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Can Proximity WiFi Networks Offer An Alternative Distribution Channel To Publishers?

Facebook’s changing its algorithm, again. For news publishers it exposes their vulnerability of relying on a platform that will always put its own interests first. So the scramble goes on to reach audiences in meaningful ways.

It draws the focus to how alternative, decentralised technology infrastructure can challenge these powerhouse gatekeepers of the Internet, offering communities alternative ways to create and share stories about their local life. In the growing trend of multimedia and mobile content consumption what digital tools make local, relevant and valuable information accessible and ‘findable’ to audiences that would otherwise be drowned out by the noise of the Internet?

Field trials of lightweight community connectivity systems go some way to evidencing a different approach that fit with the UN’s sustainable cities and communities goal. Rather than relying on Google and Facebook as distribution platforms, decentralised proximity technology serves news and information in hyperlocality. The technical determiner of news relevance is no longer an Internet giant’s algorithm, but rather hyperlocal place.

WiFi-based distribution systems offer accessible networks without the need for applications. In a prototype deployed in three remote villages of Armenia, online content from seven news providers was adapted as static pages served and distributed as offline content in hyperlocal locations such as bus stops, health centres or village buildings. It allows content to be tailored to place. The decentralised typology allows publishers to pinpoint to the nearest few meters what content is consumed where by who: invaluable information in the battle to find a viable business model. This precision of news data analytics is not available to publishers via the Internet giants, particularly not in rural, or restricted environments such as Armenia. Moreover when fully operational, one device can connect to the Internet to receive real-time content and then distribute amongst other devices offline when the network is in mesh formation thus acting as a solution to information access where Internet connectivity is problematic, limited or costly.

Distributing content in this way overcomes a central problem: many people want to find information relevant to where they are and who is close to them via their mobile phone – what Facebook would describe as ‘meaningful interactions‘.  It also needs exploring as an alternative for the millions of people worldwide without reliable Internet connectivity. This type of infrastructure has the added benefit of easily adding tools for community storytelling. Users are encouraged to write and share stories about their own life, via for example a WordPress blog, thus emerging their own habits and preferences about what content they want to consume where, even to some extent shaping a place-based news agenda.

However, even in rural communities, where most users have mobile phones but cannot afford a data connection, the tendency is to rely on social networks such as Facebook or in the Russian territories Odnoklassniki. They understand and expect distribution that’s always new, always instant, always two-way. An offline decentralised mobile-ready alternative needs much explaining, and technical support to keep it operational in outdoor environments.

The impact of location-based services within the journalistic context has only been addressed in a handful of studies to date. Nyre et al. (2012) developed a location-based news project called LocaNews that found it difficult to write for location. Schmitz Weiss (2013) found that newsrooms use place-based mobile applications mainly for traffic or weather reports while young adults were consuming news on their smartphones and there was a high use of location-based services including consumption of local news content through such services. Thus pointing to a gap between what news consumers are doing and using on their smartphones and what news organizations are able to provide when it comes to geo-located news content.

A step change is needed to emerge meaningful user-friendly and efficient alternatives that map to user demand. More projects future scoping information systems that can disrupt news disruption are needed. These need to explore:

  • What comparisons can be drawn between the effectiveness of web applications, beacons, WiFi typologies, geofencing, narrowcasting, Near Field Communication, Global Positioning Systems, Radio Frequency Identification and more to explore new mix-and-match models of hyperlocal distribution.
  • How can users be inspired to engage with offline mesh formations perhaps via cost sharing, community engagement or other publishing benefits
  • To understand content popularity based on place. While there is some understanding to what is consumed where there is little work to unpick why. An ability to understand why content is more popular based on location would further enable news providers to provide better experiences.
  • The availability of news data consumption analytics in hyperlocal place for further opportunities to understand and match instantly what is needed at location: a new model to be explored at scale.
  • Relevant revenue opportunities such as digital placemaking, active citizen nudges paid on commission, conversion of passing footfall, and  cost-saving benefits for communities. Further insights into revenue possibilities for publishers in politically pressured environments would be of particular value.

Guest post by Clare Cook @cecook co-founder of the Media Innovation Studio

For further details please refer to the project report for CAST – Discovery Amplification Sustainability and Interactions, a WiFi proximity broadcasting prototype deployed in three remote villages of Armenia.

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Raspberry Pi: A Paradigm Shift for ICT4D?

29 October 2012 8 comments

Here at the Centre for Development Informatics we’ve spent years avoiding a techno-centric approach to ICT4D.  But . . . we are rather excited about Raspberry Pi.

If you don’t already know it, Raspberry Pi is not a low-cost computer.  It’s an ultra-low-cost computer (see photo below)[1].  And it was the subject of a recent demonstration and discussion workshop (see links for video) for CDI members in Manchester.  This focused on the development-related potential of Pi and its add-on interface ”Pi-Face”, which is being developed at the University of Manchester by Andrew Robinson.

Although credit card-sized, Pi is a fully-functioning computer.  Hook up a keyboard, mouse and monitor and away you can go with Linux and, for example, OpenOffice.  And, as noted, it is ultra-low-cost.  The actual production costs will depend on scale, with the economics catching even Raspberry Pi Foundation – the non-profit creators – by surprise.  Expecting they might eventually ship around 10,000 Pis, they have already shipped more than one million.

At those sorts of production scales, costs for Pi could be reduced to around the US$15-20 mark.  Adding a keyboard, mouse and Pi-Face will stack less than US$2 on top, and looking at similar products it is likely that a small screen can be produced for US$15.  Of course, cost is not the same as price but we are talking of a complete computer system that will likely cost less than US$35 to produce and perhaps US$50-60 to buy.  Just the Pi-plus-Pi-Face combination could be supplied to developing countries for as little as US$25.

In many ways, its key attributes are those of a mobile phone (not surprising since it runs with the same ARM chipset you’ll find in many mobiles):

  • Very low cost puts it into the category of “semi-disposable” device, and a ready addition to many other innovations without breaking the bank.
  • Its robustness and low maintenance requirements make it particularly suitable to harsh developing country environments.
  • Its small size and portability make it suitable for applications that other computers can’t reach.
  • It has very low power consumption, so can work more easily in electrical off-grid environrments.

But it’s not a mobile phone, and you can’t use it for calls and text.  What it does do is connect readily to a host of other devices.  And, unlike a mobile phone, it is easy to customise, using common open source software and “tinker-able” hardware components.  All run by a .org not a .com organisation.

Raspberry Pi may just fizzle and die, without much effect on international development.  But the potential is certainly there for it to paradigm shift ICT4D.  The mobile phone explosion has shifted ICT4D’s emphasis towards the “C”, with widespread acceptance that “m-development” models will dominate.  Raspberry Pi could shift us back towards the “I”; towards the computing and data processing and automation that were the origins of ICT4D in the 1970s and 1980s but which have fallen by the wayside.

At present, Pi is a solution looking for development problems, but three application areas spring to mind:

a)    Micro-enterprise and household computing: providing access to standard computing applications not for the community but for the individual enterprise and household.  Add an Internet connection and we might call it not OLPC (the One Laptop per Child initiative) but OTPH: a one telecentre per household approach that moves us beyond community computing models.

b)    Technical education: the prime motivation behind Pi was to reignite interest in computing as a subject among schoolchildren.  There’s a great thirst for IT education in schools, colleges and universities in developing countries but budgetary constraints are a major barrier (see earlier blog entry on revising computing curricula in Africa).  Pi can help to overcome those – the possibility is that it could do all the OLPC does at half the price, and allow kids to open the box and play about much more, learning how IT works.

c)     Data collection and automation applications: there’s a trickle of new electronic applications for development – smart motor controllers that save power and extend motor life, low-cost health monitors, water quality and climate change measurement devices, field-based agricultural sensors.  Raspberry Pi could turn that trickle into at least a stream if not a flood.

The promise of Pi, at root, is to enable a new ICT4D innovation paradigm: one in which Pis are widely used and understood within developing countries, and in which grassroots innovation is really possible for the first time in the ICT4D domain (see earlier blog entry on grassroots ICT4D innovation).  There’s no reason the same informal sector micro-entrepreneurs who now fix mobile phones can’t also work with Raspberry Pi.  But they can customise and adapt this technology much more than they can a mobile phone.  It can therefore be appropriated far more by the base of the pyramid.

Pi also allows a new model of collaborative innovation: that done working alongside base-of-the-pyramid consumers.  Large firms, university departments, social enterprises can now afford rapid, mass prototyping – trying out and iterating quickly through many different models until they find one that works.

As yet, of course, this is promise not reality, and one can foresee plenty of issues around everything from distribution through support and training to growth in e-waste.  But the international development impact of Raspberry Pi – good or bad, large or small, paradigm-shifting or incremental – is up for grabs.  Over to you.

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