Getting the Local Media and Tech Components Right

[Cross-posted from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund]
For the last 3-4 weeks the entire Internews tech team involved in the “Integrating Local Media and Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) into Humanitarian Response” project in the Central African Republic (CAR) has been discussing and refining the design of the information system behind the project. And here there are some of the solutions we are coming up with, let us know what you think.
The information system will be built on 3 different levels:

  1. Adverts/posters/face-to-face meetings at community level.
  2. SMSs/phone calls between reporters, local population and radio stations that will feed both an Internet-based map powered by Ushahidi, and of course, the radio broadcasts.
  3. Verified and validated reports from levels one and two will be translated into geo-located and categorized reports that will be made available in an open Ushahidi map for humanitarians and of course the public.

The first of those three layers have been designed to try to incorporate in the system all the different sectors of the population, specifically people with low illiteracy and people who do not have access to any type of mobile technology, in addition to the radio stations and the humanitarian community.
Bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing
The entire system is based on the use of crowdsourcing methodology. In this case a mix between bounded crowdsourcing -the already existing trusted network of reporters- and unbounded crowdsourcing -the crowd. The validation and verification of information coming from the crowd will in fact be done by trained journalists living and working in the same areas, assuring in this way the reliability and accuracy of the information reported.
On the broader scale, the network of 15 radio stations Internews has been supporting since 2010 will collect, share and disseminate information through the coordination center run in Bangui by the Association of Journalists for Human Rights. They will receive the information collected and verified by the radio stations and their reporters around the country.  On the other side they will also feed back information coming from the humanitarian community through the radio network to assure that local population receive timely and relevant information to make better informed decisions about their lives.
Partnership with Ushahidi
And here is where Ushahidi, one of our main partners in this project, is going to play a very important role. In Bangui, in fact, the Association will collect verified and validated reports by the radio stations and their reporters and they will be categorized according to the same topics/sectors addressed within the humanitarian clusters –these validated and verified reports will then be mapped on an Ushahidi platform and made available for humanitarian responders.
This tool, though not with the customizations we are including for CAR, has been already used before by UN agencies like OCHA in Libya and Liberia for example. And for this specific project we are closely working with the Ushahidi team, and in particular with Patrick Meier and Robbie MacKay, to tailor the functionality of the platform to serve the current situation and the telecommunications landscape in CAR.
Leveraging on the knowledge and experience that Internews has in CAR, these are some of the customizations we are working on with the Ushahidi team:

  • Off line back-end: This will allow authorized people inserting information in the platform to work on it even if there is no Internet, and then upload the reports once there is connectivity.
  • Low bandwidth front-end: This will allow NGOs, UN agencies and local reporters to easily access the platform even with the spotty Internet connection that unfortunately characterizes CAR.
  • Printable maps: journalists, radio stations, humanitarian workers and NGOs will be able to print maps of specific issues/topics directly from the Ushahidi platform to share them also with community members in their villages.
  • Printable reports: NGOs and humanitarian organizations will be able to print reports related to one category(ies) or one location(s) and bring them with them when they go to the field, or use them in meetings and briefings.
  • Color-coded dots: one of the main lessons learned using Ushahidi for humanitarian purposes was the fact that when looking at the Ushahidi home page, it is often difficult to understand what issue has been already addressed and which one still needs to be solved. The Ushahidi platform in CAR will show reports related to problems already solved in a different color, to be able for users to immediately get a sense of the magnitude of the issues that still needs to be addressed.
  • Time sensitive dots: using the timespan plugin, the default map on the home page will only show reports from the last 24 hours, while still allowing people to switch view in order to see all reports submitted in the previous period of time.

Closing the feedback loop
The idea is that the community radio stations, supported by our main partner in Bangui, will be at the core of a two-way communication flow between the humanitarian community and local populations.
Radio stations will filter the stream of information from and to the local populations and humanitarians, effectively operating as an information hub in their geographical area. Radio stations then, after rigorous validation and verification of reports coming from the field -as they normally do by the way-, will produce and broadcast them in their programming and will also geo-locate and map them in the Ushahidi map.
So on the one hand, humanitarians will have access to pretty much real-time reports from, for example, hard-to-reach areas for them, and on the other hand, local communities will be able to access information coming from the humanitarians with regard to potential interventions (i.e. delivery of aid) through reports produced by local radio stations.
At the same time, and the most exciting feature of this project, voices from local communities will reach humanitarians through both reports broadcast by local radio stations and also through the Ushahidi map that humanitarians will be accessing and hopefully using.
Our (living) methodology: Iterate-refine, iterate-refine…
In addition to those important customizations on our Ushahidi platform, the technical side of this project is being designed in order to follow an agile development of the methodology that can swiftly adapt to the situation on the ground.
This means, for example, that when myself and Jacobo, Director of Humanitarian Information Projects (see his previous blog post on the project here), will be on the ground by end of March for a few weeks, we will be closely working with NGOs, UN agencies and journalists to refine the system and further work with the Ushahidi team on requested customizations of the platform requested by humanitarians –this is a living project!
The idea is to build an effective tool that is entirely shaped around the needs of the users in country and equally important, can be timely refined. The bottom line is that we want to make sure the technology is making people’s lives easier and not more complicated!
The system, and that’s what we aim at, will also help humanitarians to make faster and smarter decisions based on new streams of data -real-time verified, reliable, geo-located and categorized information- that we hope are going to fit into, and directly support, their organizational decision-making processes.
We are genuinely very excited about the implementation of this system, and we hope that the result of this work will be useful to other organizations and projects around the world.
By the way, my name is Anahi Ayala Iacucci and I am Internews’ Media Innovation Advisor for the Africa Region and humanitarian operations. I am one of the four innovation advisors working globally as part of the Internews’ Center for Innovation & Learning. On the technical side of this project and generally, I work closely with my colleague Jun Matsushita, Head of Innovation & Technology at Internews Europe, who I am sure will be blogging at some time soon.