Self Determined Participatory Action of Marginalized Groups: The streets of São Paulo

an initial rough proposal…

here is my initial master thesis proposal which is supposed to provide background information and suggestions for defining a thesis hypothesis

Master Thesis Proposal

At the begin of 2008 Kenya experienced an outbreak
of violence after governmental election. A group of Kenyan citizen
journalists gathered under the name Ushahidi
and collaborated during that time in order to to document the various
types of infringements that happened all over the country and which
were only covered to a small extend by mainstream media, especially
in rural areas and away from the major cities. A website was created,
a mashup
of a Google Maps
and a Microblog,
which served to collect and visualize SMS
messages send by Kenyan citizens from all over the place. SMS
messages were structured in a simple manner and consisted of the
place and type of assault witnessed. Messages were send to a free
number obtained from a Kenyan telecommunications provider and whose
existence was mainly spread via Blogs and other means of digital
communication. During the time of active deployment about 150
messages were received from
various locations in Kenya.

This concept of Crowdsourcing
Crisis Information
was since then further developed and actively
deployed to monitor for
example stockouts of medical
supplies at pharmacies
in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia. In
addition, the initial website was turned into the Ushahidi Engine
which is released as Free
and Open Source Software (FOSS) and allows the setup of own

In order to sketch the framework to formulate a
hypothesis for my master thesis I will first look at some of the
outcomes of the existing Ushahidi deployments:

  • The people decide what is important for them
    and what information they want provide about conditions and
    situations they are concerned with or affected by.

  • Mobile phones are a perfect mean of providing
    information due to their worldwide spread and ease of use. Almost
    everybody knows how to write SMS messages and almost every mobile
    phone is capable of sending at least an SMS.

  • Free and Open Source Software provide the
    freedom to everybody to setup own digital infrastructure in order to
    collect and publish information about every topic important to them.

That leads to several thoughts

  • People don’t need to wait for institutions,
    organisations or the government to raise attention to situations
    that negatively or positively affect their life as they have all the
    tools at hand.

  • The available tools (mobile phones, free
    software, hardware) provide a great flexibility and the freedom for
    the community to design and implement very specific surveys that are fitting to
    their needs

  • Due to the fact that using mobile communication
    has become so naturally to almost everybody, it provides a nice
    possibility to almost all members of a community to take part in
    data provision for surveys they designed together within their

  • If more people have the possibility to take
    part in such a community driven data acquisition by means of mobile
    communication technology, a broader and more fine grained picture
    could be drawn of the situation the people are addressing. This also
    means that information could be provided continuously over a longer
    period of time in order to draw a picture about changes in time as

  • Would people accept and take part in such a
    survey if they need for example to pay in order to send an SMS or
    would it only be feasible if a free SMS number is available?

  • How to structure information to be meaningfull in the limited frame of a 140 character text message.
  • How to verify the validity of available
    informations especially when thinking about perhaps several thousand
    datasets which can hardly be verified by hand, thus verification
    must be probably automated somehow.

  • How to make the set of gathered information
    transparent to the community if there exist for example no internet
    connection. Would it be sufficient to show the generated maps on a
    local computer in a community centre?

Putting this thoughts into a very loose framework I
would like to conduct my thesis within an urban environment, probably
densely populated neighbourhood within a large city where people
experience shortcomings or lack of everything that prevents them from
having a (more) descend life. As the interaction with the local
people is very important, language barriers shall be minimized by
conducting my thesis in a city/country where I can directly speak
with the people which would be most easy in an English or Portuguese
(probably Dutch) speaking environment. If translations in another
language could be carried out without flaws, almost every place could
be suitable.

On the practical or empirical side I would like to
setup the Ushahidi infrastructure and decide together with the local
community what kind of information could be beneficiary to be
surveyed by using mobile phones. I think it is not possible to define
a frame in advance if there is no contact with the people as they
know best about their situation. The practical goal would then be to
design a digital survey, a set of indicators which can be structured
in SMS messages and to spread the word and call for participation.
This should give many people the chance to actively taking part and
to gather a nice set of information (probably several hundreds up to
thousand) which probably give a more accurate picture about the
addressed situation (also with respect to changes over time) then by
conducting conventional surveys. Additionally, the knowledge of
setting up software and hardware infrastructure must be spread and
replicated as well.

On the theoretical side it would be interesting to
verify whether this approach is more just because it is located at
the grassroots/community  level. Would it attract more people to
participate due to low usage and technology barriers, its ease of use by means of mobile communication text messaging and what would be the reasons
for the outcome in either the positive or negative case. Further on
it could be analysed if, in case of a successful outcome, this
approach could be easily reapplied in other places due to its low
needs of resources and knowledge that would then be spread within the
community, thus dependencies to external experts and institutions would be eliminated.
Data validity is another aspect which must be considered and how to
verify available informations.

The purpose of this master thesis shall not tackle
the possibilities of further usage of gathered information as this
would blow the time frame of maximum 6 month. Anyway, I think it is a
crucial point to think about the further usage of the gathered data
in case the participation turned out successful. Could the drawn
picture support and enable the people to come up with plans and ideas in order to start incentives to improve the addressed situations…


Category: hypothesis, legacy


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