Empowering rural digital communities in the developing world and the UK


Summary of the impact: Research in the area of mobile digital storytelling conducted at Swansea University has shown that hundreds of millions of people are disempowered by lack of appropriate digital devices, services and infrastructure. In a programme of research starting with real users in communities in rural India, Southern Africa and rural UK, we designed, developed and tested new systems, leading to the integration and delivery of new techniques and platforms by major service providers.  

Open source software developed to simplify media creation and sharing is being used by communities around the world, and has been downloaded more than 25,000 times. The research has increased awareness of “digital divide” issues and has changed attitudes in technology companies and public audiences.

Underpinning research

The underpinning research was carried out between 2006 and 2012 in a series of related projects concerning the digital divide, beginning with the StoryBank project, reported in [1], an international peer reviewed long paper in ACM CHI. From the outset our research was conducted with representative end-user communities (e.g., Budikote, India, population 3,000) and partner organisations (NGOs, local offices of Nokia, IBM and others). 

Research findings showed that mainstream, user-generated content services were inappropriate for communities with any of the following characteristics: lack of a digital network or bandwidth capacity; relatively low access to standard computing facilities; low amounts of locally-relevant digital content; low computer literacy; or low textual literacy. Such communities, which we worked alongside, are found across developing world regions (e.g., rural India, Africa, Central America) as well as in some areas of developed countries (e.g., rural Wales). 

We established that, while the mobile phone is available to many people, regardless of region, mainstream media production and sharing features do not provide usable and useful ways for these communities to interact.

Similarly, while mainstream users can upload content to remote providers such as Facebook, our target communities need alternative methods to collectively produce and access equivalent content due, for example, to poor bandwidth or lack of literacy

We also found that bandwidth connection limitations and lack of affordable data plans mean that many users do not have the sorts of mobile information access that affluent users take for granted. We identified the value of local networking and providing sophisticated interactions over basic telephone line, and researched how to overcome these barriers through cheaper transmission methods, including content caching, Bluetooth, and the telephone network, combined with our improved, more accessible, user interfaces. 

[1] David M. Frohlich, Dorothy Rachovides, Kiriaki Riga, Ramnath Bhat, Maxine Frank, Eran Edirisinghe, Dhammike Wickramanayaka, Matt Jones, and Will Harwood. 2009. StoryBank: mobile digital storytelling in a development context. In Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1761-1770.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1518701.1518972

Details of the impact

The toolkits developed from the research have delivered societal, economic, and public engagement impacts:

The StoryBank system was successfully deployed in Budikote (pop. 3,000) and used to create and share content, including education and healthcare contributions. 

StoryBank was instrumental in Jones receiving an IBM Faculty Award (2010), recognising the impact of the work on end-users. Since the Award, with IBM Research India, we developed the TapBack providing novel ways for end users to access spoken content; and, ACQR (a telephone based sharing service). 

Farmers improve each other’s productivity using the services. TapBack led to a patent submission by IBM Research India. StoryBank findings helped win funding for two software toolkits (along with partners). The first, digitaleconomytoolkit.org, supports user generated content creation especially in constrained contexts. Since its launch (July 2012) the mobile phone application has been downloaded over 25,000 times (to Dec, 2014). 

The StoryBank system was selected for the National Science Festival (2009) and approximately 1,000 visitors used the system. The research has also impacted through The Royal Society of Arts, which used user generated content from the StoryBank trials in their Student Design competition and sent winners to Budikote in 2008.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council highlighted the research as an exemplar in its “Impact on Society” series, and the research also featured as an EPSRC Impact! example on the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) website.