(This was first posted at: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/melissa-brough/reflections-university-community-partnership-collective-inquiry)

Many of us within the HASTAC network have participated in university-community collaborations of some sort, so my guess is that many of us have experienced some of the challenges that arise when the political and epistemological cultures of academia run up against the epistemologies and cultures operating outside of the university gates, at the community level. In the case of Mobile Voices, the schedules, pressures, communication styles and needs of individual participants has varied significantly at times, always framed by the power differential between the university and the community of immigrant workers and organizers. Here I share some of my own reflections (and I emphasize that this is my personal perspective, not necessarily representative of the group).

In late January, several of the PhD students involved in Mobile Voices and two staff people from our community partner, IDEPSCA, sat down with Janna Shadduck-Hernandez to reflect on some of the challenges we’ve experienced, and learn from someone committed to working through such challenges toward shared goals of social justice. Janna has gained great insight through her participatory action research projects that combine organizing and social justice initiatives with arts and popular education. She offered us several suggestions based on her experiences, but most importantly, I think, helped us start to share and reflect on our own, in an effort to overcome some of the structural and social barriers to a truly productive university-community partnership.

Our combined goals for the conversation were to reflect on the Mobile Voices project thus far, to understand all participants’ and partners’ perspectives (broadly defined as USC and IDEPSCA, but also of each individual in their own right), to build trust and openness within the group, to learn from other similar partnerships, and to reach a shared understanding in order to promote the goals of the workers.

For me, some of the most useful learnings from this dialogue were:

· Collective inquiry (or participatory research) should start from collective theory building.

While many of us study theories of power, social change, communication, etc., what we have not done as a group (although just recently we’ve started to) is spend the time to develop—through a participatory and/or popular education process—our shared theory(s) of change. This perhaps starts with a critical analysis of the dynamics of power in which the project is embedded, from the societal to the institutional to the individual levels.

For various reasons, we skipped over this crucial component in the process of starting Mobile Voices, including in-depth group conversations with the workers about how the university-community partnership would be structured. Many conversations were had, of course, and a memorandum of agreement and a community advisory board was created toward this end. Yet more time could have been spent as a group on these crucial discussions.

Consensus of the group seemed to be that collective theory building, including power analysis and analysis of what we have learned in the project thus far, was a top priority for the coming months, and would help us reach a shared understanding of what collective inquiry and participatory research means to us and what methods or processes it implies.

· Building the infrastructure to support collective inquiry:

Janna recounted the many ways in which she and her collaborators have worked to develop an infrastructure of resources (drawn from the university) to support the community collaboration. This can include organizing class credit for participants, securing transportation for community members, asking for support from certain faculty, securing meeting and retreat spaces, and raising funds to pay organizers and even electricity bills; the point being that it’s crucial for the university partner to bring resources to the table. This helps counter the possibility of extractive research relationships, can help gain the trust of community members, and can help ensure that time and space is made so that people can participate. We have done this in many ways over the course of developing Mobile Voices, but we could have done more at the outset to map this out—i.e. to sit down and strategize all of the concrete resources we could harness and bring to the table from the beginning, and made explicit to our community partners. As Mobile Voices moves into a new phase, it might be appropriate to do this soon.

· Emphasizing process over outcome

Emphasizing the process as the primary outcome of a collaboration, such as a participatory media or participatory research project, has been articulated in the literature on participatory media and communication for social change for decades, but is often difficult to maintain in practice due to donor, university or other institutional expectations of concrete “deliverables”.

· Building trust

This depends to a great extent on the individuals involved, as well as the processes mentioned above. And time. One thing I continue to experience in Mobile Voices is the importance of face-to-face time, no matter how sophisticated our technologies become! Also key to building trust is the management of expectations and meeting commitments that are made.

I’m quite sure that all of these ‘learnings’ are readily and frequently available in the literature on academic-community partnerships, but each process is also unique and each learning curve distinct. One thing our conversation with Janna reaffirmed for me was the importance of reflecting on the specificities of our own process, which I only started to do here but which we have continued to do as a group over the course of this semester. A key outcome of this was a strategic planning process that included the drafting of some shared definitions of key concepts in our partnership. (See http://dev.vozmob.net/projects/vozmob/wiki/Stakeholder_Strategy_for_University-based_Researchers-and-Practitioners)

For me, this dialogue with Janna was an important step in my own sensitization to the complex dynamics involved in collective inquiry, participatory research, and community-academic partnerships. We are continuing this work this week, with a group discussion of power dynamics within and around the project.

Posted by: Benjamin Stokes | April 16, 2010

Debrief from our virtual panel (HASTAC 2010)

As promised, today the Mobile Voices team presented a virtual conference panel as part of HASTAC’s Grand Challenges and Global Innovations Conference. It was entirely online.  Our group had never presented virtually before, so below we document a little of the experience and provide some archives.

Here we are, preparing for the session:

(That’s Natalie, Carmen, Manuel, and Sasha.)

Then it was time to begin! We were using a free trial of dimdim webinar to unify our streaming video, prepared slides, and live chat room for simultaneous translation and Q&A.  We made simultaneous use of Google Wave that HASTAC had started for us, plus Twitter via #hastac10 and #vozmob (see visual capture).

To personalize the experience, we began with a video from VozMob volunteer Madelou.   Filmed this week, the video shows the faces of some of the people on the project, bringing real personality to our virtual panel.  Here’s the video:

The full experience included chat (see our chat log); and here’s the video that combines our slides and voices (you’ll have to forward past the first 10 minutes of silence):

(Note that there was also a live video stream of the presenters — but because DimDim doesn’t include this in its archive, we cannot repost it here; but at least you have our voices!)

More pictures, etc., to come — feel free to leave comments below or on the wave for this panelThanks again to our participants — Alma, Amanda, Benjamin, Carmen, Diana, Madelou, Manuel, Natalie, Sasha, and Veronica!

Posted by: François | March 27, 2010

Overcoming the limitations of MMS

Our experience with Vozmob has shown that narrated slide shows constitute a powerful way to tell stories directly from mobile phones (click on the picture in this post for an example). The tools to produce such stories are embedded in virtually every phone: the built-in camera, microphone and MMS composer that come bundled even in the cheapest phones. Producing such stories is intuitive and natural: users hardly need any training before they can snap a picture and talk into the phone to add an audio description or interview someone. Sending the picture(s) and audio track bundled as a narrated slide show through the phone’s MMS interface is also straightforward. Vozmob takes advantage of that simplicity to instantly upload the narrated slide shows to the vozmob.net web site.

But MMS is not without challenges. Depending on the country, carrier, or phone model, configuring MMS settings can be frustrating. Once sent, MMS narrated slideshows come in a vexing array of undocumented formats, requiring post-processing through filters before they can be uploaded to a web site. Furthermore, in some countries MMS prices are prohibitively high, making it impractical without some way to subsidize participants. In particular, Spain’s MMS prices are among the highest: it costs 1 euro to send one MMS with the three main carriers (movistar, orange, and vodafone), 30 cents of euro for upstart yoigo. 1 euro is about $1.50, or 150 times what it costs in the US when buying MMS as part of messaging bundles.

Yet, existing alternatives to MMS for sending narrated slide shows are not appealing. There are two families of approaches. The first is to use a high-end phone with an internet connection, capable of uploading multimedia content directly to a web site. For people like most vozmob users, who can’t afford such phones nor the pricy data plans they require, this is a non-starter. The second approach is to download all the media elements (pictures and sounds) from the phone to a computer, then use multimedia editing software on the computer to create a narrated slide show, then upload the result from the computer. Compared with sending an MMS, this is cumbersome: one needs to find a computer (most vozmob participants do not have one, so they need to go to a cybercafe or public access venue), figure out how to download content (which is by no means trivial: getting the right cable is difficult, public access computers seldom have bluetooth, and once the phone is connected to the computer, getting the files downloaded is not intuitive), then find software to edit the multimedia object (which, in cybercafes and locutorios, usually means using windows moviemaker, thus producing enormous files, out of proportion with the lightweight pictures and audio files you started with), and finally uploading the resulting multimedia object to the web. That second approach, while technically feasible, constitutes such an obstacle course that very few people are likely to follow through with it and, if they do, are unlikely to do it more than occasionally. By contrast, we have shown with vozmob that people with only access to a basic phone and MMS have no problem sending several stories per day.

The current challenge is to find an alternative to MMS for places where, like Spain, MMS is prohibitively expensive, or cases where, like in the US, setting up unlocked phones for MMS is sometimes impossible. Can we come up with a cheap/free approach to creating a narrated slide show on a basic phone and uploading it to the internet, in a way that is intuitive and straightforward enough for people with limited time, skills, or technology resources?

Here are some possible approaches, to start a conversation:

1)Streamline the download/edit/upload process: design a workshop where users learn to download media from their phone to a public access computer, compose a narrated slide show on that computer, and upload it to vozmob.net. This would involve specifying a few options for cheap mobile devices that have adequate capabilities (e.g. decent camera, connectivity through USB cable or bluetooth) and basic editing software that could be carried around on USB drive (slide show editor, ideally free and opensource). The goal would be an affordable toolkit (phone, cable, USB drive) that users could bring to any public access setting, locutorios, telecenters, or libraries.

2)In-browser slideshow composer: individual media objects (pictures, sounds) captured on the phone are uploaded directly to a user’s space on vozmob.net [see #1 above, skipping the editing step]. Users would then use an in-browser editor (e.g. drupal’s kaltura module, or something else we would develop) to assemble these components into a narrated slide show.

3)Extending the phone-based MMS composer: current MMS composers can only send narrated slideshows through the phone’s MMS interface. We could explore hacking the MMS composer to allow sending those via bluetooth, USB, or Wifi as well. This would allow users to still use the built-in slideshow composer to create multimedia objects, then send them to a computer or another phone which can then be used to upload them to vozmob.net. One possible use scenario would be for people to create slideshows on their phones as they go through their day and store them as ‘draft'; they periodically would come to a project center, or within proximity of a project coordinator with a laptop or phone that could ‘harvest’ the slideshows and upload them.

4)Creating a phone-based slideshow application: #3 above may not be possible, so we would create an alternative slideshow composer that could be installed on participants’ phones and would allow sharing of slideshows through any network interface available on the phone. Slideshows would then be transferred to a PC or other phone, from which they could be uploaded to vozmob.net. (there are existing candidates we could review, such as the carrousel Melissa described).

Do you know of anyone currently experimenting with these kinds of approaches? Can you think of better ways?

Posted by: Benjamin Stokes | March 15, 2010

Save the date: Presenting at HASTAC 2010

On April 16, the Mobile Voices team will present a virtual panel from 1-2 pm PT. Our panel is part of HASTAC’s Grand Challenges and Global Innovations Conference. It’s free and all online!

[Update per 4/16/2010: The session went great — see our update for details.]

Posted by: François | March 12, 2010

Free advertising for “jardineros verdes”

Following up on the search engine optimization thread, I did a google search for “jardineros verdes” and “jardineria verde”, and vozmob.net comes up respectively #1 and #2 (in the second case, right below http://jardinverde.com). This reflects the repeated use of the phrase in vozmob stories , along with the fact we now embed keywords in the urls (like: http://vozmob.net/es/content/tercer-taller-jardineros-verdes). Not a bad way to promote this new IDEPSCA program.

It might be interesting to translate these stories, and to see how vozmob then ranks on “green gardening” and “green gardeners” searches. (for the moment, vozmob isn’t among the first 250 results)

We probably don’t want to push this too far, but it could be worth bringing this up in one of the workshops. There may be other key phrases people want to start using…

Posted by: melmb | February 8, 2010

Bluetooth, Big Boards & Digital Storytelling

A few other holidays have come and gone and I’m only now getting around to writing about Thanksgiving. But better now than never.

In November I was in Cape Town on a research trip with Charlotte Lapsansky and we had the chance to visit the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town. We met with Jonathan Donner, a researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group at Microsoft Research India, currently based in South Africa. Jonathan has done a lot of ethnographic research on information & communication technology (ICT) use–mobile phones in particular–in developing country contexts. He has observed a “Bluetooth phenomenon” in Khayelitsha, one of South Afriaca’s largest townships that is home to over two million people. People of all ages are sharing music and photos through their phones via Bluetooth.

A collaborator of Jonathan’s and professor at UCT, Gary Marsden, introduced us to several of his MA and PhD students who are developing innovative uses of ICTs, also using Bluetooth. Working in a country with approximately 10% of the population using the Internet, they are focusing primarily on developing the potential of mobile phones to meet the communication needs of marginalized and under-resourced communities. (There are of course communities in U.S. that face similar economic, political and social constraints to internet access and digital participation.)

Of relevance to Mobile Voices and others working with digital storytelling tools is a project that Thomas Reitmaier is working on as his masters thesis to create a mobile-based digital storytelling software for oral and sometimes illiterate users. The software functions have visual icons for each command (instead of text), and stories can be pieced together from photographs and audio recordings taken on the phones. The software allows you to edit the story in the phone using a carousel layout. They started the project in collaboration with Nicola Bidwell who spent 3-4 months in the Eastern Cape of South Africa doing an ethnographic study to assess the needs of oral users and inform the design. Here is a video about it.

This is an intriguing project because it allows for easier editing within the phone, it can–at least in theory–run on any phone that has photo and audio recording capabilities, and most notably, does so with a respect for different forms and levels of literacy. But there are also a few drawbacks. Most significantly, perhaps, is whether this project will be fully developed and sustainable since it is a student project with minimal funding. So far it has been piloted with communities in Kenya and is currently being evaluated in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, but whether and how it will be distributed remains uncertain.

Another project that Gary is overseeing, supported by Microsoft Research, is the development of a “Big Board” that uses Bluetooth technology to cut out the costs to end users of sharing information with an unlimited number of people via mobile phones (see http://people.cs.uct.ac.za/~gaz/proj/bb.html). The Big Board is a large poster or TV screen with icons to represent information on various topics; the user can take a picture of the icon on their phone and send it via Bluetooth to the server (a Microsoft based mobile phone or computer) that will then send the relevant information to your phone (again via Bluetooth) in the form of an SMS. At the low-budget end, organizations or communities could use a paper poster as the Big Board, and the system could be programmed to recognize the icons on the poster and send the user the relevant information. A nearby cell phone acting as the server could be the information hub. This could be an interesting way of using mobile phones to inexpensively share information and organize communities, if community members know how to use Bluetooth and are trained to use the Big Board. At the higher-end, using a flat screen TV as the Big Board could allow for more interactive use and more easily updated content.

We have explored Bluetooth as a tool for the Mobile Voices project, and some of the workers who are helping develop the system have been using Bluetooth to transfer their photographs from their phones to computers. However, given resource constraints and IDEPSCA’s interest in being able to send information (e.g. action alerts) out to their dispersed network of workers and organizers using our system, we were unable to limit our system design to Bluetooth technology. Unfortunately, this means we remain dependent on cell phone service providers to send stories via SMS and MMS. The cost of doing so is one of the challenges and limitations of our system, which is why the work being done at UCT was particularly interesting to me.

In addition, it seems that some of the challenges facing the developers at UCT are ones that we wrestle with in Mobile Voices; e.g. how to bridge the academic-community divide, how to ensure that ideas are developed collaboratively with the direct involvement of the community/users, and how to make them sustainable. It has also been interesting to learn more about the interface of corporations like Nokia and Microsoft with research on ICT use in the ‘Global South’, where different communication contexts, needs and creativity are driving different kinds of appropriation and innovation–and attracting the attention of corporations in search of new ideas and emerging markets. But that is a topic for another post.

(Also posted here: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/melissa-brough/bluetooth-big-boards-digital-storytelling)

[Nota: Espero que traducir esto a espanol pronto!]

Posted by: François | January 28, 2010

Tracking vozmob’s influence

One central motivation pushing current vozmob users to write their stories, they tell us, is their desire to change the image of day laborers, and of immigrants in general. This was starkly brought home when, during one of the vozmob Tuesday night workshops, they googled “day laborer” and discovered that the first search result was a hate site listed with the following description: “Day Laborers: Some of the most violent murderers, rapists, and child molesters, are illegal aliens who work as day laborers.” By publishing true stories about their daily lives, vozmober@s dream they might some day knock down that top search result.

Are we having any effect, by that standard? There are signs that we might. For example, following vozmob’s coverage of the household workers national conference last November in Oakland, CA, a google search for “trabajadoras de casa” done on January 26 2010 returns vozmob in 6th position (that’s on the French google.fr site. On the U.S. google.com, vozmob is the 8th result). When searching for “jornalero”, vozmob is now the 33rd result. And searching for “day laborer”, vozmob now comes up #188 – still too far down the list to make a dent in the top rank of hateful daylaborers.org, but visible nonetheless.

As we prepare to re-design the vozmob.net site, broaden the participant base, and publicize the site more widely in the coming months, this seems a good time to start tracking our search rank more systematically. Using rank checker, a firefox extension, I have set up a weekly rank search on google, yahoo, and live for the following keywords (suggestions for additions are welcome):

  • jornalero
  • jornaleros
  • day laborer
  • day laborers
  • trabajadoras de casa
  • household workers
  • immigration
  • inmigracion

Below are today’s results. Let’s see how this evolves.

Keyword Google position URL Yahoo position URL Live position URL
jornalero 33 vozmob.net/en/node/6074 7 http://vozmob.net/es/node/6074 78 http://vozmob.net/es/node/4885
jornaleros 73 vozmob.net/es/node/6114 55 http://vozmob.net/en/node/5961 -
day laborer 188 vozmob.net/es/aggregator/sources/3 - -
day laborers - 116 http://vozmob.net/es/aggregator/sources/3 -
trabajadoras de casa 8 vozmob.net/es/node/5428 14 http://vozmob.net/household 36 http://vozmob.net/es/node/5426
household workers - - -
immigration - - -
inmigracion - - -
Posted by: schock | December 11, 2009

VozMobCMS 0.2

We recently completed several new features over at VozMob (http://vozmob.net). As you know if you’re following this blog, VozMob stands for mobile voices / voces moviles, and on the technical side it’s Drupal based mobile blogging that lets users post text, photo, video, and audio via sms, mms, and phone calls (no data plan or app download needed). You can find our full release of v0.2 on github: http://code.vozmob.net.

New features that are tested and now live:

User Friendly SMS/MMS Registration. That means on first post, a user receives an sms asking if they want to register an account, if they say yes, they get an account and a default password. Code is here. (If you want to see the issue tracker: http://dev.vozmob.net/issues/138).

New MMS Filters: Sprint MMS (issue tracker), Virgin Mobile (issue tracker). We need these because the phone providers add a bunch of crap (ads, etc) to sms and mms messages. These filters remove the crap. The code for all the filters is here.

Send MMS to phones (issue tracker: http://dev.vozmob.net/issues/show/17)

Rotate pictures
: because lots of people take mobile phone pictures sideways :)

Our roadmap is here: http://dev.vozmob.net/projects/vozmob/wiki/Roadmap

We are trying to properly release everything to modules on DO (that’s Drupal.org) as quickly as we can but as you know that involves tracking down various module maintainers :)


Posted by: François | October 7, 2009

Participatory choices about design

“Design” is not simply about coming up with ideas but, often more importantly, picking among ideas and deciding which ones to implement. Because development resources are finite, priorities need to be set, choices need to be made.

In our thinking about participatory design, we have so far mostly discussed participation in the generation of ideas. It would be interesting to examine as well how we handle participation in the choices among those ideas, how we generate and share information about the costs of various alternatives.

One interesting source of data on these costs is redmine, the system we use to track system development. Because our programmers keep track of the time they spend on developing features and fixing bugs (that is the basis upon which they get paid), we have good data on how much we are spending on individual features. With a bit of cleanup and categorization, this data could give use a fairly accurate picture of the relative costs of various vozmob design features.

Assessment of our participatory design process should include checking whether users are aware of these relative costs, so we can gauge the extent to which they have participated meaningfully in making choices among the related features. A next step would be to figure out better ways to communicate these relative costs (including cost estimates for future features) so that vozmob users can more fully participate in design choices going forward.

Posted by: François | October 6, 2009

Translating vozmob (2)

Ultimately, we’re hoping that projects like ours can help bridge conversations across communities that seldom talk together (but often do scream at each other). We believe that a useful starting point is for people to tell their own stories, so that others can begin to understand who they are rather than simply judge them by how they are portrayed. Thus the vozmob platform, making it possible for immigrant workers in L.A. to tell their stories in their own words, pictures, sounds and videos, using a readily available tool – the mobile phone in their pocket. That storytelling is of course immensely worthwhile in itself, as storytellers develop self and collective awareness, and build literacy skills. But for it to have a real impact beyond their community, the stories need to be accessible to people who don’t understand Spanish. This is not only a translation issue – we can learn to tell stories with pictures and sounds and video, as several stories on vozmob have done quite effectively, or with maps, and we’re interested in exploring those possibilities. But in many cases, translation becomes crucial – translation of text (SMS, MMS’s text fields, or text entered into the vozmob blog from a computer), but also translation of speech (story told into a phone, speeches or interviews recorded with a phone), soundtracks from videos, or texts that appear in photos. I mention all these different modes because each poses distinct challenges, each is amenable to different technical solutions, and to different translation processes. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of things we’ve tried, thought about, or would like to explore:

– Text: our CMS currently allows any registered blogger to translate any blog post and its title, as written text. That can serve as well to transcribe speech, soundtracks or text on images, and to translate those transcriptions. So far, we’re relying on volunteers to do this (see examples at http://vozmob.net/translated or http://vozmob.net/traducido), and we have no ‘quality control’ process – no good way to note whether a translator/translation is good or not, to provide feedback, suggestions or edits to translators in a systematic way. We’ve talked about teaming up with a Spanish language class or with an ESL class offered by IDEPSCA, and about crowd-sourcing translations, which could be improved collectively on a wiki blog node. Any pointer to groups that do this well would be appreciated. We’re interested in both tools and process.

– Sounds: All we’ve done so far is the occasional transcription/translation into text mentioned above. An obvious improvement would be subtitles, in the original language and/or translated. We’re aware of sites like dotsub, Suggestions about doing something like that would be welcome as well (any dotsub-like plugin we could use with Drupal?). Also, we haven’t yet talked about dubbing, but that might be an interesting avenue to explore, especially since we soon will be able to send content back to phones on which reading text or subtitles may not be easy.

– Content management / context: Drupal’s own interface is mostly translated in Spanish (less thoroughly so in Portuguese or French). We’ve set up our site so that administrators can contribute translations back to the drupal mother ship when they run into something that’s missing. We’ve also used a somewhat haphazard approach to bilingual tags – e.g. we have used both ‘mujeres’ (http://vozmob.net/mujeres) and ‘women’ (http://vozmob.net/taxonomy/term/75) as tags, not really consistently. There is probably a drupal way to connect them… we should look into it.

– Machine translation and Text-to-speech is something we haven’t really looked into yet, except for occasionally generating first drafts of translations using google’s translate tool (with mixed success, partly because the original Spanish text often includes colloquial expressions, mis-spellings, etc).

I’m probably forgetting some aspects and will let others chime in. But generally, we’re interested in thinking through good ways to conduct these bilingual (or multilingual) multimedia conversations, we’d like to be in touch with others who are wrestling with this and who have found approaches that work, pointers to useful tools, etc. And of course, we always welcome volunteer translators – all they need to do is sign up on the site and get going.

(related post: https://vozmob.wordpress.com/2008/12/08/translating-vozmob-content/)

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