The state of Chhattisgarh, located in the center-east of the country, has the lowest internet penetration in India, making it difficult for people to access traditional online media; but an online citizen journalism portal run by Shubranshu Choudhury has been helping solve the problem since 2010. In a region that is typically ignored by the mainstream media, CGNet Swara makes it possible for the indigenous people of Chhattisgarh to spread local news. using basic mobile phones.
Thanks to the innovation of CGNet Swara, villagers in the central area of Gondwana now use Bluetooth, which does not require internet or a mobile phone network, to connect and spread news, music and other entertainment files with people in their communities :
When @CGnet_Swara’S team learned that villagers in #India’S remote Maoist region were using Bluetooth to share music, an idea clicked – could they also use it to share news? So they created an app & recruited #citizenjournalists to do exactly that. Read: https://t.co/I7VHfSo9hZ pic.twitter.com/LQqjjzWoxC
– ICFJ (@ICFJ) January 17, 2020
When the CGNet Swara team learned that villagers from a remote Maoist region of India were using Bluetooth to broadcast music, an idea occurred to them: could they also use it to spread news? So they created an application and recruited citizen-journalists to do exactly that. Read: https://t.co/I7VHfSo9hZ
From mainstream to hyperlocal
As a producer in South Asia for BBC television and radio during the 1990s and early 2000s, Shubhranshu Choudhary realized in his travels in the region that frustration over problems such as poverty, lack of medical care, unemployment and crime, he was leading the people of his home state, Chhattisgarh, to join the Naxalite-Maoist communist insurgency. The radical left-wing communists accused the authorities of not responding to their demands and got involved in an armed conflict with the state governments, and persuaded the disgruntled villagers (who wanted to be heard and taken seriously) to be join.
After leaving the BBC to go to work in Chhattisgarh, Choudhary joined the Knight International Jornalism Fellowship association to address the problems of media deprivation in the region. He immediately saw the need to develop strategies to overcome the slow internet connectivity and reach the local tribal population, with many illiterates and only speakers of their native languages.
This is how CGNet Swara was born. Choudhary developed the news and current affairs portal based on the mobile phone with the technical expertise of Microsoft's principal investigator, Bill Thies, and Microsoft Research India launched the service in 2010.
Choudhary taught people in the local community to produce audio news reports with their mobile phones; since then, thousands of articles have been produced, especially in local languages. Users themselves decide the issues, ranging from local land, sanitation and health issues, to crime and human rights:
In the eight years since its launch, CGNet Swara, a voice portal for internet-bare rural India, has logged over a million calls and published more than 10,000 reports. https://t.co/wAtkrmcR6W
– Manish Singh (@refsrc) October 22, 2018
Mark on “Voicebook”, audio news source for rural India.
CGNet Swara spreads local news by phone to the inhabitants of central India, where only 3% of people have internet.
In the eight years since its launch, CGNet Swara, a voice portal for rural India without the Internet, has registered more than one million calls and published more than 10,000 articles.
To use the interactive voice response (IVR) service, users call a toll-free line and record their message responding to instructions such as “Press 1 to record a new message.” Then, a group of professional journalists access the system with an interface on the web to review and verify the news. Once approved, the news is made available for reproduction by phone, as well as on the CGNet Swara website for a wider audience.
The arrival of the application
Once the IVR system was well established, it was time for the next phase of development. In 2014, Krittika D'Silva, then a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, United States, conceived the interactive application CGNet Swara. As low-end Android smartphones became cheaper and many villagers could acquire them, this mobile application was designed to support interactive voice forums in which users could record their own messages (and listen to other users' messages). Useful features include the possibility of publishing photos via the internet and playing messages offline, which can also be broadcast via Bluetooth or via an SD card.
Launch of ‘Bultoo’ (Bluetooth service)
The success of the voice version of the CGNet platform put the service in a situation of financial crisis, as important monthly telephone bills were incurred on the toll-free line.
One winter morning in 2015, Choudhary discovered that the children were exchanging audio and video files via Bluetooth with their mobile phones. When he asked them, they told him they were carrying out “Bultoo”. It was a revealing moment.
Bluetooth technology was the perfect mobile connectivity option to revolutionize local data transfer with mobile phones. It is affordable, uses little power, works at close range (usually 10 meters) and two devices can be easily paired to transfer files and data.
With the help of the Chhattisgarh government, Choudhary tested the radio program “Bultoo” or “Voicebook” in 2016, which encouraged users to record the news on their phones and to address the citizen-journalists trained in their area to Transfer content via Bluetooth. It was no longer necessary to send voice calls, which minimized costs. The messages were verified and then converted into internet radio programs and uploaded to the CGNet Swara website, from where they could be downloaded for free. Once the programs were downloaded and available as an audio file, a community media provider (CMV) picked them up and then went house to house to deliver the “Bultoo” radio to each customer's phone.
Later an improved interface was launched that allows to easily spread the recordings through the application, using Bluetooth.
CGNet Swara also devised an incentive plan for community media sellers to be compensated for their efforts, which allowed them to be paid five Indian rupees (seven cents) for each story they disseminated through the application through Bluetooth, which can then be redeemed.
Is broadcasting via Bluetooth the future to penetrate dark areas?
In 2019, despite the fact that the country only has an internet penetration of 31% in mobile telephony, India experienced the largest number of Internet blockades, with more than a hundred cases monitored. Because alternative communication channels and applications that use wireless and Bluetooth networks are increasingly used by activists and other communities that want to have a voice, CGNet Swara's successful use of Bluetooth to spread content can be widely replicated.
However, there is still a long way to go. The Android application is not yet available in the Google Play store nor is there an iOS version; It must be downloaded from the CGNet Swara website, but the NGO is currently investigating whether this increased connectivity can help create a sustainable economic model.