They train journalists, build media organisations, develop sustainable media business models, and try to help media organisations understand the transition to digital news.

New Opportunities for Citizen Media in Pakistan

Pakistan’s media system has opened significantly since 2003 when the state monopoloy over electronic media ended, opening a private broadcast market. That said, Pakistan still faces frequent censorship, especially for stories about the government, military, the constitution, and cyberterrorism. Despite these challenges, Panthea says that liberalized media is genuinely driving institutional change.

Reboot’s recent work takes place in an area that is fairly isolated from the rest of Pakistan and has a significant amount of independence from the rest of the country. Within that region, media adoption has been changing. Around 66% of households own radios. 51% have mobiles, and only 33% have televisions. There is however high variation within this regions. Some areas have 70% television ownership, while others have as low as 5% television penetration. Some areas have no mobile coverage at all.

Next year’s elections in Pakistan will be the first chance for people in this region to vote in national politics. As a result, political parties are investing heavily in advertising. This year will be a remarkable moment for people to exercise their voice and influence on the shape of their nation.

Internews initially proposed to enable civic participation in this region by setting up an interactive voice response system to provide political process information. Phones make a lot of technical sense; it’s a great idea. But Panthea asked Internews just what they mean by political process information and civic decision-making. How much do people already know, what resources do they already have? What do people want, and what are the most effecive ways to reach people with that information? Voice systems are sexy right now, but maybe people in the region already use other technologies. It’s also important to account for the nature of people’s civic relations.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are some of the best researched places in the world. We know mobile penetration and mobile usage, but we have less information available about the relations that get carried out through the many channels people already have at their disposal. It’s also important to avoid framing the questions only from the perspective of western organisations.

Research Methods

Supported by Internews, Reboot carried out a three week design research study, using ethnographic approaches. What’s design research? It’s an applied ethnographic approach, drawing from qualitative methods to achieve a deep and holistic understanding of what people do and why they do it. Panthea says that this approach focuses on discovering the needs and issues that the designers may not have thought of. Finally, it’s aimed at informing an active design process.

Reboot hired a 9 researchers to work in their home regions across rural and urban areas. First, they asked where do people get their information, and who they share it with. Secondly, how do people decide what information is credible? What is the relative influence of different media channels? Next, they asked how migration and displacement, both conflict and work related, impact how people access and use information. Finally, they asked how technology is changing people’s access to information.

Becky asked how the researchers were trained. Many of them were previously acquainted with quantitative methods, so Reboot offered a week long training on qualitative methods and safety.

Rahul asks Panthea how Reboot handles requests from clients that assume a solution. How does Reboot guide clients through a process that directs clients towards a more research-driven approach? Panthea responds that they start by asking clients lots of questions, in a process that hopefully illustrates how little is known and how important it is to understand more before launching a new project.

Information Assets in Media-Dark Areas of Pakistan

Reboot’s researchers carried out interviews, shadowing, service trial, and user diaries. Here’s what they found:

  • People in the region are mostly concerned about survival. Their feeling of powerlessness about security leads to an obsession about monitoring the security situation, over and over. Even when they asked about education, health, and government services, people came back to security.
  • People weren’t interested in the elections. They have never had representation before. Instead, they were more interested in Indian, Afghani, and American politics than their own. Politicians typically come through, give their pitches, collect votes, and then leave. Panthea asks: might the lack of interest result from a lack of exposure? She directs us to mobile based political campaigns that attract interest through personal targeting.
  • People are highly skeptical of local media. They know how tightly the media is controlled and try to cross-validate information via multiple sources and through social networks. Even for a basic story like a fire, people were reluctant to trust national media. People are very reliant on foreign media. Voice of America has four times the awareness than the rest of the country, and the BBC is also much more well known. This can also be a problem; most people didn’t know that Voice America is owned by the American government.
  • People often find it difficult to fit international media in context. Reboot’s research project happened during the Anti-Islam video story. Because they live in a country with strongly controlled media, many people found it doubtful that the video could be published without Obama’s approval. (Zeynep Tufekci wrote about this issue for CNN)
  • While religious leaders are respected on religious matters, the influence and credibility of religious leaders stops at politics.
  • The most trusted people don’t typically appear on surveys: barbers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, nomadic women, and door-to-door salespeople. These are people with the greatest range of travel and access across social classes. Barbers are especially important. Even if a person doesn’t read, someone else in the barbershop will. Of course, the barbershop can’t reach everyone.
  • In the more sparse areas, people use cassette tapes to share information with their friends. Walkie talkies are also popular. Young people are using them as chatrooms, coordinating their social lives with each other over this semi-public channel.

Q&A: Making Sense of the Data

Panthea brings us back to the core question: how do we take advantage of this community’s new political importance? How can these people leverage their new national representation to improve their lives and livelihoods? This isn’t just about the elections; it’s about cultivate a long-term vision for civic participation.

An audience member asks how to include women, when many families see it as a dishonour for women to even touch a mobile phone. When women do have phones, people put male codenames in the address book. Panthea responds that it’s often not realistic in short-term timelines over just a few years. The audience member suggests that Reboot talk to midwives, who are strong connectors among women.

Charlie asks about the security question. People are most concerned about their security, but that’s an international question, not a regional one. While Reboot is thinking about internal information sharing within the region, how might community members create media to share the impact of the security situation to the internaional players that are influencing that region’s security? Panthea mentions that journalists face substantial censorship risks when trying to talk about the local security situation.

Erhardt asks what regulators are involved. The main one in Pakistan is the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

An audience member asks what influence civic information and elections will actually have on Pakistani politics. Panthea responds that since significant resources are coming into the region in question, whoever represents this area will access those resources. Accountable representatives might be more likely to use those resources in the interests of the people in that region.

Erhardt suggests an activism strategy. If the security situation is the largest problem, then maybe the elections offer an opportunity for people in the region to be represented in the national government.