It’s an exciting time to be doing participatory communication work in development. An explosion of new methods, technologies, theories and approaches has taken place around the world, adding enormously to the range of available methods for participation. Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s population is now covered by a mobile phone signal, and nearly 40 per cent have access to the Internet.
Increasingly sophisticated visual methods and tools for networking and data collection give us access to different forms of knowledge and political action. New technologies are being used not just to study reality, but also to open up other realms of the possible.
Examples come from all over the world. Researchers in The Chittagong Hill Tract region of Bangladesh are using computers to help women construct their own digital stories, allowing us an insight into their everyday realities. The events of the Arab Spring showed how bloggers reporting news from the streets can have more credibility than mainstream news sources. Mobile phone software allows farmers in rural Ghana to check on current crop prices before selling their produce. Digital mapping technology in Haiti and Palestine has been used to help relief workers to quickly access hard-hit communities. Mapping and crowd-sourcing technology have been used in Nairobi to create a citizen reporting system in the urban slum of Kibera.
The power of the visual
The importance of the visual, and of popular culture, is increasingly significant in public engagement with development research and practice. Visual methods can put ideas in a concrete form, which is often both more accessible and more compelling than written texts. Many traditional participatory methods – calendars, maps, models and diagrams – relied on the visual. New technologies have strengthened and diversified this existing tendency.
This growth in the strength of the visual has emerged hand in hand with a revolution in digital technology. The explosion of social networking and the ubiquity of affordable digital technology that allows people to document, capture and create visual imagery is unprecedented. It has created a multitude of new ways for people to access and engage with information and with other people. Photography and film are key forms of documentation and expression in this new, networked environment.
New tools for communication
An opportunity and an incentive
The digital explosion, and the resulting fact that people have become more used to visual content, is both an opportunity for engagement and an incentive to produce better quality materials to capture peoples’ attention. As the amount of possible material expands, and peoples’ attention spans shrink, the quality and style of visual work required to influence public opinion changes.
New communication technologies have brought new actors into the development field, as well as new assumptions about the relationship between information and action. The power imbalances that have always existed in development can be exacerbated by the use of new technologies, when those who understand the technologies may not understand the context. Nonetheless, there are many examples of how using new technologies can provide space for sharing ideas and actions. Facebook, for example, is being used to foster networks and build connections, while Twitter is used for real time organisation and dissemination, and YouTube and Flickr are being used to present visual and contextual evidence which challenges existing hierarchies.
Combining participatory communication tools for research and activism
Communication methodologies and tools are being employed and combined in new ways. Digital storytelling and participatory video are being used in project monitoring and evaluation. Activists are using geotagging and video to highlight government corruption. Researchers are using GIS tools combined with more traditional mapping techniques to try and improve service provision and local government accountability. Traditional radio platforms are being combined with new online digital tools in examples of ‘digital convergence’. The old and the new are reinventing each other.
Communication work is increasingly being integrated into research and activism. Effective participatory communication is first and foremost about listening, not telling. New technologies provide many more chances to listen to the most marginal and disenfranchised communities in order to work towards social justice.
Participatory communication recognises the importance and value of iterative processes, not just of a final communication product which emerges from the last stages of a linear project process, or a public relations or marketing exercise. Integrating communication into each stage of research or practice – from inception to evaluation – allows for the creation of more nuanced products, often representative of a greater number of viewpoints.