In 2011, the United States Institute for Peace launched the Communication for Peacebuilding priority grant program (CfP). The program will support innovative practice and research designed to increase understanding of how communication flows and communication technology can best be leveraged to improve the practice of peacebuilding. The CfP initiative is based on the premise that because communication is fundamental to peacebuilding, the nature of communication flows within and around conflict has a significant impact on the practice of peacebuilding.
Internews Network was one of the organizations awarded with that grant to implement a project called Mobile2Radio: Connecting Local Media, Humanitarian Actors and Communities Through Innovative Communication Flows. The proposed project is being implemented in the Central African Republic (CAR); a country beset by a range of complex conflicts. Current drivers of insecurity range from a lack of government control in areas held by rebel groups, cross-border attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army from the north of DRC and the pressure imposed by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Chad and Sudan. A wide range of humanitarian agencies and other actors operate in this setting. However, such actors lack access to sustained and coordinated information flows on current threats and insecurity with conflict response non-existent in numerous areas.
The objective of the project is to create a reliable, predictable and sustainable system that will allow local media to gather, in real time, first-hand information from affected populations and channel it to the humanitarian community using new technologies while establishing a complimentary two-way communication flow with communities affected by conflict and violence. The key anticipated change is that leveraged information flows improve humanitarian actors' response to conflict, and communities' ability to raise the alarm at the outset.
Onw of the key element of the project is also to investigate the relationship between humanitarian agencies and local media; specifically, whether or not humanitarians are working with local media to leverage information flows to aid conflict response and/or how they solicit intelligence from the population.
The basic idea is to create and implement a communication flow system between conflict affected communities, starting with 2 radio stations, and various humanitarian actors. The system is centered on regular information exchange between the radio stations and the Association of Journalists for Human Rights and humanitarian agencies, supported by an SMS based crowd-sourcing platform open to the whole community.
The goal of the project is ambitious: as Internews believes that information saves lives; than when people have reliable, accurate information in times of conflict they are able to participate in preventing an escalation of violence; are able to ask for and receive the assistance they need; and ultimately, get out of harm's way with reliable information on where to go should the situation worsen. This project amplifies the silos of information held and managed through the efforts of other organizations - it will work in tandem with the Association of Journalists for Human Rights, a majority of humanitarian organizations in CAR, and local radio stations - to uniquely collect all such information flows in CAR in order to empower various conflict affected communities with the full power of that information.
This intervention will leverage Internews recent investment in the mobile-phone based networking of community radio stations in the country, in order to maximize information flows to and from the humanitarian community. Ultimately, it will empower the humanitarian sector with a community led conflict early warning system allowing them to deliver peace building outcomes.
The project is also entirely locally driven, with practical implementation largely the responsibility of Internews' local partner in CAR, The Association of Journalists for Human Rights and two radio stations: Radio Zereda in Obo and Radio Be Oko in Bambari.
Internews piloted a component of this project in CAR in early 2011 with a network of community radio stations. The network works with mobile phones using a phone tree to query, on a daily basis, participating humanitarian agencies and community radio stations. The network exchanges information directly from radio station to radio station or between the radio stations and the coordination center without the support of any internet connection, allowing 15 media outlets to exachnge information and a broader coverage of the country otherwise fragmented.
The network connects the stations with each other, and enables humanitarian agencies to quickly exchange information with communities throughout the country. Although just a few months young, the concept has already garnered an enthusiastic response from OCHA, UNDP, and BINUCA (Integrated Office United Nations in Central Africa).
WHAT ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY?
Internews decided to use the FrontlineSMS software to create an SMS based system at the two selected community radio stations in its existing network. This is allowing them to dramatically ramp-up the capacity of SMS based communication from and to listeners in the community; thus reaching an addition project audience.
Complimentary radio programming will address common issues of concern and open a forum for listeners to send SMS to report about localized conflicts, threats to peace and articulated needs to be delivered to the humanitarian community. The partner radio stations have been provided with the free software, a computer and an SMS modem and have been doing a one week training on the use of the crowdsourcing methodology, advertisement strategy, verification of crowdsourced information and digital security, in order to execute these activities with consistent professionalism.
The expected outcome of this project is that radio stations will be able to identify and produce humanitarian stories for their own media outlets as per the inputs and needs from the "crowd". Importantly, the FrontlineSMS platform allows for the effective aggregation and trend analysis of incoming data; whilst also providing a means for the radio stations to mass text back to the communities in order to flag critical content. Throughout this process, humanitarian and local media liaison components of this project will be key in creating a bridge that will allow the exchange of information between the humanitarians directly to the local media and then to the affected communities.
Community radio stations are uniquely placed to solicit a high volume of data from the population at large. Internews brings global expertise in leveraging those information flows for the benefit of the humanitarian and peace building community. As a minimum, project staff will assess the aggregated SMS data from the radio stations, as well as daily news bulletins, in order to compile a regular e-newsletter to share with the audience of the humanitarian community. Information will be carefully selected for its potential to deliver a practical response in the form of civilian protection and community security.
Ultimately not only information save lifes, but it also calls for accountability and responsability in the way this information is used - or not used.