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TRAC FM Stirs Debate in Uganda By Merging Radio and Data

BY Erin Byrnes | Wednesday, January 29 2014

A radio presenter using the TRAC FM online platform (credit: TRAC FM)

Margaret Caroline Adong, 33, doesn’t own a smartphone or have access to the Internet where she lives in the Serere district in rural Uganda but she does participate in every TRAC FM poll that she hears over the radio or receives a text about. This SMS-based polling platform facilitates citizen engagement with interactive radio programs in Uganda through data collection and a radio broadcast of the mapped poll results.

Adong says she likes the polls because of their educational value and that “it makes the brain busy a bit.” She adds, “You never know if it will help those who are listening and most especially the youth.”

In her spare time, Adong, who is a secretary, sometimes counsels young people and often discusses with them the questions she hears on TRAC FM to encourage them to respond to the radio polls. She said that encouraging debate and participating in discussions is a civic duty. In the past, she participated in Ekimeeza debates in her community. Now that they are banned, she keys in her opinion to TRAC FM via her cellphone.

During the contentious run-up to the 2011 election, the Ugandan government banned the popular Ekimeeza public debates, leaving radio journalists, already negotiating a repressive media environment, with fewer ways to engage audiences. Ekimeeza, a Lugandan term that means ‘big table,’ refers to the live radio broadcast of roundtable meetings in different towns and villages across the country that include tens or hundreds of people. The idea for the radio show, which began in 2004, is based on the popular tradition of village gatherings where social issues would be debated and discussed.

According to the latest Freedom House, Freedom of the Press Report, “Government officials often accused media houses of helping to incite violence by giving airtime to voices of dissent.” More recently, in a May 2013 press release from Human Rights Watch, responding to the closure of multiple newspapers and radio stations, senior Africa researcher Maria Burnett noted, “The police and government regulatory bodies in Uganda have a history of shutting down broadcasts without due process in times of political controversy.”

Ekimeeza had provided an opportunity for diverse people to voice their opinions, dissenting or otherwise, on government service delivery and leadership performance. After the ban, radio listeners could still call in to interactive radio programs, but only a few callers would be heard on-air. The sense of a general community response was gone, as was the debate, disagreement or consensus that occurred during the Ekimeeza, which were sometimes attended by local politicians or MPs.

Social scientist Wouter Dijkstra examined these interactive radio programs in 2009 to explore the possibilities for using new media to improve accountability and then created TRAC FM, which launched in May 2011.

Poll questions typically deal with accountability and governance and have included: “Do you think that the Kampala City Traders are right to keep shops closed in protest? Do you think Kiswahili should be introduced as a compulsory subject in school?” and, “Do you think that the government of Uganda under the leadership of President Museveni has done its best to fight corruption?”

Listeners respond to the radio polls by sending an SMS message to a toll-free short code. The TRAC FM system responds with a reply and a subscription request. The software automatically collates the responses, creates near real-time bar-chart data visualizations and plots the respondent’s locations on an online map.

The radio presenter can then share the results with listeners and use the data to formulate questions for guests including experts and politicians or the relevant authorities. The system also keeps a log of all the users and their responses and locations, which is used by TRAC FM in their demographic research and creation of user profiles.

How the TRAC FM website works (credit: TRAC FM)

Despite an initial delay in getting a radio station to adopt an unknown technology, TRAC FM experienced a participation rate higher than expected. Dijkstra initially predicted that 100 to 150 people would respond to a poll. Responses have varied but one poll on what area of service delivery the government should prioritize received a record 1400 responses in one hour. The majority felt that education should be prioritized.

Participants who choose to subscribe to TRAC FM receive reminders about polls and have the option to fill out a survey about their own demographic information. Dijkstra said that about 15 per cent of poll respondents subscribe. From the subscribed list, a sample of participants is profiled to determine who is participating in the debates. Within the TRAC FM sample, most people are between 20-30 years of age, 87 per cent are male, 13 per cent are female and teachers respond to service delivery questions more than any other group. Dijkstra uses the user data they collect to improve TRAC FM.

“We’re pretty sure that if there’s a female presenter we will get more female respondents, so in our follow-up shows this year we will try to get a female presenter or a co-host..,” said Dijkstra.

He said that participation rates are high because people know that their voices are being heard. “If you can make yourself be heard through the radio, that’s quite an empowering thought because they know how many people are listening,” said Dijkstra.

Dijkstra also explains that the choice of technology also plays a large role in TRAC FM’s success. “The whole basis of using radio was that it was so widespread and was a bit neglected in the whole drive to use new media and new technology,” said Dijkstra. “You see a lot of people focusing on internet and mobile phones while they are ignoring the older more established media and so in a way it was informed through looking at what kind of mass media was most used and seeing how new media could be adapted to work for that older type media platforms,” he said.

An example of the poll results displayed online (credit: TRAC FM)

“Recently there were a sequence of questions on lunch at school,” said Dijkstra, explaining that some children underperform or miss school because they aren’t eating during the day. Between November 29, 2012 and December 5, 2012, 713 people responded to the poll. 86 per cent of the respondents agreed that schools should charge parents a small fee to provide lunch for students.

RIC-NET, a community based organization focused on access to information, used this data to gather the support of civil society organizations, parents and people working in education. “The results of that poll were used to promote a policy to tell parents to pay a small amount of money for this lunch and that was drafted and then promoted by the local MP or regional education commissioner,” said Dijkstra. Twenty-three schools have now adopted the policy with some of their primary school classes.

In their first three years of operation, TRAC FM has expanded from working with one radio station to more than 25 stations throughout Uganda. Now they are in discussion with local partners to bring TRAC FM to Bangladesh, Brazil and Afghanistan, among others, and are already in the process of replicating TRAC FM in Tanzania and Somalia.

Erin Byrnes is a writer based in Uganda.

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