Radio as a Service: low cost, highly connected, scalable FM radio micro- stations as a community information platform.

Research Subject Area(s)

Civic Media; HCI4D; ICT4D; M4D; HCI
 

Summary of the impact

 
Research by the Critical Technical Practice (CTP) group at M-ITI has resulted in the development of RootIO, a community information platform based on merging the internet with low-power FM radio. Tens of thousands of people have been served by these self-sustaining media platforms for the last three years.
Funded initially through Knight Foundation, Resilient Africa Networks, and now through INTERREG and an H2020 grant we are coordinating, researchers have also founded a Madeiran startup RootIO, LDA.
 

Underpinning research

 
Radio is still an important medium in much of the world, more than a hundred years after its first commercial release. It is free to receive, and its technical and social affordances make it a preferred medium while working, driving, and in public spaces, with far lower OPEX and CAPEX than television or most new media. For this reason radio remains the king of media in Africa, much of Latin America, and much of Asia. Involved in the response to the Haiti Earthquake of 2010, CTP researchers noted the importance of radio as a means for community resilience, and began to design smaller, better connected models for Radio as a Service (RaaS). By automating many of the operations of a commercial station, and tying the station to GSM and IP, an entire station may be hosted from a smartphone and inexpensive transmitter powered by solar panels.
 
This work grows from the ERA Chair’s prior work as founder and director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, based between the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Department of Comparative Media Studies. Under his leadership, Civic Media projects demonstrated new sustainable configurations of technology, labor, and community. These include still-thriving projects like BetweentheBars.org, sourcemap.com, and publiclab.org. [Ref 1]
 
Many of the Civic Media projects were developed for Western users with contemporary technologies, and leveraged principles of collaborative peer production first noted in the free software movement. The new economics of this sort of production were determined to be able to solve public good issues, and bypass structural problems with engineering in markets. M-ITI researchers speculated that if distributed, volunteer approaches work in resource rich environments, they might also work in places like Haiti. [Refs 2 & 3]
 
Shortly after the commencement of the ERA Chair, CTP researchers set up four RootIO stations in Northern Uganda. These stations have run for nearly three years, successfully providing a community platform in very remote areas. Recognized as successful, the Ugandan Communications Commission issued 10 new licenses in December, 2017. Since, RootIO has been the basis of a MAC INTERREG grant to launch stations in Cabo Verde, and the Grassroot Wavelengths H2020 Collective Awareness Platform (CAPS) action, one of two CAPS projects in the new CTP group.
 
RootIO is the flagship of a growing area that seeks to merge Civic Media techniques with the problem space of ICT4D, M4D, and HCI4D. These approaches rarely take a community media approach, often borrowing "development" models that marginalize, rather than empower, end users. We have published several papers in this new area; been commissioned to develop a report for three UK foundations (to be published this spring); and have an accepted CHI paper. [Ref 4]
 
Moreover, we organized and held the conference Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa in Madeira [Ref 5], drawing researchers from several continents and from academic institutions like McGill, London School of Economics, University of California Irvine, Witswatersrand, and U. Wisconsin Madison.
 

References to the research

 

Chris Csikszentmihalyi is the ERA Chair and directs the CTP Lab at M-ITI; Jude Mukundane is a PhD candidate in the NETSYS program.
 

Publications:

 

1. Christopher Csikszentmihalyi. 2012. Engineering Collectives: Technology From the Coop. Limn, 2. Retrieved January 16, 2015 from http://limn.it/engineering-collectives-technology-from-the-coop/
2. Chris Csíkszentmihályi and Jude Mukundane. 2015. RootIO - Platform Design for Civic Media. In Proceedings of the Research Through Design Conference. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1328001.v1
3. C. Csíkszentmihályi and J. Mukundane. 2016. RootIO: ICT + telephony for grassroots radio. In 2016 IST-Africa Week Conference, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1109/ISTAFRICA.2016.7530700
4. Christopher Csíkszentmihályi, Jude Mukundane, Gemma Rodrigues, Daniel Mwesigwa, and Michelle Kasprzak. 2018. The Space of Possibilities: Political Economies of Technology Innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3173880
 

Funding:

 

Prior to M-ITI:
1. 200k$US from Knight Foundation for initial ideation
2. 70k$US from the Resilient Africa Network
3. 200k€ from INTERREG MACRONESIA
4. 2M€ (Coordinated) from ICT-11 (Collective Awareness Platforms) H2020 with University College Cork (IE), AMARC Europe (BE), ActiveWatch (RO), Cereproc (UK), RootIO (PT), Adenorma (PT), Bere Island (IE)
 

Details of the impact

 

Developing civic media platforms in the Global South;
•The RootIO platform was deployed in four villages in Uganda in the middle of a two year period when no other FM radio stations were issued licenses by the UCC, largely because of the strength of our economic hypothesis. If the stations were to succeed, they offered Uganda (and, by extension, the Global South) a new form of inexpensive local media.
•The stations proved technically successful, c.f. allowing programs to be hosted from anywhere in the community, or in the world, through a phone. Communities quickly experimented with business models and formats. These included programs like market shows, live football broadcasts, relationship and peace programs, etc.
•The stations quickly proved economically self-sustaining, and indeed were proven to both generate new economic activity within the community. For example, one farmer who lost his cow took out an ad on one of the stations, and the cow was found after two announcements. A school that used the station to advertise had several times the number of students they had ever enrolled before.
•We have received requests from over a dozen countries for RootIO stations, from Nepal to Botswana.
•We are growing the network through M-ITI and the spin-off company to Ireland, Romania, Portugal, and Cabo Verde
•The University of Newcastle’s Doctoral Training Centre for Digital Civic
 

Sources to corroborate the impact

 
1. Luke Yoquinto. 2015. New Ugandan radio stations run on sun, smartphones and buckets. New Scientist May 30, 2015. Retrieved May 28, 2015 from http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22630232.100-new-ugandan-radio-sta...
2. Urban TV Uganda. 2017. Innovate[3/4]: Low Cost, Hyper, Local Community Radio Stations. Sept 11, 2017. Retrieved October 13, 2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kx57hfne8zQ&feature=youtu.be
3. Taking Radio Back to Its Roots :: How We Get To Next. Retrieved November 13, 2014 from http://www.howwegettonext.com/Article/VGCRdisAABIDt5f5/taking-radio-back...
4. Smartphone + solar panel + old bucket = radio station - Home | Spark with Nora Young | Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved January 4, 2016 from http://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/290-happy-maps-radio-in-a-bucket-and-more-...
5. TV2Africa. 2016. Rootio Radio Projects in Uganda. May 18, 2016 Retrieved January 12, 2018 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mEuZTe2LAc