Last week I gave a guest lecture to USC’s COMM620 “research seminar on mobile phones, online community, and social change.” The course is the academic component of an ambitious project called Mobile Voices, funded by the Annenberg Program on Online Communities, the Social Science Research Council, and the Nokia Research Center. It is a great example of academia, for-profit, and non-profit coming together to work on something that stands to benefit them all as well as the community they are targeting – in this case, migrant day laborers. In partnership with the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California the USC graduate students are trying to come up with techniques and best practices to help day laborers in the Los Angeles area take advantage of mobile technologies, and also to challenge the negative stereotypes of migrant workers as portrayed in mainstream media productions like “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!“ and websites like DayLaborers.org.
The project aims to involve the participants – five day-laborers who use IDEPSCA as a resource center – in the design process. Rather than telling the participants how they should use their mobile phones, they have surveyed the day-laborers current mobile communication practices and their needs in order to collectively come up with new communication strategies that more effectively meet their needs. (Melissa Brough has a great write-up about participatory design in communication research, and another here.) In this way the academics get to avoid the nasty label of ‘paternalistic residents of the ivory tower’, the day laborers get free communication consultants, and Nokia gets to spread the wonders of the multimedia cell phone to a population that has yet to place its chips on the iPhone.
I began with my standard introduction to Global Voices and how it started out as a grassroots citizen media effort to both supplement and challenge mainstream media’s international coverage. A few years in we then came up against three major obstacles: 1.) censorship was silencing voices we would otherwise amplify on the site, 2.) online linguistic barriers insulate communication among speakers of the same language, and 3.) most bloggers and podcasters are highly educated, upper-middle class and urban thus giving a skewed portrayal of national sentiment. Those three obstacles led, respectively, to the creation of GV Advocacy, Lingua, and Rising Voices.
Rising Voices began with the goal diversifying the viewpoints and content on the conversational web by including members of communities that have historically been excluded from both traditional and new media. However, we quickly came to realize that these projects should meet the needs of the members of the participating communities and not just the needs of international news junkies looking for a story that no one else knows about. Mobile Voices, I believe, came to the same realization. Rather than just changing popular perceptions of migrant workers, several of the participants mentioned their desire to use their mobile phones to find work and send out alerts about immigration raids.
Now the mobile blogging component of Mobile Voices is just one aspect of a project that could potentially include a mobile interface job board which links day laborers with contractors seeking workers with specific skills or time availability, and an alert system (probably based on Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS) which warns undocumented workers of immigration raids that affect them.
Currently there are five day laborers – Adolfo, Marcos, Manuel, “Crijm“, and “ZamoraN” – participating in the pilot mobile blogging project. They document their daily lives by sending Gizmo-based voicemails, MMS, and text messages to a customized Drupal content management system. It is even possible to subscribe to the blog posts via SMS.
I am especially fond of Adolfo’s mobile blogging as he is posting in both English and Spanish and uploads photographs of his research, metaphorical reflections, mind-numbing boredom, and grateful enthusiasm. (One of the motivations of these mobile bloggers is to show their family members back home what their life is like in Los Angeles.)
In many ways Mobile Voices is several steps ahead of anything we’ve tried to do thus far at Rising Voices. They are working with a community – undocumented migrant workers – that has a lot to lose if information about their locations and identities are made public to the police. (Imagine the scenario of a participant uploading a photograph of a building in Los Angeles, LAPD checking Mobile Voices, heading to the nearby location to ask the mobile blogger for proper documentation, and then deporting the blogger.) They are also working with a community that has little or no access to the internet and depends on basic cell phones to both produce and consume content.
Before concluding our discussion I offered three points of so-called “pushback” about their project:
- First, if one of the objectives of the blogging component of the project is to challenge the negative stereotypes against migrant workers then how do they plan on reaching readers whose perception of day laborers has been unfairly shaped by biased programs like “Smile … You’re Under Arrest“? As it now stands the Mobile Voices blog will attract little attention outside of like-minded activists. This is the problem with online media: as content producers we want to reach new audiences that we otherwise wouldn’t meet, but as content consumers we search for content that we are already interested in. One possible solution here is to reach out to so-called celebrity bloggers like Zadi Díaz and Xeni Jardin and ask them to put the content in front of readers who normally wouldn’t search it out.
- Second, there is an ethical consideration related to teaching citizen journalism techniques. When Joan, Stéphane, Lova, and Mialy taught their fellow Malagasy citizens how to become citizen journalists they had no idea that their country would soon “feel like a war movie.” The bloggers trained by Foko Madagascar have become some of the most authoritative voices on their country’s current political crisis. The more attention they receive for their frontline reporting, however, the more risk they are willing to take to get that photograph, video, or piece of information that no one else has. The danger of doing so was made depressingly clear when Ando, a news reporter and friend of the Foko bloggers, was killed last month. It just as easily could have been one of the Foko bloggers out to report on the latest development.
- Finally, I question the need to spend so much time on developing a customized Drupal website in order to enable the same features which are already available on free commercial services like Brightkite. Similar to the custom site being developed, Brightkite also allows posting by MMS, text message, and email. You can also subscribe to the content of others (contacts or those near you) by SMS and/or email. I already know that the argument in favor of open source development is that anyone can take the code and build on it. However, this often comes at the cost of unsustained projects that are left without developers and without proper documentation.
With all that said, Mobile Voices is still on the cutting edge of adopting brand new technologies to help communities that we so often ignore and refuse to empathize with. I’m eager to see what comes out of their project and how their tools and lessons learned are adopted by others.