The Challenge of Bringing Net Access to Poorest Areas

    by Jessica Mayberry
    November 3, 2008

    This week, I’ve given a lot of thought to how poor communities on the other side of the digital divide are able to connect. The Internet is now only accessible for a tiny portion of humanity. Probably less than 20% of humanity has regular internet access, and in rural India, where 700 million people live, it must be a far, far smaller number. When all of us English-speaking urbanites have forums to share and learn and grow, but vast numbers of people don’t, it only increases the inequality of the poor. In addition to their financial poverty, they are becoming increasingly information poor. Tons of great people are putting their minds to this challenge, and some possible solutions in the country I know best (India) are the “one laptop per child” initiative and village Internet kiosks run by groups such as Drishtee.com in Delhi.

    Here’s what the digital divide means concretely in Video Volunteers’ work. We have trained 75 Community Video Producers from slums and villages of India along with our NGO partners. Every two months they make a film on a different critical issue like health, education, water and corruption and screen them on widescreen projectors in 25 villages.

    These folks live in twelve different geographies in India, ranging from the slums of Mumbai to lush isolated rural areas 1000 kilometers away, to villages in the foothills of the Himalayas. They have so much to share and learn about. Every year, we bring them together in two week long group trainings. The ideas fly, and it is an incredible experience to watch them comment on and give feedback on each others’ ‘video news magazines.’


    They tell each other what the situation is in their villages related to the issue in the film they are watching (for instance, health or corruption) and they say how it’s different; they tell each other about interesting documentaries (such as Control Room) that their trainer recently showed them. Neither group can understand the content of “Control Room,” which is a great film to teach video activism, but the visuals themselves help them see the power of good and bad journalism.

    They sit around in small groups and talk about their experiences interviewing government officials, making fun of corrupt local people they’ve met and getting quite competitive about whose films have made the most impact.

    But here’s the challenge. We can only bring the Producers together physically once a year or at most twice. Money, distance, time and their regular work grind makes it impossible to do it more frequently. They do stay connected. Producers with access to cell phones will text each other or talk on the phone. Two producers — one from a rural Community Video Unit (‘CVU’) and one from an urban CVU — got married a few weeks ago, so the connections are obviously pretty intense when they do meet at these group training. But it is only the leaders of the group who speak on the phone regularly, and I bet most of what they do is gossip, not talking about what they can learn from each other.


    We want to build a “network” of community video producers, but a network that is for collaboration and sharing, not gossip. We think this Network can be strong, because of the unique perspective they have of the issues as people who have ‘lived’ the issue as opposed to just observed it. Professional journalists have wire services, web sites, and other things to stay in touch. But community journalists in the developing world don’t have any of that.

    At Video Volunteers, we’ve increasingly come to realize the only solution to ‘networking our network’ of Producers is the Internet. The Internet is the only way for community journalists in the developing world to stay connected and be in touch, and it could be a very powerful tool for sharing and learning. In my ‘dream’ platform, our Producers are posting the rough cuts of their video news magazines to a website for peer review. They are uploading directly from the field, from their cell phones, videos of closed schools or doctors offices, and getting feedback from their peers via SMS on what to say to the officials when they go to confront them. They are requesting music suggestions for their films or other visuals that their fellow Producers email them directly from their own CVUs.

    They are talking about solutions to challenges — how do you get more people to a community screening on a widescreen projector in the center of the village? How can you use local advertising to earn revenue? How do you motivate community volunteers to help in finding stories?

    But we have two major hurdles to this. One is connectivity. Not one of our CVUs has regular internet access. The other is language. India speaks 16 official languages, and the language of the Internet—English—is not spoken by a single community producer. Our Producers speak at least five languages.

    My question to this group is: Does anyone have a solution for how to bring geographically isolated communities with no common language on to the web? Some of the possible solutions our team at VV has imagined are, for instance, creating an SMS-type language (short, telegraph-like) to tag videos or blog that could be translated between regional indian languages via google’s translation service. Others are mailing around physically a pen drive onto which the CVUs that have no internet can save their mpegs to be uploaded from somewhere else. but we all know that any solution that makes the web more complicated is a big inhibitor to people really using the web, so I’m not sure this is the ‘right’ solution.

    In brainstorming for a proposal this week—the Macarthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition, which others in this forum may have applied for — we began thinking about the possibilities of a non-language based, non-verbal digital language of images.

    Can photography and video, and music and emotions, become a language for community people who lack a common language and lack literacy, to communicate in? We want to create an online platform on our community video channel, Ch19.org, dedicated to producer sharing and learning and networking. On this platform, community producers would communicate to each other through non-verbal video blogs and through photography. These images would be gotten through cell phone video uploads on the Nokia N95s that were donated to us when we participated in Pangea Day.

    The major challenge in a project like this would be setting aside language: how do we share and learn without language? What would the videos LOOK like? What would they say? But this is primarily a creative challenge, and those can be overcome! We think by involving lots of digital and web artists, and students of communications, we dream of creating a new video language for non-literate and non common-language communities to share on the web. This would solve one more piece of the puzzle in creating the network of community video producers, because the producers would be able to connect and share from 100s of different villages of India. My question to any readers would be, do you know of any work going on that is similar to this, trying to connect non-literate communities online through a language based on images?

    Tagged: digital divide india poor rural
    • Jessica, Great post! and great problem which inspires creativity. Our Includer strategy is similarly based on a “sneakernet” and USB flash drives. Would it make sense to have a “video ring” where each producer receives a flash drive from one, reviews it and adds their content, then mails it on to the next, all in a circle? Also, would it be possible to share the raw files (do you use the same software) so that each producer could add a track with visual commentary (like various icons, sounds, texts)?

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