Mediating voices – communicating realities

10 June 2011

To what extent can innovative technologies for advocacy and collective action, such as Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap, support poor and marginalised communities to improve their lives and livelihoods?

A recent report from IDS, entitled "Mediating voices - communicating realities", draws on original empirical research of initiatives that use technologies, such as open source mapping or crowdsourcing, to support community empowerment. This was done through the creation of a new set of collectively generated and shared information resources (information commons) which relied on citizens as sources of information. One of the examined projects was Map Kibera, a community-information project in Kibera, Nairobi, perhaps the largest informal settlement in Africa.

Citizen contributors and iterative development

The report, which was produced as part of a study funded by the UK Department of International Development (DFID), offers a basis for investigating some of the implications of this latest wave of innovations for advocacy and collective action.

The report highlights both the opportunities and the challenges of sustaining and governing a new information commons and the exchange of open source values and practices to the development world. These include open information sharing, reciprocity and volunteer participation in creating and sustaining the information commons, peer review as the basis for learning and iterative development as the means for the creation of commons-based resources, either in the form of technologies or data repositories.

The findings of the Map Kibera case study, which covered a particularly challenging period in the life of the project, indicate the need to re-examine how open source values and practices may be relevant for marginalised communities. This includes rethinking the character of citizen contributors as volunteers, especially those who participate in the effort on an ongoing basis, and devising a more systematic approach for engaging the wider community to define how these resources can be used for their benefit.

Participation and the politics of information

The collaboration between Sammy Musyoki, a participant development researcher and practitioner, and the Map Kibera team indicates the potential for methodological innovations involving the use of new technologies for community empowerment.  It also points to important differences between development practitioners and technologists' assumptions about what constitutes participation and the politics of information and action.

Valued participant or cheap source of information?

The character of real-time, crowdsourced citizen data is another issue discussed in the report. The next generation of ICTs can support processes of information generation where participation is defined in terms of participatory principles but can also be more narrowly framed.

For instance, participation can consist of citizens providing information on incidents of electoral violence through text messaging. This raises some compelling questions about ethical consent, about how citizen reporters perceive the role and the decisions that they inform. It also draws attention to the responsibilities of the actors who initiate the information collection, including communicating the collected information back to the contributors. The ease with which many of these technologies can be deployed means that the poor can be viewed simply as cheap sources of information normally hard to get.

New technologies for marginalised communities

In the report, the potential of the new technologies for marginalised communities is regarded as inextricably connected with the agendas of the actors that develop and use them. These include traditional development organisations, local stakeholders and a new type of technology actor - open source technology entrepreneurs committed to working with communities on the ground.

The study convinced us that there is enough common ground between open source technologies and development practitioners to generate ideas and practices that maximize the benefits of new technologies for the poor. The next phase of our project aims to bring these two communities together to develop approaches of using ICTs that are informed by an understanding of the politics of action and participation and those of technology.

Evangelia Berdou is a Research Fellow with the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at IDS.