The (Unrealized) Potential of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media

    by Prabhas Pokharel
    May 21, 2010

    I had the pleasure of attending the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile earlier this month. The summit brought together bloggers, activists, and thinkers working to advance citizen media all around the world. While the discussions that took place were informative, most presentations and panels fell short in recognizing the role mobile phones have played and exploring the potential mobile phones can play in citizen media. I’d like to highlight some of the potential for mobiles in citizen media that were not adequately discussed.

    The Potential of Mobiles in Citizen Media

    Mobile phones have already played a significant role in advancing citizen media around the world. They were instrumental in helping capture photos and videos on the streets of Tehran during 2009 protests that followed the elections there. A video captured during that time even won a prestigious journalism award. Mobile phone technology has been used in Namibia to enable more people from around the country to express their views in one of the country’s largest newspapers.


    In the U.S., day laborers have been using MMS messages to blog about their daily lives. In South Africa, citizen journalists use SMS, MMS, and other phone-based technologies to submit content and commentary to a local newspaper. In India, mobiles are being used to enable both reporting and news dissemination in local languages. Many more examples exist.

    These examples only scratch the surface of what is possible with mobile phones in independent and citizen media. The first panel at the summit, for example, featured online participation efforts around Chile. The government there is working to bring taxes and procurement data online. This was also a project that enabled citizen journalism in 12 local newspapers, as well extensive social media usage by Chileans. Non-profit organizations are also actively participating and responding to online conversations.

    The projects were impressive, but panel and audience members rightly raised the issue of a “digital divide” in Chile. There were only 32 internet users per 100 Chileans in 2008. However, there were 88 mobile subscriptions per 100 Chileans in the same year.  It was noted in the panel that access isn’t the only barrier to participation. But missing was the discussion of opportunities to use a widely-used technology that could increase participation.


    A very interesting project, Biblio Redes, provides a blogging platform for local communities in Chile around a community’s local library. The presenter for this project highlighted the difficulties of working with older participants who may have an oral rather than written tradition. Projects based on voice-based technologies present interesting potential to address this population, as has already been done elsewhere (see, for example, this project with indigenous tribes in India).

    At the Summit, there were also many conversations about fostering online participation in other languages. Voice-based technologies on the mobile phone may play a role in helping there as well, especially with languages with weak association to written representation, or languages with tricky character sets. Mobile voice-based technologies also provide opportunities for information services and participation for non-literate audiences.

    Bloggers and reporters also need to think more about using their mobile phones. In conversations I had with bloggers, I realized that most don’t see their mobile phones as potentially helpful devices in normal reporting work. One blogger who had used his mobile phone to stream live video and take pictures of protests was the exception rather than the rule.

    Our discussions managed to identify at least three distinctive advantages mobile phones have over traditional multimedia capturing devices:

    1. They are always in our pockets and therefore always accessible.
    2. When there is a data connection, they allow instant uploading and live coverage.
    3. Because they are light and seem more innocuous than large cameras and microphones in situations like protests, they allow reporters to capture multimedia in more situations.

    So, Now What?

    There were three unconference-style sessions at the summit, and each session had at least some discussion on the use of mobile phones in citizen media. In most of these conversations, I was glad to realize that the mobile phone’s potential for use in citizen media was in the back of many minds. Given the potential, however, I kept wishing that this role was front and center.

    As a way to push these ideas further, I pose the following questions:

    • How can you use mobile phones more in your daily reporting work? How can it let you become more creative, spontaneous, immediate in how you cover events and news?
    • Can we turn increased access that mobile phones provide into increased participation? What is required beyond access to facilitate participation using mobile phones? Can we include ways to participate via SMS or voice in every new participatory project that we envision?
    • Can we use voice-based technologies to interact better with communities that have richer oral than written traditions? Can we enable more participation in native languages by using voice-based technologies?

    Add a comment if you have ideas, or of you are exploring some of these ideas in your work. If you would like to find out about the tools that you will need to do this work, find case studies of other organizations doing similar work, or a myriad of other resources having to do with mobile phones, check out the MobileActive.org mDirectory.

    If you want to read about case studies, tools, and resources specifically to do with media production and dissemination, have a look at this page

    This post was cross-posted on MobileActive.org.

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    Tagged: citizen media journalism mobile phone mobile reporting mobileactive SMS

    2 responses to “The (Unrealized) Potential of Mobile Phones in Citizen Media”

    1. Prabhas,

      The point you make is a very relevant one. At a lecture give by David Plouffe in Richmond, Virginia, USA recently, he made exactly this same point: in developing countries where internet access is limited, the use of mobile phones is widespread. For this reason, as well as the fact that businesses are figuring out how to effectively leverage the mobile platform for commercial means, mobile is going to continue to grow as a means of information exchange.

      Allvoices.com recognizes how important it is to have the broadest-possible access for its citizen journalists, as well as providing “on-the-street” reporting capabilities. Much richer than a single tweet, the system can take a single SMS message, parse it, determine its subject matter, put it together with other similar reports, scour the internet for related mainstream media, blogs, videos, and tweets, and great a full, rich news story “of the moment.” Combining this technology with the immediacy of citizen reporting, as well as mainstream media viewpoints, provides the most robust possible context and perspective to any news story.

      In his recent blog post*, Tom Foremski of ZDNet said, “”…quality media includes citizen journalists — the future is about a holy trinity of sorts: professional journalists, citizen journalists and smart machine media (search algorithms).”

      Mobile is only going to continue to grow and become more pervasive in our world. As mainstream media struggles with an identity crisis over where this industry that is so steeped in tradition fits into this rapidly changing environment, it seems that we are finding more and more ingenuous ways to leverage the power of mobile communication to stay informed.

      The cellphone, it seems, is now mightier than the sword *and* the pen.

      Allvoices Writer

      *Tom Foremski’s blog article:

    2. With apologies: should have read, “…and *create* a full, rich news story.”

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