Mobile as Media Platform in the Global South
Published on: 31st Jan 2009
Note -- this news article is more than a year old.
African peasants paint their mobile phone number over their front doors. Indian slum dwellers buy SIM cards to use on friends' handsets. Chinese students spend three months' allowance on a phone they can use to surf the web. Once almost the exclusive domain of rich countries, the mobile revolution has swept through the developing world. An estimated 3.8 billion people, or half the world's population, own a mobile, and most of the growth is taking place in the global South.
This has deep implications for the news media, but the change has been so rapid that it has completely overtaken most media outlets - they are struggling to digest its impact.
A report, The Promise of Ubiquity was commissioned by Internews Europe in order to help the media to understand the exciting potential, the incredible challenges and the perils of refusing to change. What kind of information services can be carried on the mobile now and in the next five years? Is the mobile viable as an information channel even when many new users may be illiterate? There may be few right answers, but author John West provides a roadmap on how to navigate through the brave new world of mobile telephony. West suggests a checklist of useful questions and of some best practices which have emerged so far.
Innovator case studies:
"What the mobile medium allowed was the creation of a news service at a very low cost. We have got to the stage where we are now challenging the established media here." Chamath Airyadasa is a Sri Lankan journalist who set up his own news organisation using texts, called Jasmine News Wire. As of mid-2008 JNW had around 100,000 subscribers paying 30 US cents a month across Sri Lanka's four mobile phone networks to receive a news alerts service.
"The idea really was to write software that could get information out and get information back over the mobile phone." Ken Banks developed FrontlineSMS in 2005 after realizing that the mobile was beginning to make inroads into rural regions of Africa, where the Internet was still non-existent. FrontlineSMS is a free-to-use SMS server program which when installed on a computer allows it to use an attached mobile phone to structure text messages out and back. It is now in use in over 50 countries. Some current uses include monitoring of Nigeria's elections in 2007 by activists, delivering crop prices to farmers in Aceh, Indonesia, health care services in Malawi, news alerts in Iraq, and security news for NGO workers in Afghanistan.
"Particularly in the health sector, we are seeing many organisations preparing to use SMS as a kind of instant expert service." Bobby Soriano is a programmer and activist based in Manila who has been working on SOS SMS, a service for Filipinos working abroad. The service has evolved quickly from dealing only with emergency calls into a broader information service which handles any kind of query from the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos working in the Gulf region and elsewhere.
The report can be downloaded from the Internews website.
Internews Europe has been on the forefront of media work with mobile phones in the South. It set up text messaging services for journalists in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Java, Indonesia in 2006. Since then, it has continued to innovate with mobile use in emergency response situations as well as in closed country environments.
John West has pioneered use of new technologies for media applications in developing countries since running instant message chats live from Baghdad in December 1998 to 14,000 AOL users during US bomb attacks. In 1999, he won the prestigious European Internet Journalist of the Year award given by City University in London. From 2002 to 2004, he led an Internews project in Afghanistan which established 30 FM radio stations around the country, fully digitised and linked by satellite to production networks. In 2008, he introduced mobile phone-based information services in Iraq by evolving a system of real-time news alerts over SMS with a national news agency.