Obama’s New Media Strategies for Ghana

A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.

Obama in Ghana - 2009

WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.

It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.

Radio, SMS and Facebook

Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.

As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)

Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.

The details (from the White House)

SMS. We’re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).

Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the President’s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.

Video. The speech will be livestreamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live. The embed code for this video is available so you may also host the livestream on any Website.

Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook “event” around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.

Obama talks about his upcoming trip

Part 1

Part 2

Radio Gbarpolu and Travel in Liberia


Liberian Bush Trip from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

I took an opportunity to travel to Bopolu, a small town in the Liberian bush that is the center of government for Gbarpolu county (don’t say the “G”).

My goal was to talk to someone from a rural community radio station. I also wanted to talk to the local leaders to determine how information flows in the community, and how it gets from local villages to Monrovia.

Here is a quick video that I put together showing some of the highlights of this trip.

Liberian Bush Radio Escapades

Today finds me off in Bopola, a town well off the beaten track North of Monrovia, Liberia – where I’ve taken a lot of pictures and had a good time getting out of the city. I hitched a ride with an American NGO taking breeding rabbits upcountry, so the back of the pickup truck had 80 furry big-ears in it. It smelled some, since they had picked them up in Guinea 2 days before.

Handing out rabbits in Liberia

I saw this fascinating creation called a BUV on their station before I left too. 3 wheels, and it looks like it can haul anything.

BUV

The ride was just what I was looking for; providing me a chance to get out and see how the country really breathes and moves. The outskirts of Monrovia are hectic, as you would expect, but as soon as you get out it slows waaaay down.

Radio Gbarpola

One of my main missions while out is to talk to some rural community radio managers. When we got in, I made contact with the owner/manager of Radio Gbarpola and we had a good 2-hour discussion on their technology, programming, practices and business growth possibilities.

radio gbarpola in liberia

International Alert has pumped a decent amount of money into a number of strategically located community radio facilities. Radio Gbarpola is one of them, and boasts a bank of solar powered batteries, a 300 watt transmitter, a split studio, a 2-deck CD and tape player, and a motorcycle (for the news reporter to visit locations on). That’s some spread!

As I had expected, this radio station is one of the only ways anyone in much of the county can find out what is going on within the county. They currently cover 2/3 of it, and with a repaired or new antenna, they can reach all of it. The only mobile phone antennas are owned by Lonestar, and it doesn’t have nearly the reach of the radio station.

Getting interviewed at Radio Gbarpola

While there, they insisted on a quick interview as well – I hope the Liberians in Gbarpola county can understand my American English… :)

New technology injection

Being myself, after exhausting my question supply, I started demo’ing what you could do with just a SIM card, mobile phone, and a computer. The first thing out was a quick test of FrontlineSMS there, which worked like a charm. I explained how a setup like that could add a new revenue stream as well, if they started selling text ads.

Then, I went on to talk about what we did in Kenya with Ushahidi, and ask about what they thought of similar technology in Liberia. Interestingly enough, it turns out that all “important” information seems to filter into the radio quickly. It’s either direct to, or direct to police-to-radio.

That that has started me thinking about is using the 50+ community radio stations in Liberia as nodes in a larger network. I’m thinking it might be possible to set up a number of them with a FrontlineSMS system that uses Mesh4x to sync certain information between them and up to Headquarters in Monrovia. Just an idea at this point, but well worth doing more discovery on.

[Note: How did I manage to post way out in the middle of nowhere? Aforementioned NGO has a nice slow connection, and I have all night to upload these resized images…]

Rural Community Radio in Africa

DSC_0265 Tuareg radio deejay

It’s not true if the radio doesn’t say it.

That was a reply from a rural Liberian farmer to Malcolm Joseph, the managing director of the Center for Media Studies in Liberia. He shared that with me as I discussed the way communication has happened between the media and the public here over the past few years. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to marry up communication channels and technology mediums to be as effective as you can be across a varied and spread out demographic.

Radio is important. It’s still the main way that rural groups get their news. Newspaper circulation drops drastically outside of the cities. While many countries have at least a couple of radio stations of national reach, you still find a number of smaller radio stations that work within districts, down to the the real rural community radio stations that operate with a 5-10 kilometer radius.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we connect better through this medium? It’s not good enough to just say that, “mobile phone coverage is good enough”. Even though the mobile coverage might be good, the credibility and community-inclusiveness of even a small radio station means that it cannot be ignored when trying to reach ordinary Africans. Add in illiteracy rates, which are typically higher in rural areas, and it becomes even more important.

Not ever web or mobile service needs to consider this, but we all need to think better on how to integrate radio into the mobile and web world in Africa. This isn’t just a post for aid and development groups either, it’s for people who want to create digital services that reach beyond African urban settings.

More thoughts and resources:

Quick Hits from Digital Africa

I’m on the road to Liberia for a couple weeks, so getting up a quick post on some items that I think are interesting around the technology space in Africa.

Hannes van Rensburg goes off on groups that give financing to European tech companies for work in Africa, rather than the local African companies who are better equipped and more knowledgeable to handle the situation. I agree.

“I really have difficulty in understanding how this mildly succesful UK company can make a difference in Africa. Not only is it unlikely that they will be able to re-use the UK functionality in Uganda (Java phones, ATM switches, etc.), but they are also late. Many Ugandan-based companies have already (or are in the process of) lanching their mobile banking services.”

Solar-powered phones are coming. How will they change the power equation in Africa?

How will solar powered mobile phones change Africa?

Matt Berg writes a good post on leveraging internet with radio:

“Eventually low cost smart phones that are able to access the Internet in an acceptable way (think < $100 Chinese iPhone), will represent a paradigm shift in the way Africans connect to the Internet. Until then, a community radio is probably the best way to make the information on the Internet accessible to rural communities."

Zain launches mobile payment service Zap in East Africa. This is their challenge to Africa’s mobile payments golden-child MPESA (by Safaricom). In the past, Zain hasn’t had a stellar record in marketing and simplification of their services. I hope this is different, as the market needs competitors.

Rural internet, not online but still connected

“Internet access might not be instantaneous, but a USB stick driven off in a cloud of motorcycle dust, or bumping along in an ox cart, can often shift more data than a telephone dial-up connection. And with delayed dial up the customer avoids the frustration of slow downloads: returning later to waiting data.”

Coby Leuschke builds a prototype 12 volt mini computer:

“I was most interested in the 12V DC requirement for use with solar systems. I finally got around to building one from a bare bones kit…”

Broadband in Africa Report

Russell Southwood’s Balancing-Act newsletter is one of the best sources for internet and mobile statistics and reports in Africa. If you don’t read it, you should. If you run any type of mobile, web, or ISP-type company in Africa and you can afford it, then you should be buying the reports. Here are some excerpts from the recent one on Broadband Markets in Africa with some opinions thrown in by me.

Every country needs a price wiki

“Confusing range of pricing structures: Different pricing structures are applied to different delivery technologies (DSL, CDMA, WiMax, GPRS, EDGE, 3G, etc) and this makes “like-for-like” comparisons across all African countries an almost impossible task.”

No matter where you go in Africa there is no easy way to find out what types of broadband connections are available. There would be nothing more useful than a wiki-like tool that people could add to and compare against. A place where people who use these tools can put up their experiences and let others know about the “true” bandwidth provided by companies. This is especially true for residential customers.

Geographic broadband penetration

In the world’s most developed OECD countries, 61% of subscribers got their broadband through DSL services by 2007, 29% through Cable TV (CATV), and 8% through Fibre LAN connections. Just 2% of subscribers – some 3.455 million – subscribed to broadband through ‘other’ fixed wireless broadband services. In Africa, some 59% of broadband subscribers use DSL, just 1% use CATV, and the remaining 40% use wireless broadband.

Broadband to OECD countries in Africa by type

By December 2007 terrestrial broadband networks were now available in every capital city in Africa, some 50% of main cities, 10% of secondary cities and 2% of towns.

Traditional media is still king

Users in the more developed broadband markets make the Internet a modest supplement to a diet composed mainly of radio and television. As South African media owner Prakash Desai, CEO, Johnnic has pointed out in October 2007:”99.9% of revenues are offline. The Internet doesn’t feature.”

As elsewhere, the Internet in Africa has a symbiotic relationship with other media, particularly television. After a controversial scene in the second series of Big Brother, there were five million downloads of that scene. Ninety per cent of those downloads came from within Africa and of those 33% were from South Africa and 37% from Nigeria and Uganda. Similar response rates on SMS voting and competitions shows that this will be fertile ground for broadband content development as the subscriber numbers increases.

Mobile providers hold the high ground

On a continent that has a wide variation in the amount of internet access available when moving from urban to rural settings, the hand tips to those that have lower costs in rolling out infrastructure. Land lines, cable and fibre all cost a great deal to deploy. Mobile phone carriers have the ability to do so at a lower cost through towers. It’s a node vs line problem.

The key battle ground in the next five years will be between 3G services (or higher) offered by GSM and CDMA operators and fixed wireless broadband services. The outcome of this battle will shape the broadband experience in Africa, whether customers use mobiles as Internet access devices. …Mobile operators launching 3G networks are offering access speeds which compete with the broadband wireless services.

When that access is just as fast as land lines, then there’s no reason at all to stick with an internet solution that forces you to stay in one place.

Web and Mobile Tech Used in Election Monitoring

With the big US election cycle culminating in tomorrow’s election day there has been a lot of talk about monitoring of elections. Usually I see this type of debate taking place in other parts of the world – like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria. However, this time it’s at home, and while all the focus of the world is here, it makes an interesting time and case-study for the use of technology in monitoring of everything from election fraud, to fairness and accessibility.

This new generation of read/write technology using the web and mobile phones creates a situation where ordinary citizen have both awareness and opportunity to take part in an way that wasn’t possible in such great numbers only a few decades ago.

There are really two components; gathering information and then distributing that information in a way that is useful for two types of users. First, the general public. Second, the officials and/or media who can cause something to happen when a bad situation arises.

Our Vote Live

A list of web and mobile tools to monitor the US elections:

  • MyFairElection – Report your polling station’s
    condition on Election Day. (in partnership with ABC News)
  • TwitterVoteReport – Use twitter, SMS, audio call or an iPhone and Android applications to send in reports on Election Day. (in partnership with NPR)
  • Video Your Vote – Encourages people to video themselves voting and to upload those to YouTube. (in partnership with PBS)
  • VoterSuppression.net – A wiki where users can learn about and enter in reports of voter suppression.
  • Our Vote Live – A site documenting the voter assistance work of the Election Protection Coalition that uses a phone call-in system (866-OUR-VOTE).

(if you have more that I haven’t heard of, add the link to the comments below)

Twitter Vote Report

Cultural shifts and technology norms aren’t global

Ethan Zuckerman is wondering whether Twitter, or even mobile phones and the web, are the right tools for monitoring an election. He brings up the fact that using old-school technology like radio and TV can be even more useful in places like Ghana, and how that differs with the experience in the USA.

I think there are two things going on here.

First, the cultural use of technology is changing. We’re in that strange twilight zone between mediums where the population is split between overlapping islands of web usage, mobile phones, radio, TV and print.

Second, this cultural usage shift is compounded by having a two-tiered pattern of usage in different parts of the world. Ethan is absolutely right that one of the best tools in Africa is still the radio. However, that doesn’t translate to the US, where the country is too large for any one radio station to really hold sway. Many in the US tune into “national” radio personalities and shows, who have no “local” footprint. Calling in with your voting precinct’s flaws from Kooskia, Idaho wouldn’t make sense.

Thus the use of the internet, and mobile phone. We’re at a point where we’re trying to raise awareness, interactivity and reach. What happens when we get mass public awareness of a tool, married with an efficient and useful way to get aggregate data in local communities?

Final Thoughts

One item that isn’t up for debate is this. At this time you need to marry up the coverage and awareness power of traditional media (radio, TV and print) with the simple tools and platforms that use the web and mobile phones correctly to gather and disseminate information. What I find most encouraging is that most of the initiatives listed above are using the new tools and they are partnered with major media organizations that can muscle this out to a national audience.

(Side note: We were asked by a number of people if Ushahidi could be used for this. In short, yes – but the new alpha release of the software wasn’t ready until last week. Too late to play with here.)

Also read the PBS Mediashift article covering these services in greater depth.