Rising Voices note: This begins our series on case studies that take a look at different projects around the world that have been engaging with underrepresented communities through the use of citizen media training workshops. This is the first in a four-part series featuring the Megafone project.
Antoni Abad is the founder and Director of Megafone.net , a platform which uses mobile phones, or ‘digital megaphones’, to create webcasts to amplify the voices of individuals and groups who are often overlooked or misrepresented in mainstream media. The concept is a communal one. One ‘megaphone’ is shared by up to four participants who meet in weekly editorial meetings to discuss the content of the webcasts.
Since its inception in 2003, 11 communities have taken part, from individuals with limited mobility in Barcelona mapping out accessibility barriers , to Nicaraguan migrant workers  reporting on their lives in Costa Rica, to taxi drivers in Mexico City  addressing the negative stereotype projected by the media. Megafone projects have garnered international attention and praise with the Barcelona-centered accessibility project canal* ACCESSIBLE winning the National Visual Arts Award of the Generalitat de Cataluña, and the 2006 Golden Nica Digital Communities  of the Prix Ars Electronica of Linz in Austria.
Based in Barcelona, Antoni is a graduate of art history from the University of Barcelona and is the creator of multi-media art pieces that have been featured in museums around the world including the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires, New York City’s New Museum, and the Venice Biennale.
Rising Voices spoke with Antoni to discuss the Megafone. Below is the conversation.
Rising Voices: You’re an artist – Why did you feel compelled to transition into citizen media?
Antoni Abad: One factor that influenced my decision was my growing disillusionment with the contemporary art environment that was placing artist in the role as sole interpreter of their society. This privilege is often taken for granted by many artists who boldly claimed that their experiences grandly impact the perception of life and thought in society.
Then in 2002 the first mobile phone equipped with camera appeared on the market. This phone also provided an Internet connection. I began to think that these features would allow content from everyday reality to be transmitted through multimedia and be accessible on the Internet.
I believed that this newly available technology should be used for many other uses other than trivial ones. It could serve for example to amplify the voices of marginalized people who are often overlooked or misrepresented in mainstream media, giving them a ‘digital megaphone’ to try to amplify their voices to counteract stigmas and prejudices they’re often faced with.
RV: How did Megafone.net start? What did you want to achieve with this project?
AA: The first step was to find a way to publish on the Internet the multimedia that was recorded with the mobile phones. We achieved this in 2003 with the support of Eugenio Tisselli, a web developer who has since helmed programming for all our projects, during a workshop that we held with students at a community art center in Madrid. During this time, we also organized the first database for the project, which would serve to house the different channels for the various projects. We also settled on a methodology for our work. In one of our initial workshops, we decided to adopt a community-driven way of working. No matter what, we would prioritize the collective voice of the group over individual interests.
Since my first trip to Sao Paolo in 2002, I was always interested in offering the megaphone device to the ‘Motoboys’. The Motoboys are comprised of roughly 200,000 motorcycle messengers who navigate the treacherous traffic in the city on their way to daily deliveries. Because of the dangers of the job, the Motoyboys face regular injuries, resulting in three deaths every two days. Yet despite the necessary service they provide, the Motoboys face severe stigma from their own society. I thought it would be interesting to give these men the opportunity to report their own story. Thus the ‘Motoboys’ channels  came into existence. It was challenging to find an institution wishing to be associated with the Motoboys and support the project. We finally launched in 2007 and today the Motoboys participants continue to gather for editorial meetings on a weekly basis, and publish regular reports on the Internet. They also host yearly events such as the ‘Motoboy Culture Week’, which celebrates the anniversary of the project.
But the very first project was carried out in 2003 with a group of taxi drivers in Mexico City. Mexican taxi drivers , just like the Motoboys in Brazil, are often associated with illegal activities such as assaults, kidnappings, drug trafficking and instigating traffic accidents. What many people don’t realize is that the taxi drivers are often themselves the victims of these crimes. Of the 120,000 taxi drivers in Mexico City, one can assume that criminals passing themselves off as legitimate drivers count for a very small percentage. I believe this is the first time that a project of this type, in which a group seen negatively by the media, became a chronicler of their own reality through the use of mobile phones. The project was very successful. The participants fully understood the opportunity they had to map out their everyday reality. As one of the participants, Don Facundo, said, “After 12 to 14 hours behind the wheel in this hellish traffic, this project has reminded me that imagination exists.”
RV: What was the moment where you felt this concept of ‘digital megaphones’ was working to its expectations?
AA: At the first meeting we held with the 17 taxi drivers in Mexico City, Don Facundo, one of the participants mentioned earlier, shared his enthusiasm and belief for the project. He felt this digital opportunity could present an honest and realistic interpretation of the drivers to society. The other drivers then began to assimilate themselves into the dialogue, suggesting possible issues to address in their cellular transmissions. During this exciting moment I saw that all efforts in realizing the technical and conceptual prototype, had been well received by this group and that the project, as well as those to come in the future, would serve its purpose.
RV: Where do you see the project in 5, 10 years?
AA: I find it difficult to envision how Megafone could be in 5 or 10 years. Among the current priorities are the creations of virtual meeting places so that projects could encourage participants from different cities, regions or countries; the simultaneous publication of Megafone.net posts in social networks; and the adaptability of cell phones and of the reporting process for those who are blind or have other disabilities. We are also open to collaborating and pooling our resources with existing projects working towards the same goals.
RV: Do you feel mainstream media pays enough attention to citizen media projects such as Megafone?
AA: Once the project with taxi drivers in Mexico was underway, it was formally introduced to the media. Journalists fell in love with the concept. It was featured in various newspapers, as well as on the radio and television channels. This strongly impacted the number of visitors visiting their online channel. In a way, mainstream media, whom the Megafone participants were aiming to counteract because of the negative representation, became an unexpected ally. This media attention has not been given to all projects however, but certain projects, specifically the taxi drivers, the young gypsies in Leon, the disabled in Geneva and Barcelona, and the Motoboys, were given attention and all saw an increase in online visitors.
Due to this exposure, the Motoboys received an offer from a newspaper in Sao Paulo who offered to finance their project in exchange for the use of a number of images collected by the Motoboys per month. Unfortunately the deal was not finalized but it made the group realize there are ways to achieve sustainability.
RV: What is your biggest professional accomplishment with this project? And where do you see that more work needs to be done?
AA: Having spent much of my life in an artist studio, the past eight years have allowed me the opportunity to meet people I may never have interacted with had it not been for this venture. These meetings have allowed me to see first hand the reality of many, their expectations, sorrows, joys, in a way that the elitist environment of contemporary art never afforded me. As an artist, my materials were iron, wood, photography and video. Since this project began, my “materials” of choice have become the Internet and mobile networks: virtual places where groups at risk of social exclusion can express themselves with complete freedom.
Is there more work to be done? Absolutely! Right now I am working towards adapting the device to be accessible for the blind. It occurred to me that blind people could resort to cell phones equipped with an augmented reality application. This digital mapping application would employ a digital voice to be the indicator of architectural barriers and also accessible spaces on the streets.
At a Glance:
- The project in 140 characters: Megafone has been inviting groups on fringe of society to express their experiences & opinions through face-to-face meetings & mobile phones
- Date Founded: 2003
- Number of Participants: 202
- Number of Project Sites: 11
- Digital Tools Used: GPS-enabled mobile phones
- Future Plans: Making device accessible for the blind
- Website URL: Megafone.net 
- Twitter: @megafonet 
- Contact info: Megafone Contact form