It is impossible to deny the power of the nexus of mobile telephony and internet-based social media tools like Facebook, Ushahidi, and Twitter on improving the ways people can create, receive and understand news and information, yet there are relatively few available tools that democratize, increase access to, and improve the safety of the networks phones and services need in order to communicate and harness the power of social media. The International Telecommunications Union cites that 40% of the world's population and 60% of its land mass have no communications coverage at all and only 25% have access to the Internet. And especially in Africa, many may have handsets and GSM coverage, but they often lack the money to buy airtime to make calls or even send SMS.
The Mesh-Casting project is designed to put the mobile phone front and center in information gathering and distribution while providing a less expensive and more-connected communication alternative for any group of citizens and especially those in developing countries or conflict and disaster areas where infrastructure (electricity, communications) are lacking. The overall aim is to completely democratize the flow of information and move it amongst phones directly, with as few technological barriers between news producer and consumer as possible.
The Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) has been awarded by Internews a grant to implement a pilot to provide communications solutions for a group of activists, citizen journalists and human rights monitors working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, that will focus on a handful of small, proximate "slums" or "shanty" communities in the city of Port Harcourt.
In 2008 these neighborhoods were set to be demolished and the tens of thousands of residents displaced to make way for a dubious urban renewal scheme, a process that has been defined and legitimized by a heavy media campaign sponsored by the Rivers State government with the complicity of local news outlets in order to justify their actions by classifying these neighborhoods as havens for criminality and therefore necessary to raze. As many of these communities have existed for decades, the residents have been organizing in an attempt to stop the demolitions and disseminate the truth about their communities, the misdeeds of government and their right to remain in their homes.
The very interesting part of this pilot project is the use of the Mesh-Casting system created by the Serval Project, which has pioneered the development of open source software to create autonomous mesh-based voice and data networks among wifi-enabled mobile phones. The information system will be developed via a mobile mesh networking to create a "cellular commons" comprised of self-organizing cell phones forming voice and data networks without the support of telephone companies or infrastructure, overlaid with a "Rhizome" protocol to allow news, geographical information, software and other content to be rapidly distributed throughout the cellular commons without cost. The system also allows for those without wifi-enabled handsets to receive information via Bluetooth, a common feature on many less-expensive phones.
As the phones themselves create an independent network that can blanket a space of over one square kilometer (and when scaled up, much larger areas), the mobile reporters will be able to provide news coverage directly from their phones and digitally reinforce their community without having to connect to the internet or GSM carriers. The main goals will be that content produced in the cellular commons, from documentary evidence of human rights abuses to more in-depth coverage (video) of the everyday hopes, struggles and realities of people living in the target neighborhoods, will be shared in real time and in this way trigger a faster action and a faster advocacy strategy.
These innovative project involve 20 participants from target neighborhoods who will creatively, and in completely mobile fashion, provide audiovisual coverage, share information, collaboratively define and edit news pieces and distribute them along with other pertinent information locally to almost any other mobile phone.
The combination of new technology and training will facilitate a completely autonomous, community-based information network. In order to receive information and for the benefit of interested parties and organizations outside the neighborhood, videos, research materials, as well as sensitive human rights documentation will be uploaded and the appropriate content made public via a website and social media platforms managed in collaboration with Amnesty International.
The ability to use mobile phones to form mesh networks is only a few years old and was originally designed for disaster relief and rural telephony. As there has never been a scale test of a mobile phone-based mesh network, this pilot is showing to be a crucial learning experience about the limitations and potential of the system. The mesh technology, with the help of the partner organization Serval, is constantly being adapted and fine-tuned to the experiences and needs of the journalists in the field, therefore creating a system of continuous feedback that link the development of the technology with the actual users of it.
What Internews hope this project will show is that the Mesh Network can facilitate community-based journalism through mobile platforms, while in the same time, providing critical lessons about the system and the need for adjustment in the technology development to better fit the needs of community-based journalists and activists, especially where access to communications is low or prohibitively expensive.
As such, an additional goal for the Mesh-Casting Pilot project is to facilitate the creation of a series of tools, documentation and knowledge that will enable other communities to take advantage of mobile mesh networking for journalistic and information sharing purposes. These will include open-source Serval mesh integrated media collection, mapping and geo-tagging, editing and dissemination applications developed specifically for news production, and training materials incorporating the lessons learned throughout the project, packaged into a virtual kit for other communities in Africa or anywhere to employ.