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Citizen Journalism and mGovernance in Rural India

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, August 19 2013

Imagine nearly 20 million people without access to news and current events. In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, language barriers, illiteracy, lack of Internet access and strict radio regulations exclude millions living in rural communities from the mainstream media. A voice messaging service called CGNet Swara overcomes those obstacles and empowers anyone in rural India with a cell phone to become a citizen journalist.

Started in 2010 by Knight International Journalism Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNet Swara has had a measurable impact on rural communities. Each success is documented on their blog. For example, on August 7, 2013:

Rajim from Balodabazar district of Chhattisgarh is telling us that on 2nd she had reported in Swara about villages where food was not being served in school Mid-day meals and anganwadi from more than a month. She says next day she got calls from district officials who visited the villages and on 4th food grains reached schools and anganwadis. She thanks Swara and requests all to use it solve their problems.

On August 6, 2013:

Naresh Bunkar from Kabirdham district is telling us that a forest officer had taken Rs 99,000 bribe from 33 Baiga adivasis of Bhangitola village which was reported on 17th July on Swara. Today officer Mr Lahre has returned Rs 3000 each to all 33 Baiga adivasis and they are very happy. Last week Mr Lahre had called on Swara to apologize and had promised to return the money within a week.

These success stories show that the service is being used as a sort of government watchdog site, with positive results.

Still, CGNet Swara users remain a minority in Chhattisgarh. A recent study of CGNet Swara, published in June, assessed the impact and success of the initiative:

As of December 2012, CGNet Swara had received 137,000 phone calls and posted 2,100 recordings. . .Currently, it publishes about three new posts and receives approximately 200 calls per day; thus, the vast majority of callers only listen to content. System posts were contributed by at least 715 distinct callers. As in many systems hosting user-generated content. . .the 10% most active contributors are responsible for a large fraction (51%) of the posts. More than 18,000 distinct callers have listened to content; of these, 2,850 are “regular” callers (they have called 10 or more times), while 7,500 people called the system only once. The 10% most active listeners are responsible for 61% of the phone calls. The average phone call is three minutes long, and the server streams approximately 10 hours of audio con- tent per day. The system is growing steadily, with roughly 25 new contributors authoring a post each month, and about 700 new listeners calling in for the first time.

Authors Preeti Mudliar, Jonathan Donner and William Thies concluded the success of CGNet Swara is due to its use of voice technology integrated with the web. Callers press two to listen to recent stories and one to record their own. After stories are vetted and verified by professional journalists, CGNet Swara sends an SMS alert to the contact list to let them know a new story is up. Stories are simultaneously posted on Facebook and Twitter as well.

CGNet uses open-source software and the most basic of system requirements, outlined on their about page, where they also extend an offer of guidance to organizations interested in setting up a similar service.

h/t Julia Wetherell

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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