Thirty years on from the birth of the World Wide Web, half of the world remains unconnected, and this lack of access leaves many communities isolated and unable to share their experiences and concerns online.
On Our Radar, a communications agency based in London, UK, is working to address this problem. Its mission is to give unheard communities a voice, and the team of six – two journalists, project designers and a software developer – have worked in countries including India, Malaysia, Sierra Leone and the UK, developing digital platforms for stories that might otherwise not appear in the mainstream media.
We spoke to Paul Myles, Editorial Manager at On Our Radar, about the organisation, the role of the web in providing a voice to communities, and the importance of 'the three Cs'.
How did On Our Radar come about?
On Our Radar was set up in 2012, and since then we've been working with some of the most remote and marginalised communities in the world to tell their own stories in their own words on a variety of platforms.
Our model is based on the fact that communities are the experts on their own lived experience. On Our Radar was born out of a desire to get beyond 'parachute journalism', where the same kinds of people from the same kinds of places drop in somewhere for a few days, cover a story and go home. We try to use a combination of technology, training and mentoring to involve communities more closely in the process of storytelling.
Has the web helped?
The web is an amazing tool. But there are still huge black holes in it, a huge digital divide between the people who are online sharing views and are able to access them, and the people who don't yet have access.
To take an example from the UK, we ran a project called Dementia Diaries, in which members talked about what it’s like to live with dementia. But the dementia community, as a whole, is obviously less likely to be active on the web creating blogs and documenting their experience. So we used custom-built 3D-printed phones to capture their experiences in the form of audio diaries, which were held on a microsite. We also ran digital storytelling projects with media outlets like Buzzfeed, the Mirror, and the Guardian, to really make sure that those voices excluded from the web are heard.
What role do smartphones play in your projects?
I think there's a myth that smartphones have taken over the world. In huge areas of Africa – in Sierra Leone for example – the number of people who have access to smartphones is still very low. If you've got issues with accessing electricity and you're working on a remote farm, an old Nokia 3210 is much more robust than a smartphone, which would run out of battery in a day.
What other ways do you get the communities’ stories out into the world?
We always say we have to overcome 'the three Cs'. The first is confidence. A young homeless person in the UK may not be very used to being listened to, so we engage in a two-way mentoring process to show them why their stories are important and that each person’s view is valuable and interesting.
The second is capacity. If we were getting community reporters in Sierra Leone to report on the Ebola crisis, they need to be trained up in the basics of reporting to make sure that what they share is verifiable and fact-checked, and that sources have been treated safely and fairly.
Then there’s connectivity. Sierra Leone has a very low online presence, so for our project Ebola: Covering the Crisis, we built an SMS and audio hub that integrates with a mobile messaging app called Radius. This allowed us to capture stories from communities using a tool that’s readily available to them: the basic mobile phone. If they do have a smartphone, they can submit audio or video or photos via chat apps as well.
We initially trained people in Sierra Leone in 2012, and then left behind this network of reporters to cover the election that year. We stayed in dialogue with them so, when the Ebola crisis hit, we had a trusted network of people in communities all around the country – from urban slums to polio camps and remote villages – who were able to document what was going on.
We also produced a series of films for an interactive web documentary called Back In Touch as the crisis was coming to an end. There was a story about a guy who’d been trying to date a girl for the last six months, but physical contact wasn’t allowed; another was about the first football match since the Ebola outbreak forced the banning of all public gatherings. These are very human stories.
Are there issues around privacy that you sometimes have to negotiate in your work?
Our system is as encrypted and secure as can be. In response to the recent rise we’ve seen in safeguarding issues – for example with the recent Oxfam and Save the Children scandals, where people don’t have a reporting mechanism to flag issues of harm or abuse and therefore stay silent – our reporting network now has a direct line open for people to share concerns. This way of working helps to break down barriers and give people a platform to share what’s on their mind.
What do you think can be done to stop particular communities and stories from being silenced?
I think there are two issues. There’s a lack of these 'three Cs' [confidence, capacity and connectivity], and that’s what we’re trying to solve. The second, more complex issue is the question of whether those in power are willing to listen. I think that’s a problem for any community in the world, even the most online and mobile-literate of communities. Sharing views and expressing them is the first very important step, and change is the next challenge.