The broadcasting and discovery of relevant information is one of the pressing concerns of the 21st Century. More people are using mobile devices, and they are increasingly demanding access to and engagement with new forms of media ‘anytime anywhere’.
However, findability and sustainability persist as two key challenges for the free flow of information in restricted environments, particularly in countries with large areas that remain remote.
Our pilot – CAST (DisCovery Amplification Sustainability and InTeractions) – wanted to overcome this by providing relevant information in remote locations where connectivity is non-existent, problematic, costly and unreliable, and where media is or may be controlled with biased agendas.
CAST aimed to build a lightweight community connectivity system for content distribution, to generate proximity insights (new data analytics that allow publishers to pinpoint what content is consumed where), and to facilitate novel approaches to digital literacy by creating engaged digital communities.
During the year-long pilot in 2016/17, we trialled a new community communication network in three remote villages in rural Armenia.
Funded by the UK Higher Education Innovation Fund, the project was a collaboration between the Media Innovation Studio at UCLan, Impact Hub Yerevan and SMART Edge Platform provider WICASTR™. It was supported by the UN Development Programme, journalism outlet Hetq, and the Civilitas Foundation.
We used standalone broadcasting devices to serve information to mobile phones via wifi without the need for an application. Online content was served as offline, static pages in hyperlocal locations such as bus stops.
Twenty-six devices distributed the content provided on the CAST system via:
- Offline static pages with aggregated content scraped automatically from independent or alternative online news services.
- A content management system (WordPress) edited by members of the village community. Digital literacy improved through training, discussion and experimentation.
- A peer-to-wall messaging service (noticeboard) featuring short updates posted by those connected to the network.
Key learnings are summarised in the final report, but some of the highlights were:
- Feedback that updates needed to be more frequent to keep ahead of word of mouth transfer of information.
- Investment is needed in user design for increased accessibility, speed, navigation and ease of use.
- A paid local representative should act as the link between the village and project managers, as well as being responsible for making sure everything works and repairing where necessary.
- There is strong competition from major social networks, in this case particularly Odnoklassniki and vk.com, and news discovery via recommendations.
- Arm Weekly News reported a 5% traffic increase during the pilot, suggesting CAST could have an amplification impact on alternative news.
- Challenges included inconsistent mobile phone functionality because of temperatures dropping below -30C for several months, translation issues, limited access points and stolen hardware.
This project has offered a rare empirical insight into the possibilities of lightweight, online-to-offline community communication systems, which need further research.
This might include:
- A follow-up study using a comparative approach between news disseminated via Web Applications, Beacons and WiFi typologies, geofencing, narrowcasting, Near Field Communication (NFC), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and SMS to explore new mix-and-match ways of discovering essential information for civic engagement based on hyperlocality.
- Testing the WICASTR™ devices as a collective that can form a mesh. Having one internet-connected device receiving real-time information and distributing it among its network could be pivotal to the capacity of CAST as a ‘pop-up’ network in crisis situations.
- Further research on content popularity based on place, in particular exploring the reasons behind content consumption.
- Significant ethical and policy implications arising from this trial require more investigation, for example how minors can be protected and what more should be done to explain data capture and tracking.
- A more detailed study could shed light on user engagement which is a complex and multidimensional construct entangled with a variety of factors, such as timeliness, cultural setting, technology and novelty. This would add to the body of research on spatial journalism.
- Explore how we can better write and produce journalistically taking locative preferences into account, using data on what content is popular where.
Project principal investigator Clare Cook, co-founder of the Media Innovation Studio, said: “While a proof of concept, and raises more questions than it answers, it has been an ambitious project. I am hopeful we had some impact on the community in a good way:
- I was the first British woman ever to visit one of the villages and many had deep misconceptions about data and wifi, as well as media plurality, and
- I worked with some terrific people including Impact Hub Yerevan, investigative journalism outlets Hetq and Civilnet, and the United Nations Development Programme.”
For opportunities to explore CAST and other projects, the team has launched a new MA Journalism starting in September 2018.