Freedom Fone promotes information-for-all

Kubatana.net – a Zimbabwean NGO who work to strengthen the use of email, mobile and the Internet among local NGOs and civil society organisations – were the very first FrontlineSMS user way back in October 2005. This initial contact lead us to work together on an early prototype of “Dialup Radio”, an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) service they’re now about to fully launch as “Freedom Fone”. As the service nears release, Amy Saunderson-Meyer – Media and Information Officer at Kubatana – talks about the tool and how they see it helping civil society in Zimbabwe and beyond.

“Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses a main line into one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profits can be made up and surpassed in volumes sold.

A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions, but a pragmatic appreciation that through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. With thought, the poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner – not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Freedom Fone’s BoP strategy focuses on building and promoting an open source software platform for information sharing that is intuitive, cost-conscious, internet independent and ultimately targets all kinds of phone users. Deployers of the Freedom Fone platform can be small or large NGO’s or service organizations – even individual information activists. The goal is to broaden the base of audio information providers and facilitate the development of two-way communications with communities which have traditionally been underprivileged, marginalized and sometimes even stigmatized.

The Freedom Fone platform can be used to assist with education, learning, healthcare and medical support for chronic diseases like HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Voice menus conveniently provide information on demand services, making them a useful additional channel for community radio stations and emergency response initiatives. It can be used to provide information on the full spectrum of issues including sanitation, the environment, agriculture, fishing, business, finance, marketing, community, arts and culture news. Its ‘leave-a-message’ and SMS functionality can be leveraged for citizen journalism.

Essentially Freedom Fone is a simple but novel medium for addressing social development. The currency we are working with is knowledge, the tool we are using is the mobile phone and the mobile function we primarily leverage is audio, through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

Freedom Fone has focused on knowledge sharing because in a globalized information age, access to relevant information is pivotal to development and vital for survival. Content is king and knowledge is power! However the people who need information the most are often the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, and they tend to remain on the fringes of our society. For instance, in developing countries, information flow is often blocked by restricted infrastructure, lack of resources and limited unreliable access to computers, email and internet. Other factors such as language barriers and low literacy levels exist, and in certain developing countries this information alienation is further compounded by restrictive and authoritarian governments.

Freedom Fone has focused on the mobile phone as the medium of communication because according to a UN report, 60% of the world’s population has mobile phones. By 2009 there were already over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in circulation and developing countries account for over two thirds of these mobile phones. In contrast only 25% of the world’s population has internet access and in Africa there is only a 6.8% internet penetration rate. Thus the wide use of mobile phones bridges the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Their use cuts across the ‘digital divide’ and they have the potential to act as information access equalizers. For example, in Zimbabwe, barely 5% of Zimbabweans have access to the internet but there are over 3 million mobile phones contracts in a country of 11 million, which represents a penetration rate of roughly 27%. In South Africa – which offers a good indication of future development patterns in Africa – only 7% of the population has internet access, but there are approximately 36 million active cell phone users, which is roughly 80% of the population.

To address the limited access to and the high cost of internet connectivity in many developing countries, Freedom Fone has been designed so that it does not require any access to the internet to function. The Freedom Fone server can be connected to mobile phone SIM cards, landlines and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers. Callers can phone in from a landline, basic mobile phone, or soft phone like Skype. If uninterrupted power is provided, the system can be available to callers 24 hours a day, providing a valuable information on demand channel, as well as a vehicle through which the public can contribute information or queries 24/7.

A number of Freedom Fone’s core features focus on interactive voice menus and callback functionality. By consciously marrying the mobile phone with IVR, Freedom Fone extends this previously business-oriented tool, into the arena of social development and social media. By simplifying the user interface and minimizing the technical alternatives, we predict that information providers will find building voice menu-based information services intuitive rather than intimidating and cost-effective rather than costly.

Providing an alternative to the limitations imposed by the 160 characters allowed in an SMS is likely to be liberating. Freedom Fone provides a do-it-yourself platform for increased two way communication, facilitating the contribution of rich audio files by both the operator and caller. Its audio orientation offers similarities with radio programming – however there are dramatic differences in the start up costs, required technical know-how and government regulation. It is interactive as it enables end users to become information providers by contributing questions, audio content and feedback in response to the voice menus. Audio files also have the enormous benefit of surpassing the issues of literacy, going beyond language differences, as people can create and manage information in their own dialect. For deployments in Africa, audio is also strongly aligned with the oral traditions of story-telling.

Importantly, Freedom Fone has been designed to run on and with low-powered equipment to facilitate its deployment using solar power.

As Freedom Fone services the BoP, it is essential that deployments offer affordable, cost-effective access to information. Sadly, in Zimbabwe the cost of local mobile calls is $0.25 per minute making call-in costs a major challenge for local deployment. The same hurdle does not exist for deployments in East Africa where competition exists between mobile network providers and call costs are minimal. In countries where Voice over IP (VoIP) is legal further opportunities pertain, as VoIP cuts costs and facilitates scalability.

The Freedom Fone platform offers the potential for cost recovery through advertising which can be incorporated into the voice menus as short audio clips. Another option are premium numbers which can be negotiated with mobile network operators. In time we hope to source funding to build features that facilitate micro-payments for accessing voice menu content or receiving SMS updates.

Freedom Fone aims to put information in the hands of the public by simplifying and popularizing information outreach via IVR and SMS. It is a tool for content creation, by the people for the people. It shifts BoP solutions beyond profits, by giving the punch of informative power to the people”.

Amy Saunderson-Meyer
Media and Information Officer
The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe and Freedom Fone
www.freedomfone.org

Zimbabweans speak out through SMS

International press interest may be on the wane following the heady heights of recent months, but the daily struggle continues for millions of people living in Zimbabwe. An inflation rate of over two million percent – usually a leading headline in itself – merely serves as a backdrop to the political maneuvering taking place following the recent flawed presidential ‘elections’.

It would be all too easy for people to lose hope, particularly in such a dis-empowering and disenfranchising environment dominated by fear, government harassment and a largely state controlled media which pushes out its own unique version of the truth. Freedom of speech is only freedom of speech when it comes with freedom from fear, something that many people don’t yet have.

But hope, it turns out, is one of the few things many people still do have, and freedom of speech has found an ally in the humble mobile phone. I recently blogged about the use of mobile phones during the ongoing troubles, and highlighted the work of Kubatana.net, a grassroots organisation who have been pioneering the use of mobile technology in civil society work. Since 2005, Kubatana have been using a combination of kiwanja‘s FrontlineSMS platform, and a couple of other custom applications developed around the technology. Kubatana continue to use it, and continue to reach out to everyday Zimbabweans through the mobile channel – one of only a few available to them.

Back in April, at the height of the troubles, Kubatana asked everyday Zimbabweans: “What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?”. Zimbabweans answered the call through their mobile phones, texting in their hopes for the future. Many people said that the question gave them hope in uncertain times.

Last week, while doubts lingered over the newly signed MDC/Zanu-PF deal, Kubatana reached out again to their SMS subscribers, asking them: Kubatana! ZPF and both MDCs agree to talk to resolve crisis. Send yr thoughts on this & give us yr postal or email addr if u want a copy of their agreement”. Zimbabweans responded with a range of comments and opinions, including:

The talks is good but MDC must be very clever – Zanu PF wants to swallow the MDC

Yes it’s a brilliant idea which shall help end crisis, poverty and all tribulations in Zimbabwe united we stand divided we fall Tsvangirai showed qualities of being a leader by agreeing to talk

Free and fair elections tomorrow with international observers!

It is long over due but we want justice

May be worth the effort but MDC must keep their eyes open. You can’t trust these guys. I agree with Tsvangirai that people have suffered enough

I believe it’s a good idea if they can reason together in order to solve this crisis. But they must recognise the results of the election done on 29 March

We don’t need masters, colonial or nationalist. We want public servants. So respect our votes of March 29. You asked for them

That’s better because we are suffering. We are stuck and something must be done to save the lives of Zimbabweans

The talks are okay but Mugabe must not lead the government & must step down

For as long as it is something that will result in the fulfilment of our wishes and solve our problems no hard feelings

I think it is a very bad idea for ZPF and MDCs to talk coz they are like water and oil as far as policies are concerned. What happened to ZAPU when it merged with ZPF? I dnt approve of the talks unless they start on the March 29 election which means MDC T would be the winner

No problem as long as the talks result in the formation of transitional authority & fresh, free & fair run-off being conducted thereafter

The talks are very important but MDC must not at all accept a gvt of national unity. They must go 4 a transitional gvt and pave way 4 fresh elections. Zanu PF plans 2 destroy MDC just as they did to ZAPU

In addition to direct comments and opinions, over 300 requests came in for the document to be posted to people, and over 200 for it to be emailed. This, according to Kubatana, is a small indication of just how starved most Zimbabweans are for news about their own country.

The numbers may not yet be huge, but mobiles are certainly beginning to make their mark.

Text messaging. Democracy. Coffee

What a week for FrontlineSMS. Activity was already on the rise – we’re preparing for the launch of a new version of the software at Global Messaging 2008 in Cannes next month – but with news breaking this week on its use in Zimbabwe by Kubatana.net has come an additional flurry of press and user activity.

A number of Africa, technology and mobile blogs picked up on the latest report after I wrote about here earlier in the week. The sites quickest to the news included SmartMobs, Global Voices, DigiActive, Black Looks and Kabissa, with numerous other personal blogging sites continuing to link through.

Yesterday, a news item on “The World” also went out across public radio in the United States, where their Technology Correspondent interviewed kiwanja and Kubatana about how the software has been used in Zimbabwe. A three minute audio is available here (MP3, 2Mb).

Interestingly, this increase of interest has lead a number of sites to re-visit the use of FrontlineSMS in providing coffee prices to farmers, a subject I covered a couple of weeks earlier, here. The more notable sites to pick up on this has again been Global Voices, Ode Magazine and none-other than The Independent, who list kiwanja’s blog entry on the subject among its “Pick of the Blogs” for 9th April (“From conception to replication”).

All of this has lead to a flurry of activity from the non-profit community, with enquiries coming from far and wide – the United States, Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, France and Uganda among many others. FrontlineSMS users around the world are slowly beginning to connect.

With so much already achieved with what is still technically the Beta release of the software, next month is very significant not only for FrontlineSMS, but also for the global NGO community who desperately need these kinds of tools in their work.

Kubatana reaches out with FrontlineSMS in Zimbabwe

The future of Zimbabwe hangs on a knife edge this morning, as it seems to have done for the past week (or the past few years, depending on your perspective). Like many people with an interest in the country, and like many others with friends or relatives living and working there, I’ve been closely following events on TV and online. International news sites such as the BBC have been as good as ever, but I’ve also been spending increasing amounts of time on local sites which, I feel, often give a ‘truer’, more personal sense of what’s going on. One of the best sites for this has been Kubatana.net

Back in the summer of 2006 I was fortunate to spend three weeks in Zimbabwe working with them. A local NGO seeking to promote human rights and good governance, Kubatana were the very first users of FrontlineSMS when it launched back in 2005, starting a trend which has seen the software used for similar activities in a number of other countries around the world. In their own words, FrontlineSMS finally opened up the possibilities for text messaging in their work, and I knew they had plans to use it during the 2008 elections. This is what they’ve been doing.

In addition to their SMS election line (promoted on their home page, above), they have been running a “What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?” initiative. Zimbabweans have been incredibly responsive, with many people saying that the question gave them hope in uncertain times. According to Kubatana:

It’s also been a real learning experience for us, reminding us that ordinary Zimbabweans have a wealth of good ideas to contribute, and our political and civic leadership must work on building a more participatory environment

A combination of SMS and email were used in the initiative, with text messages such as “Kubatana! No senate results as at 5.20 pm. What changes do YOU want in a free Zim? Lets inspire each other. Want to know what others say? SMS us your email addr” sent out to their mobile subscriber lists. FrontlineSMS was used to blast the messages out, and then used collect responses which were then distributed via an electronic newsletter and on the Kubatana Community Blog (see below).

According to Kubatana, “Without FrontlineSMS we would not have been able to process the volume of responses we have received, and we would not have been able to establish a two-way SMS communications service in the way that we have”.

In the event of a Presidential run-off, Kubatana plan to produce a broadsheet with the feedback they’ve received from Zimbabweans in order to remind them what each other wanted, and to inspire them to go out and vote (again). After the election, they hope to produce a booklet with a page on some of these ideas and include an editor’s comment, a cartoon or even a set of postcards carrying the most unique, original and practical ideas.

Unlike the Nigerian elections, where FrontlineSMS was used as a monitoring tool, in Zimbabwe it has been effectively used to mobilise and inform civil society during and after the election process. In both cases, the real success story has been the NGOs themselves – NMEM in Nigeria and Kubatana in Zimbabwe – who have both demonstrated the power of mobile technology in civil society initiatives, and what can be done when the right tools make it into the hands that need them the most.