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Community Mobile Channels

Community Mobile Channels is an Open Source web application that is focused on the uploading / managing / publishing and sharing of mobile web content from a community based perspective.

It is designed to break down barriers that prevent community publishing of sharing of information - The project aims to link with as many other applications as possible and is completely mobile and web driven (i.e  a computer is only required at initial installation).

Detailed Project Overview

Community Mobile Channels is a project which aims to utilise the power of new technology to allow communities to create and publish quality mobile phone based web content without the need for a computer.

NGOs (including Human Rights Based organisations) and Community based organisations make extensive use of Media based Journalism/Reporting/Publishing to highlight issues (and causes) and gain support/finances for their work. Within the Reporting/Publishing process there are several key processes.

  • Identification of the issues and appropriate news items
  • Generation of Content/News
  • Uploading of Content/sending to a central base
  • Managing Content/News
  • Publishing Content/News
  • Sharing the content

This process has always required a significant amount of time,  effort, money and technical skills to manage effectively. However the advent of phones with cameras and GPRS internet connections together with the concept of blogging/citizen journalism changes all existing paradigms about the way that reporting and publishing can/should and will be done.

The situation, changes and challenges are outlined below:

Identification of the Issues.

There are key recurring issues which many Human Rights Based organisations and NGOs work upon. These are often related to issues such as justice, violence against women and children, service delivery, food security, corruption, health & education as well as other issues. Sometimes NGOs become the sources of local new gathering. Alternatively sometimes people try to go directly to the media, newspapers, radio and TV and the media selects what it want to show.

Citizen/Community based Journalism together with upcoming and widely used mobile technologies means that communities have more power over what stories get told and how they are told.

Generation of Content/News

Generation of publishable content has often been a huge barrier to Citizen/Community based Journalism. Cameras (video and standard), computers for editing or producing document, printers etc. are all expensive and require technical skills. This means that historically the generation of content could only be done by a select few. Even
blogging is primarily an activity which is done by technically empowered people with access to computers.

The mobile camera phone changes this by allowing anyone to send text, take a picture and often record video/audio.

Uploading of Content/Sending to a Central Base

The media industry relies upon central offices (where content gets sent to) and a set of processes of how/when this content is delivered. However, the mobile phone content often just stays on people phones or gets sent to a few other people - This is a fundamental problem for community based journalism but it can be solved if community
organisations/NGOs become a central base for people’s content and have web hosting (other upload methods like an sms shortcode) which allows content to be sent in.

Managing Content/News

The media industry undertakes a costly examination of what content to publish when. It also decides how a story is made up with on pictures, text, video. Currently content is usually brought together using computers and editing suites. These can be expensive and require technical skills. Blogging is very much focused on an individuals views
andstill requires technical skills and computers.

Community based Media may well not have this equipment or skills. This can be solved if the web server that contains the uploaded content has a mobile phone based application that allows people to package content (text, pictures, video etc) together.

Publishing Content/News

The media industry focus changes all the time. Last century it was focused upon  mediums such as tv, radio, newpapers, magazines and film. Over the past 15 years there has been a huge shift to internet based publishing which has also meant that anyone with a computer and technical skills can be a publisher of content. However communities
without a computer and technical skills are still often excluded from publishing.

The mobile web browser based internet is now the prevalent way that people access the internet in many countries. For example, in India 18 times as many people access the internet on their phones compared to a computer. However publishing for a mobile web browser also usually requires a computer. If there is a basic mobile web publishing tool
tied into the mobile phone based application described above then people would be able to publish their own content without the need for a computer or computer skills.

Sharing the content

Unless you have a well known media site or list high in Internet search engines it is unlikely that other people will see your published site. Advertising can be effective but is also expensive. However, there are a few powerful & cheap ways to get people to view your mobile web browser based content.

a) sms people links to your site
b) email details and links to your site to people who would be interested
c) send links to social networking sites such as twitter and facebook
d) Get people to bookmark your site
e) Be part of a community publishing site where many people publish and
cross-link, get other people to join and tie it in to other community
based projects and marketing.

Summary of key issues faced by community based reporters (especially in developing countries)

1) Uploading content to a central base
2) Managing content requires time, skills, equipment and infrastructure
3) Publishing content requires time, skills, equipment and infrastructure
4) Getting anyone to view the content is hard work

These issues are all covered in an integrated way by the Open Source Community Mobile Channels Web System which provides the following functionality

  • Mobile web based Uploads of text, pictures, video and audio files
  • Mobile web based management and sharing of content(put the content in the public domain)
  • Mobile web based publishing and linking of managing content.
    Targeting (and optimised for) the common mobile web browser - using
    XHTML-MP which is used by over 95% of gprs phones.
  • Mobile web based ’send sms links’, send email, ‘twitter when publish’, bookmarks
  • Mobile web based Registration and account confirmation by SMS/email
  • Integration with as many other systems and application as possible

Who

Communities, human rights organisations, local news organisations, journalists, community based organisations, education and awareness organisations.

What :

An eaiser way of sharing and publishing mobile web content without the need for computers.

When : The alpha version is available as of 10th of March. There will be developments over the course of 2009

Where : The system can be used anywhere there is GPRS.

Why :

Because mobile based content generation, sharing and
publishing empowers communities, improves reporting and gives a
powerful tool to human rights, advocacy and education initatives.

Please see the demo at http://mainstreamingict.org/cmc/ and the release announcement at http://mainstreamingict.org/?p=147

Additional Notes:

The application is based upon the common web technologies of PHP scripts with a MYSQL database. The system is intended to run on most shared web hosting accounts and can be set up in 15 minutes.

Community mobile channels is currently tied into the most common bulk sms provider (clickatel) but the system has been designed to make it easy to add in other providers.

All content is put into channels so that it is easy to find. For instance a community may have an ‘education channel’, a ‘health channel’, a ‘peoples announcements’ channel, a ‘what’s on channel’ and so on. However, how the channels are set up are decided by the administrators or the community members. Each individual could have their own channel.

There are many configuration options which allow the the site to be more controlled or more open or to allow more control of sms costs. In some cases an NGO may want to control what is published so they will only allow the admin users to publish content. In some cases you may want anyone to be able to send content anomynmously so there is a
setting for this. One of the options (allow any user to edit unlocked m-sites) also allows for wiki style sites to be set up. The main options are detailed on the mainstreamingict site.

The demo is an ‘alpha version’ which means that it is a working prototype which has not yet been systematically tested by anyone other than the developer (me). I would greatly appreciate people registering and testing out the functionality/robustness of the system and give feedback. The demo is available at http://www.mainstreamingict.org/cmc

The project is open source and hosted at sourceforge. This gives the system several major advantages: -

  • Anyone can freely use and host the application
  • The source code is freely available to anyone
  • The community can suggest and submit improvements to the source or submit and track problem reports
  • Updates can be provided regularly
  • Any developer can change/add onto the source for their own projects or even integrate the application/database with other applications (subject to the GPLv3 license).

The uploads section has been designed to minimise abuse issues - Video and audio files are kept to small sizes and file types are checked. All images are checked for image properties and manipulated to avoid attacks. The images are converted into sizes that are appropriate for mobile phones to minimise data costs. The growing trend is towards 240×320 screens but there are many other screen sizes that we must consider when trying to ensure that only the right amount of pixels are sent to the screen. This is explained well at mobiforge/screen 11.

Future plans

Once the alpha has been tested the 0.2 release will go into Beta phase. Once this has passed a set acceptance criteria and subject to support I would like to incorporate the following: -

  • Internal Messaging - to boost the internal community and send important notifications when sms credits not available
  • Accept SMS text messages and MMS (also import tweets from twitter and pictures from flickr) - more ways of getting content in
  • WURFL integration (to allow the application to detect which mobile
    device you are using and adapt content for it) - see details on
    mobiforge
  • RSS feeds of channels - Any channel becomes an rss feed
  • RSS based channels - seemlessly integrate rss feeds with the
    community produced content (or link communities together by adding a
    seperate community mobile channel rss feed into your installation)
  • ‘Easy’ installation scripts - make it easier to set up/ upgrade
  • Hosted Service Packages (cuts out the need for technical installation skills and contracts with sms provider/web host)
  • Documented API (makes it easier for 3rd parties to integrate with the system(s))

Type of expertise needed?:

Marketing/Media Expertise

Description:

Although there are viral marketing techniques built into the system. This project will need help with marketing to obtain a ‘critical mass’ user base.

Type of expertise needed?:

Technical Expertise

Description:

Additional technical expertise would be helpful around the following areas: -

  • API based Integration with social networks
  • Mobile Web based Security
  • WURFL
  • FFMPEG
  • Instant Messaging Integration
  • Legal and copyright issues
  • Stuctured Testing

Sustainability (financial) model:

  • 1. Support services, training, integration with existing systems/other initiatives, Project management
  • 2. Hosting services and SMS provision
  • 3. Ad-Supported Hosted Communities (using admob/adsense)
  • 4. Joint funded interventions
  • 5. Commercial add-ons

Potential obstacles:

  • Lack of marketing
  • Lack of financial support
  • Costs of Data/SMS

Project Milestones:

  • Dec 2008 - Began looking at the idea of mobile web based community news centres and looking at available open source scripts.
  • Jan 2009 - Identified mobile intenet based content generation, sharing and publishing as a key development tool.
  • Mid Feb - Started  Project.
  • 10th March 2009 - Release of initial alpha version demo and source
    code. Submitted to challenges to raise profile, funding possibilities.
  • Expected Mid 2009 - First full release with additional functionality suggested through the testing and challenge cycle
  • Expected Late 2009 - Second full release and Hosted Communities Service offering.

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