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Rural communities in India are often underserved by the mainstream media. While there is a public discourse surrounding the issues they face, this dialogue typically takes place on television, in newspaper editorials, and on the Internet. Unfortunately, participation in such forums is limited to the most privileged members of society, excluding those individuals who have the largest stake in the conversation. This paper examines an effort to foster a more inclusive dialogue by means of a simple technology: an interactive voice forum. Called CGNet Swara, the system enables callers to record messages of local interest, and listen to messages that others have recorded. Messages are also posted on the Internet, as a supplement to an existing discussion forum. In the first 21 months of its deployment in India, CGNet Swara has logged over 70,000 phone calls and released 1,100 messages. To understand the emergent practices surrounding this system, we conduct interviews with 42 diverse stakeholders, including callers, bureaucrats, and members of the media. Our analysis contributes to the understanding of voice-based media as a vehicle for social inclusion in remote and underprivileged populations.

Emergent Practices Around CGNet Swara, A Voice Forum for Citizen Journalism in Rural India – Microsoft Research

Shubhanshru Choudry last night won the Index On Censorship Digital Activism award for this initiative.

[Originally published here on the WITNESS Hub Blog.]

The falling price of digital technology and the capacity to distribute information rapidly have created the conditions for millions of people to record and exchange moving images. […]  … a new theatre of public information has emerged, a loosely connected mass of video creation and exchange.  This activity is being driven by personal initiatives, collective endeavours and institutional interventions.  It includes aspiring professional film makers and amateur vloggers alike.  This is a realm populated by people who are attracted by the idea that video has a unique power to communicate.  It is here where we see opinions, thoughts and feelings turned into video, by people, for other people. […] The Video Republic is situated in the places where people’s opinions and feelings are made public via the language of the moving image.

So say Celia Hannon, Peter Bradwell and Charlie Tims of UK thinktank Demos in their new report Video Republic (Demos, like WITNESS, is a partner in James Nachtwey’s initiative to raise awareness and debate on extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB.)

The report looks at the rise of video as a new and vibrant public space, an alternative channel for self-expression, and increasingly, an alternative means of public deliberation.  Although the authors identify three areas where the Video Republic takes place – television, online video-sharing and public screenings – they focus mainly on the newest area of the three, online.  (Notably, they don’t really look at mobile video at all.)  They’re particularly interested in how video promotes social inclusion (including a video-postcard project on migration and identity run by the very first person I worked for, Marion Vargaftig), and in how the confluence of cheaper technology and more widespread broadband has enabled content that was not possible before.  They end, however, with a warning that the window for truly opening out participation and ownership is not going to be here forever:

It is possible that the redistribution of power currently taking place in the Video Republic will only last for a brief moment of time.

Video Republic is focused on online video-sharing among youth on a local level in Europe (specifically the UK, Turkey, Germany, Romania and Finland), and so doesn’t include or reference many international initiatives like Video 24/7 or the Hub, but they extract lessons for anyone working with video and inclusion anywhere, many of which are at the heart of why we built the Hub.  You can read the full report here, and I run through the main findings as they relate to our work below.  Before you read either, though, watch Demos’ intro video below:

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