IAMCR conference abstract: Mobile Voices: Exploring participatory design for popular communication and social change

Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) researchers increasingly concur that the greatest socio-economic impact of mobiles will come from user-driven design and innovation. Following the Web 2.0 trend toward participatory culture, some ICT4D researchers are making the case for seeing users from disenfranchised groups as active producers and innovators, rather than passive consumers of technology. While this is a relatively new turn in the field’s literature, ICT4D’s critics have long been insisting on the need for the active participation of marginalized groups in identifying and producing their own solutions to community development, emphasizing local knowledge and horizontal dialogue. From this thinking, Popular communication and participatory media practices emerged as critical alternatives to the technologically-deterministic, vertical communication frameworks historically privileged by ICT4D and the field of development more broadly. These alternative practices locate social change as occurring first and foremost through the participatory process, rather than access to ICTs.

Participatory design (PD) directly involves users in technology development to increase the technology’s effectiveness while democratizing the design process and empowering users. PD’s theoretical and methodological compatibility with both user-driven ICT4D and popular communication practices is promising, and the proliferation of open source and mobile technologies makes it increasingly feasible. However, PD for citizen media, participatory media, or popular communication remains under-explored. Further, as MobileActive.org recently reported, few scalable examples exist. This presentation will review the initial findings of a qualitative case study of the outcomes—and their theoretical and methodological implications—of using a PD approach to develop a scalable, customizable, mobile communication platform for a popular communication project with low-wage immigrants in Los Angeles.

Mobile telephony is particularly well suited for low-wage immigrants, whose work necessitates mobility and for whom a lack of connectivity increases vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Mobile Voices, a collaboration between the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, is creating a customizable, minimal-cost, open source mobile storytelling platform to enable the participation of low-wage immigrants in the digital public sphere, enhance their capacity for community organizing, and further advance mobile telephony as a tool for social change. This case study explores the outcomes of Mobile Voices’ use of participatory design to develop the platform.

Through participant observation, interviews, and content analysis of the stories produced by immigrants using the platform, this study seeks to understand the transactional dimensions of the PD process; whether and how the process changed participants’ relationship to and use of technology; if the process contributed to empowerment in the form of increased self- and collective efficacy; and whether the PD process yielded a more relevant, less technologically-determined, and scalable communication system for social change.

[M. Brough, Feb. 2009]


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