Case Study: The Challenges for Megafone from a First Person Perspective

Rising Voices note: This is the third post in a case study series taking a look at the Megafone project, which teaches groups around the world how to use mobile phones to tell the stories about their local communities. The previous two articles can be found here and here. We asked the project founder, Antoni Abad to write a first-person blog post answering the following questions:

What have been some of the challenges in implementing the Megafone project and how did you address those challenges?

By Antoni Abad

Since 2003, Megafone has carried out eleven media projects made on mobile phones by the following groups at risk of social exclusion and systematically wrongly represented by mainstream media: Taxi drivers in Mexico, Gypsies and Sex Workers in Spain, Nicaraguan Immigrants in Costa Rica,
motorcycle messengers in Brazil,  displaced and demobilized people in Colombia, Sahrawi Refugees in the Algerian Sahara and people with limited mobility in Spain and Switzerland.

The concept of distributing mobile phones to groups so that they may express themselves freely on the Internet may seem simple at first glance, but the experiences accumulated throughout these past eight years point to the contrary. There exists many difficulties to overcome and a wide range of efforts and challenges to be met so that these groups are able to express themselves through their mobile webcasts; who they are and what their problems, dreams, opinions and expectations may be.

The first step involves the outreach: locating a group of people who may benefit from the experience, and explaining to them the potential that this communication tool affords them. It is vital to find people who are willing to share their day to day and who want to be involved in the regular meetings in which participants discuss – in a communal environment with all opinions taken into account – which topics will be addressed as part of the webcasts.

After it is very important to locate a coordinator amongst the participants in each group. The coordinator is in charge of multiple tasks including the convening of regular meetings and driving the motivation of the group, the training of participants in the use of cell phones and the online edition of the published contents, web maintenance, and also overseeing the logistics of the project, including any technical problems that may arise.

Essential to the project is to obtain access to mobile networks to establish data transmission. Each of the projects has had to search for and implement a specific solution in accordance with existing cellular services in their respective country and the funds available for each undertaking. To date, we have used multimedia messages MMS, GPRS flat rate and WiFi connections. Perhaps the most bizarre example is the project involving Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica where the ‘Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad’ offered us the use of an experimental GPRS data network. However, because of the state monopoly that the company was under, only people who held Costa Rican nationality could have access to cellular service. Therefore we had to resort to Costa Rican citizens who generously made available their services to the project so that participants who lacked legal residency in the country could take part.

Another challenge is the procurement of mobile phones which we did in all sorts of ways, from the total sponsorship of phones in Barcelona, to the smuggling of cell phones from Spain to Brazil, through to the purchase of smuggled units in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Mobile phones used by Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica 2006-2007

Once the infrastructure is in place, the challenge is to identify the topics. When people find themselves immersed in very complex social dynamics, it can be difficult to pinpoint which issues affect them and the expectations they hope for. That is why the weekly editorial meetings have proven to be essential, not only to foster a cohesive environment amongst the participants, but also to define the message and image they wish to project.

Among the challenges that we have faced is one which led to the creation of the concept of the ‘communal mobile phone’. ” In 2008, following its first year of broadcasting, the group of ‘motoboys’ in São Paulo was faced with a financial crisis that prevented them from taking care of the data plan monthly rates of the twelve phones they used in the project. This prompted us to implement a ‘communal wireless’, a phone which would exchange hands every week between the participants, who would come to the agreement together as to who would take home the phone during that week. After four years of regular transmissions, there are three ‘megaphones’ circulating periodically among the twelve Brazilian participants.

The communal mobile phone concept.

The project based in Colombia presented a different type of challenge. I suggested that instead of one group, participants came from two groups: on one hand people who because of the violence of the conflict have been forced to move from rural to suburban cities, and secondly, people who have left armed groups and have decided to try to reintegrate into the society. It was expressed to us that due to the nature of the circumstances of the Colombian conflict, this proposal could prove precarious and even endanger the lives of the participants. Still, we went ahead and suggested that instead of a joint editorial board, the groups would meet separately, but publishing their content on a single channel of communication on the Internet, in order to create a virtual space of dialogue that could not be reached face-to-face. The will to overcome the conflict exceeded all trepidation and following some segregated meetings, both groups were willing to meet as one. From that memorable reunion, all meetings became a joint affair, establishing a permanent environment for dialogue and collaboration that exceeded all expectations and continues to this day.

For people with limited mobility based in Barcelona, it was the participants themselves who devised a creative collective organizational model. They organized their efforts into small groups of excursions that regularly combed the streets of neighbourhoods locating architectural barriers and publishing their findings on the Internet.

2006 Gloria Martí/Antoni Abad documentary on the BARCELONA*accessible project.

Since March of 2010, twelve blind volunteers in Barcelona regularly check in with us to share their experiences, and to discuss their specific needs for the project ‘The Blind Point of View’. Among their suggestions, and one which proves a great challenge, is to develop an augmented reality application for mobile phones with integrated GPS. This tool would allow blind people to orient themselves in the streets by listening to voice directions, which would point out the geographic location of the architectural barriers and also indicate avenues of accessibility previously reported by the participants of the project.

These projects have generally been supported by art centers which limit their development to periods of two to three months. As this is short-term support, projects are then faced with the decision of whether to continue or not. In some cases, such as the Roma youth groups or the sex workers in Madrid, the participants felt that they had expressed all they wanted to express and agreed to the conclusion of the project. In the cases of the Mexican taxi drivers, people with limited mobility in Barcelona, displaced and demobilized Colombian participants, Sahrawi Refugees in the Algerian Sahara and Brazilian motoboys, the participants agreed to continue their efforts, seeking funding and networking with organizations to guarantee the continuation of their projects. This search for independence from the initial support system provided by the art centers proves to be a great challenge but also likely the greatest outcome that the projects can work towards.

Translation by Romina Oliverio

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