A lot is happening right now with media development in Afghanistan.
A project between iMedia Associates and Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) aims to enhance the interactivity and access of audio news programs via mobile phone. Users call in to a local short code, hang up, then receive a call back and can navigate and listen to top news stories, in Pashto, via an integrated voice response (IVR) system.
When we first spoke with Emrys Schoemaker of iMedia in September 2011, the Mobile Mahaal project was set to launch. Now, five months later, kinks have been worked out, and the service has received nearly 300,000 incoming calls from about 25,000 unique users between October 2011 and January 2012.
Schoemaker describes the media landscape in Afghanistan as increasingly rich. “We wanted to explore the viability and interactivity in using mobile to reach and engage listeners and explore how people react to the medium,” he said.
Mahaal is Innovative
2011 was a busy year for iMedia Associates and MSPA. The organizations are currently seeking funding to continue many services, including one called Talking Books, in which modern and classic literary works (such as Oliver Twist and Animal Farm) are abridged and broadcast across 48 radio stations in Afghanistan, to help broaden the cultural horizons of many who live in isolation.
Schoemaker says that Mobile Mahaal is the most innovative and challenging of all the projects currently underway. There are other IVR news systems in the country — Radio Aazadi has one and BBC is set to launch one soon — but many of these are accessible only to limited subscribers. The short code for the Radio Azadi service, for example, is available only to Etisalat customers. “We didn’t want to just plug an IVR system in to the operator,” Schoemaker said. So, he reached out to Gram Vanni, an organization in India which enables participatory media via technology, and together, the two got creative.
How the Service Works
Afghanistan has an incredibly advanced and high level of mobile phone penetration, Schoemaker said. Yet the interconnection between operators remains complicated. With Mobile Mahaal, the team wanted to have an off-site server, so people could call in direct. Gram Vanni helped to set up an “ingenious” system based on 4 GSM gateways, each having 2 SIMs for a total of 8 SIMs for Mahaal, which helps avoid congestion to the system.
A user calls in to a single local shortcode, which now works across all operators. But here is the creative part: the short code is mapped to the additional SIMs, so as people call in, they are routed onto the subsequent numbers. This is an automatic process, so if a user calls in and the first number is busy, it redirects to the second number, then the third number, and so on. Mobile operator Roshan supports the free call diversions between the SIM cards. The system was designed so that a caller is greeted with a recorded message that welcomes them to Mahaal and asks them to hang up and wait for a call back. This ring back approach keeps costs low for the user.
The user receives the call and can navigate the IVR menu to access news content, in Pashto. They can choose to play the top five stories of the day or can navigate to specific topics. Schoemaker says that the aim is to try and shift the experience of radio to mobile, in the sense of the user experience, so that in time, the idea of navigating your way through voice menus is commonplace. For now, “it’s quite a shift,” he said.
One success for Mobile Mahaal comes from having a trusted, ready source of content. Media Support Partnership Afghanistan (MSPA) is not a radio station itself, but a production house that set up a news agency which produces programs that are distributed and broadcast amongst a network of about 40 radio stations in Afghanistan. MSPA has a national network of journalists and freelancers who produce up to 20 news pieces a day, each about 1-5 minutes in length. Editors and staff focus on in-depth coverage of issues that are often treated superficially or not at all by most media in the country, by covering the very local and stories of ordinary life as well as adding context to international or regional stories.
With some of the partner radio sations that MSPA supplies content to, programs are not live. They are rebroadcast at a later time, and thus it is hard to bring in audience engagement. Mahaal draws on the engagement possibilities offered by mobile tech.
Afghanistan’s Mobile Landscape
To understand the context and the challenges of the project is to understand the current mobile landscape in Afghanistan. First, mobile penetration is high. Schoemaker says that in 2009, the leading mobile network operator Roshan predicted 9 million mobile phone users in 2013. In 2012, there is nearly double that amount with 18 million mobile phone subscriptions.
The key driver here, Schoemaker says, is information deficiencies and gaps. “Because the country is in such a state of flux and instability, finding out what is going on has a huge premium and value to it,” he said. Also, there is no incumbent telephone network in place. That is, no landlines. So, a mobile phone has often been the first opportunity for many in the country to own and access a phone.
Schoemaker and his team are keen to know whether a mobile medium for information delivery actually matters. How do people perceive the information they receive via mobile, versus other sources? For news, people often to consult family members, local leaders, local radio, and national radio to get a sense of what is actually happening. Will people value this information more or less if it is delivered via mobile versus in person or over a radio broadcast?
Over 24,700 people have made nearly 300,000 calls to Mahaal since the launch, so indications are positive. The point is that some people have to ring around twelve times before they can access the system, as demand is so high. The group is seeking funding to continue with the service this year to increase capacity to meet this demand, as well as to conduct research to help answer questions about mobile as a medium to deliver news. In terms of capacity, Schoemaker says it is a simple matter of increasing the number of GSM gateways.
Challenges and Next Steps
One challenge with Mahaal was working with the government. Complications arose around the mobile tech side — getting the agreement for the short code took 6 months. Part of this time spent was getting government to push the operators to map the shortcode to the longer gateway numbers. Schoemaker had to accompany MSPA staff to the mobile operators to help explain that the content wasn’t a free-for-all citizen journalism service, where anyone — including the Taliban — could make claims that potentially incite conflict. Rather, that the content being shared is pre-produced through a vetted, editorial process. “Afghanistan is increasingly media rich, but also still very unstable,” Schoemaker said. “Instability can be fueled when misperceptions or mistruths are propogated. The danger of an unregulated platform is that extreme views can find an audience.”
To help promote the service, there are 12 billboards in 7 provinces of Afghanistan, and MSPA has also advertised its service through radio stations all over the country as well as through the Mahaal website and Facebook.
Mobile advertising within the IVR system may lend sustainability to Mahaal, but Schoemaker sees two considerations here. While there is potential, it may be problematic to develop fully functional, demographic target markets for mobile users, becuase this data (on who the users are) is not readily available to the group. Secondly, in a context where information gaps need to be filled to address issues of misinformation or rumors, the kind of support for such content is amost invariably going to come from outside agencies and organizations.