Journalism, civil society and mobile networks

Jude Mathurine from Rhodes University has an interesting presentation on the impact of mobile phone based use of social networks in Africa.

I’ve not yet come across a comparable study of new media’s use and impact in Sri Lanka, but the points on slides 3 and 7, noting that the Internet is still an elite medium in Africa, holds true here as well. Jude points to traditional media’s inability to grasp the potential of new media. Many examples of this can also be found in Sri Lanka, including for example this recent post of mine and the use of Wikipedia by the Sunday Times.

Jude’s more interesting submissions are in the slides that follow, looking at the growth of the mobile web in Africa and the use of SMS for citizen journalism. Mobiles in Sri Lanka are still used far more for entertainment and one-to-one communications than as a tool for participating in governance and public oversight. The participation in new forms of journalism through mobiles is not yet prevalent in Sri Lanka, where web access is still largely through PCs. Of late, several mobile phone companies have been running advertisements for mobile phone based Facebook access, but again, the potential of this for organising flash mobs, or even just the dissemination of information, is poor. Services such as JNW pioneered the use of SMS as a platform for the dissemination of news, but few NGOs have picked up freely available technologies like FrontlineSMS to aid their advocacy and outreach. Mainstream media in Sri Lanka remains locked into a PC dominated mindset at best – there is not a single traditional media site that is mobile phone friendly. LBO and Groundviews remain the only websites that render content automatically for mobile phone screens.

Jude’s conclusion that social media can be important space for public discourse on democratisation and development especially among youth is reflected in Sri Lanka as well, through existing examples such as Pissu Poona on Facebook and new forms of dissent online that emerged during and just after the end of war.

Best practices and potential for improved information flows in media and civil society is a field and desk research based report published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives I edited in December 2008 that looks closely at how civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka can use traditional, alternative and new media techniques in their advocacy. Jude’s conclusions resonate widely and deeply in the recommendations proposed.

Wimax in Africa

WiMax and other wireless, large footprint, broadband internet access technologies interest me for one very simple reason.

Resilience.

Telecoms infrastructure (towers, switches, cables, microwave and transmission equipment) are about the first things to be attacked, pilfered or sabotaged in areas of violent conflict. Broadband internet and web access through ether offers communities living in the throes of violence a chance, through PC’s, mobile devices and other wireless capable devices to access and more importantly, contribute content to the internet and web.

Now an ITU standard, WiMax isn’t the only large footprint broadband communication technology out there, but it’s certainly got a boost in terms of UN backing. Intel, which lobbied hard for this, has lost no time in touting the technology’s potential to connect millions across Africa (that favourite destination of  corporate America’s social conscience):

Africa needs to embrace wireless broadband as a potential solution to the digital divide, the chairman of Intel Craig Barrett has said. It’s cheaper, easier and more efficient to communicate wirelessly,” he told the BBC News website. Less than 1% of Africans have access to broadband and only 4% use the net. The International Telecommunications Union has predicted that the Intel-backed Wimax system could become the dominant mobile standard in Africa. The continent’s geography and political barriers have made it difficult to roll out wired broadband.

Read the article in full on the BBC website here.

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