Mobile Citizenship

Case Study: Mobile media and citizenship in underdeveloped democracies: The tool in our pockets

You are walking down the street in your home town, attentive to your surroundings, with your mobile phone inside your pocket. Suddenly, you witness an act of violence. What to do? Should you call the police? Pursue the rascal? Aid the victim? Well, if you had an online platform in your society where violent acts were monitored by civilians, you would take out your mobile phone and report the incident through a text message (or SMS). If your phone is sophisticated enough, you could even take a photograph or video of the perpetrator and send a notice through a Multimedia Messaging System (MMS).

But what would that change? Your reporting could help the police spot the criminal. But if you are not the only one who uses this system to survey your environs, if your community tracks the hot-zones in your city where violent acts are common by uploading individual reports to a central online map, criminals could have fewer places to hide and citizens could feel safer when walking alone or accompanied.

Mobile phones, one of the world's fastest growing technologies and with more penetration than any other media, are already being used all over the globe for purposes similar to the hypothetical situation narrated above. Citizens are creating online maps to respond to crises, follow elections and tackle social concerns.

For instance, during the 2009 elections in India, a website was  set up for citizens to send SMS's regarding voter fraud, bribery, infrastructure problems, and hate speech pertaining to the electoral process (see: http://votereport.in). The website’s goal was to map the SMS messages disclosing voting irregularities and use the aggregated data to pressure institutions and political parties to stick to the law.

Similar election monitoring projects have been also implemented in Mexico (http://www.cuidemoselvoto.org) and Zimbabwe ( http://www.sokwanele.com/map/all_breaches).  These sites all track user-generated reports on a free and open-source platform powered by Ushahidi (http://ushahidi.com/), an engine originally created to gather citizen-generated crisis information after the 2007 post-election  violence in Kenya.

They all also represent clear examples of how political processes can be enhanced through the participation of civilians just like you and your friends.


[Three sites for mapping electoral conditions: Vote Report India (http://votereport.in); Cuidemos el Voto, Mexico (http://www.cuidemoselvoto.org); Sokwanele, Zimbabwe (http://www.sokwanele.com/map/all_breaches)]

Ground Views, by contrast, is a more general project which does not exclusively track institutional processe, such as elections (http://www.groundviews.org/). This initiative, base in Sri Lanka,  provides citizens a platform where they can debate and monitor important topics, including human rights, freedom of speech and peace. The aim is to build a mobile extension of this web site to enable "near real time coverage of events."

All of the above cases depend on mash-ups (a platform that joins mobile and internet technologies), which restrict citizen participation to a single portal. But mobile activism is not limited to directing the public to engage  with pre-existing websites dedicated exclusively to a single event or country. A number of networking and social web platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Hi5, MySpace or Facebook, for example, allocate space on their sites to allow  users to upload content from their mobile phones. These popular sites have also been exploited by activists, as happened during Iran's post-electoral conflicts during June 2009 – notwithstanding the authoritarian measures taken by the government which included shutting down cellphone networks and limiting Internet access.

Other ways that mobile phones are having an impact are through non-profit organizations such as Greenpeace that use mobile phones for disseminating information about ecological threats and for promoting campaigns for protecting the environment – such as a Greenpeace’s campaign in Argentina. Use of mobile phones as mass communication devices have also emerged spontaneously around issues such as public health, traffic control and cultural projects.

Because the young tend to be, as a social group, more technologically literate than their elders, they tend to be more savvy about how to use mobile devises in activist ways.  In times of conflict, for instance, young adults around the world have been turning to their mobile phones to expose both the citizens' rage in the streets and the authority's repression.  During a 2009 riot in Costa Rica,  for example, individuals uploaded cell-phone videos of street violence to such sites as YouTube. And in Panama, for example, the government censored a Reggaeton tune which denounced corruption – so youth spread the song as a ringtone within the society, in effect getting “around” the official measure.

Healthy democracies depend on their citizens becoming involved in policy and governance in ways that go beyond election day. The cornerstone of contemporary democracies is civic participation, empowerment and engagement in those matters which concern all members of the community. We live in a world with a convergent media sphere so vast and interconnected that even in disadvantaged countries there are increasingly opprtunities to build bridges between different sectors of society.  There are fewer and fewer no excuses for apathy or disengagement.

Are we ready to uncover that potential packed in our pockets in service of constructing a better community? Would we be willing to spend time as watchdogs in order to walk the streets of our cities more freely, to build a more stable environment for our friends and families?  Would you wield your mobile phone for documenting – or denouncing –  the problems of the world around you?