Aparna Moitra
Vishnupriya Das
Gram Vaani team
Archna Kumar
Aaditeshwar Seth
Publication Date
July 9, 2016

Delhi University (Moitra, Kumar); Gram Vaani (Das, Seth)

"It is well known that technology based interventions targeted towards development need to look beyond technology to be successful - cultural nuances, capability and intentions of the people, institutional linkages, financial sustainability, etc all need to fall in place to build a robust development program."

By outlining the operational details of 3 critical functions to run a mobile-based community media (CM) platform - content management, community mobilisation and training, and institutional linkages for impact - the effort in this paper is to highlight the importance of non-technological aspects to enable what was primarily a technology-driven development intervention. The authors describe an interactive voice-based CM platform in rural India - Mobile Vaani, or MV (see Related Summaries, below) - that works through mobile phones. "We believe that the challenges and insights described in this paper, which span over the last three years of functioning of the platform, will be useful for other researchers and practitioners involved in both mobile and non-mobile based community media projects around the world."

MV is a mobile-based voice media platform for underserved areas in India whereby users generate content in their own local dialect through Interactive Voice Response (IVR). Created by Gram Vaani, the intelligent IVR system uses the "missed call" concept, where users place a call to an MV phone number, and the server cuts the call and calls them back, thus making the system free of cost for the users. The MV IVR presents options to record voice messages, listen to messages left by others, comment on them, like and forward messages, navigate to different topic- and location-specific channels, take surveys, etc. A variety of topics are featured on MV, including hyperlocal news, job openings, agriculture advisory, social issues such as early marriage and domestic violence, health question and answer (Q&A), governance and accountability, folk songs and poems, and local and national-level advertisements. The bulk of the content on MV is user-generated, with recordings contributed over the IVR itself and subsequently moderated and curated by MV's content team for publication on the IVR. Feedback processes are in place to help the MV team remain in touch with the users and understand their topics of interest to be able to create relevant participatory programmes for the communities.

As outlined here, the theory of change for development through CM can be categorised along 4 broad pathways: (i) First, being able to train people to create content for their communities and initiate discussions ensures that the content is contextually relevant. This eventually leads to more effective behaviour change compared with one-way mechanisms of just pushing messages towards people. (ii) Second, being able to ensure representativeness on CM for marginalised groups across caste, class, and gender lines empowers them to voice themselves, which not only can make them more confident but also can enable them to challenge local power structures. (iii) Third, empowering people to talk about their problems and concerns on an open media platform helps promote good governance and accountability through checks and balances that civil society actors are able to impose on institutions. (iv) Fourth, CM plays a role in community building by providing a forum for people to share their views and cultural expressions, thereby bringing communities closer through articulation of a shared identity.

Since MV's initiation in mid-2012 after a small pilot in 2011, more than 1.5 million unique users have called the platform from approximately 25 active districts in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (MP), and Orissa. In the upcoming sections of the report, the authors describe 3 aspects of MV operations: content creation and management methodologies, user acquisition and training processes, and impact mechanisms. Noting that all 3 critical functions have undergone changes over the years, they describe the change management process as well in order to provide insights to other CM initiatives, both mobile- and non-mobile based, to build feedback loops into their organisations and change strategies in response to user needs. Their contributions are threefold: (i) They show how content solicitation and curation processes can be built for user-generated content which is highly contextual and liked by the users; (ii) they show how low-cost institutional structures can be nurtured with local youth and social workers to build replicable processes for user acquisition and training; and (iii) they show how these community mobilisation and content methodologies can be tied together with other stakeholders to create sustainable impact mechanisms.

For example, the reader learns that, starting from a clean slate, an in-house team of community mobilisers was created by recruiting people from a CM and training background, who built their own offline network. (This process, including the volunteer clubs that later developed to give ownership of having their own local MV channel, is described in detail. "It is worth mentioning about the importance of the offline volunteer network to train users and effectively communicate to them what MV or community media is all about.") A focused drive was undertaken to include teachers, students, health workers, farmers, self-help group (SHG) members, and village committee members as users and volunteers to contribute content on topics of their specialisation. For instance, community health workers (CHWs) started providing information on seasonal diseases, those who could sing well started contributing songs, children contributed poetry, and elder men in the community commented on the country's politics. These messages served a strong purpose to create precedent on the platform for featuring other topics, and social recognition such as "best contributors of the week" further encouraged diversity of content on the forum, helping it move away from a grievance-based focus.

The authors explore the impact of MV at 3 levels: (i) individual - example: A 21-year-old student from Jharkhand reported: "In the past one year I have heard campaigns on the issue of violence against women and I feel these are commendable efforts by team MV. These campaigns have given me the confidence to take up social work and I hope to help create a society that doesn't encourage violence against women." (ii) community - example: In the Koderma district of Jharkhand, alcoholism among men is a big issue. People began to voice their concerns on MV with a desire to see an improvement, at first with a few stories, and soon followed by many people recording their messages. This prompted the volunteers to pick up the stories and write a letter to the district administration demanding closure of illegal alcohol shops in the main town of Koderma. (iii) institutional - example: MV ran a campaign to collect data on the quality of health services provided at the local health centres across 3 districts. The campaign came back with findings that almost 90% of the centres did not have clean drinking water, more than 50% of posts for doctors were vacant, and doctors were often absent from the clinics. A campaign report about the findings was featured in a leading Hindi regional newspaper. The clout of mass media pushed the authorities to improve the health services, and within a week of the news report, several testimonials were received about at least 5 facilities which had improved. To ensure that participation leads to effective action, "[w]e can see...that especially for institutional change it is important to plug MV with various local stakeholders including government departments, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], social activists, and others who can make use of the information published on the platform."

Reflecting on these processes, the authors share lessons learned. For instance, the challenges faced in building and maintaining a large offline network of volunteers to support the platform illustrate the importance of human resource management and communication processes that need to gel with prevalent cultural and social norms. The relevance of offline processes to drive technology adoption, build credibility for the system in the eyes of the community, and provide a bi-directional communication conduit between the organisation and its users emphasises the need to institutionalise these processes. "The relevance of people processes and individual motivation to the success of the program somewhat dampens the assumed easy route to scaling and replication through technology based interventions. This adds to our refrain that appropriate training and mentoring, with an alignment of incentives, is important to ensure that the effectiveness of tightly controlled pilots scales when the models are replicated with increased layers of organizational management."


ICTD '16, June 3-6, 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA (DOI: - sent via email from Aaditeshwar Seth to The Communication Initiative on August 28 2016. Image credit: Gram Vaani

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