Monday, November 21, 2005

SIAR: Putting Information Ahead of Technology

The 16th Century words of Sir Francis Bacon, "knowledge is power,” has gained unprecedented worldwide popularity since the late 1990s and mobilized a multitude of resources aimed at bridging the divide between those who have access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and those who don’t. However, several cautionary words need to be emphasized in this context. Firstly, the term “ICT,” in practice, has largely been degraded to refer to “new ICT,” which has furthermore been reduced to pinpoint the internet. This has resulted in projects focusing solely on the internet and little of anything else (such as television, radio, print media, traditional media, even cell phones) in efforts to empower the poor. Secondly, ICT is merely the media through which information passes. While content is constantly acknowledged as an important aspect, very little attention is actually given to content development, especially to that produced by marginalized communities.

The Saluran Informasi Akar Rumput (SIAR) initiative, currently co-facilitated by Combine Resource Institution and Voice of Human Rights with support from Tifa Foundation, strives to address the two concerns above by building a collective news-agency (content syndication) among nine community radio stations in West Java and Yogyakarta through wireless internet connection. The network is scheduled to grow wider to other areas as the project enters its second phase in early 2006. The three core components of the project are content development, community institution building, and information technology.

SIAR relies on community radios as the main subject simply because they are still undoubtedly the most effective means to cater to the information and communication needs of marginalized, often effectively illiterate, communities, especially those living in rural areas. Unlike the internet, a (community) radio is represented by voices (and faces) which are familiar to the listeners; many community radio announcers, just like their commercial counterparts, have “fans” and act as local role models. Community radios build interactivity and participation through talk-shows, phone-ins, live broadcasting from the place of event, and the highly popular “request cards.” In many areas, the latter serves also as community radios’ main source of revenue. Despite the advantages, challenges faced by community radios multi-faceted. Some of the most important ones lie in building 1] capacity (especially in terms of news production), 2] community institutional support, and 3] access to external parties, such as national media, peers in other locations, and relevant actors for the improvement of their constituents’ lives.

SIAR tries to answer these challenges by combining the middle-down reach of community radios with the middle-up access of the internet. News and features produced by the Angkringan community radio in rural Jogja currently can be read and re-broadcasted (via podcasting!) by the Cibangkong community radio in urban Bandung through 24-hour wireless internet. Members of the network regularly chat online with each other on topics of common interest. Other community members can post comments or request news on the SIAR website through their cell-phones. It is simply a matter of time before these local voices are accessed and incorporated by regional and national media (as in the case of blogs by international media) and the broadcasters acknowledged as local correspondents. The (national) government can also benefit from this network to gain insights and feedback regarding how a development policy is implemented at the local level.

By focusing on the information needs of already-acknowledged local information providers/ facilitators, SIAR puts information ahead of technology in an integrated effort to make-real Francis Bacon’s statement. As for telecenter aspects, many of SIAR’s participants are planning to serve warnet-like services in the near future. What better internet trainer would a villager have than the local celebrity whose voice he/she listens to everyday?

This was an abstract submitted for the National Telecenter Conference, UNDP/Bappenas, Jakarta, Dec. 2005.