Communities reach beyond digital barriers to share information

Photo credit: Anusha Alikhan.

Lack of broadband access poses a huge barrier to communities all over the world, both shutting people off from news and information, and limiting their ability to speak up. To bridge this divide communities are getting creative. On Monday, a panel of experts at SXSW discussed the many ways people are overcoming the hurdles of limited Web connectivity.

The panel included Trevor Knoblich, Online News Association digital director; Eliza Anyangwe, editor of the Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network; Sean McDonald, CEO of the Social Impact Lab (SIMLab), the makers of FrontlineSMS and FrontlineCloud; and Kara Andrade, co-founder of HablaCentro LLC, and Not for Profit, which helps people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged.

Knoblich opened the panel, “Beyond Connectivity: Sharing News Without the Web,” with some stark statistics on community household broadband access in major U.S. cities; in Baltimore, Miami, New Orleans and Detroit, 40 percent of households do not have broadband. He emphasized that lack of connectivity is not just a developing world issue, but also a “poverty” issue.

The conversation then shifted to the global context. Andrade and McDonald shared their experiences working in developing countries to bridge the digital divide.

Andrade discussed the struggles of rural Latin American communities with information access, especially in times of crisis when getting the right news is essential. She pointed out that the concept of the “digital divide” relegates disadvantaged people to a passive role, creating a false distinction between the information “haves” and the information “have-nots.”

“We tend to think the ‘have-nots’ are not doing anything,” she said. “The folks that we work with do find ways to work around their challenges; they get very creative to connect to those resources.”

People overcome limitations by finding alternatives to ensure news access, such as Internet cafes, radio and cellphones, she said, providing examples of her work training communities to use digital tools and fostering collaboration opportunities. They also use their community as a resource.

“I think building community is one of the most important things you can do to help people access the information that they need,” she said. “It’s a lot more likely that people will be able to take the skills that you’ve given them if they have a community that helps them use those skills and supports them in that process.”

McDonald told a story of social change in Kalimantan, Indonesia, where he worked with the community to set up a SMS-driven network of citizen journalists who he called “information brokers.” Rather than simply delivering news the information brokers provide vital information to decision-makers and propel community problem-solving.

“It’s the non-technical, institutional listening that matters,” he said. “It’s the getting the government to respond that is what’s so amazing, and that they were able to do it, essentially with a laptop and a bunch of mobile phones, makes it all the more impressive.”

Anyangwe closed the session by giving the audience a glimpse of the Guardian’s “open journalism” approach that underscores the need to be transparent and truthful, but also to collaborate and enlist the community to build stories. She described the Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network as an example of “getting behind the scenes of the story” by engaging humanitarian and aid workers to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences. Focusing on the theme of “beyond connectivity,” she said that the approach holds great lessons for communities because it emphasizes the importance of real engagement and the spread of news outside of online.

“It is so much more vitally important that there is a word-of-mouth reach than just having page views or click-throughs, or coming to the site, or sharing it on Twitter,” she said. “Having people talk about what you’re doing offline is vital.”

Anusha Alikhan, communications director at Knight Foundation

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