When considering a Civil Society Election Blog for Nigeria, we realized fairly quickly that it has to be possible for people to contribute to it via their mobile phones. Post via the web and e-mail, yes, but also somehow via phone.
The obvious first destination is blogging via SMS, for which various tools are available. However, the constraints of SMS are immediately apparent – the limited number of letters you can send in a message, and that (apparently) SMS service is spotty in Nigeria. SMS messages simply do not always arrive at their destination. There are also not many carriers, and it seems risky to develop a strategy that depends too much on one carrier even if it seems likely that service will not be interrupted (after all, the police rely on their mobile phones as much as anybody else).
The next destination, audioblogging by telephone, is compelling. In fact, it’s so compelling that I’m surprised it has not caught on already.. especially in Africa. Why should it not be possible for activists and election monitors – and indeed citizens – to call a number and leave a message about problems they are experiencing or issues dear to them, and be able to expect their message to be immediately made available for listening on a blog?
We brainstormed on the topic, and it is remarkable how many affordable options are available. Read on to join me in looking into three of them – PhoneBlogz, Skype-In with Voicemail, and Evoca. Maybe you know others? None so far seem to make it particularly easy to provide a local Nigerian number to dial into, however it may be possible for some Mobile Activista to figure this out – so stay tuned for that.
Option 1: PhoneBlogz – blog by phone
This seems quite the Web 2.0 hype enabled service offering that promises exactly what we need. It works as advertised, and I have configured their free version on saidia.org for us to play with. The interface is fairly slick, and takes just a few minutes to set up. Advanced features are available, including even changing the outgoing message that people hear when they call in to leave a message. However, the site news has not been updated since November 2006 and once you’ve set up an account it’s a little tricky to navigate your way around and figure out what to do. Makes you wonder.
This is new the era of blogging. Keyboards are out. Remembering a situation for later recollection is history. Now you can blog wherever, whenever, even with no internet connection.
PhoneBlogz allows you to blog by phone – to your own blogging software on your own server. We support direct posting and remote polling. Check out the rest of the site for more info.
Want to try it? Call +1-212-660-0161 or one of the numbers listed on the PhoneBlogz site and when prompted, punch in 10000 and then the pin number 0000. Your message will then be displayed on the WordPress demo site like mine.
Option 2: Skype-in with voicemail
I like this option because it is flexible and offers a means for recording interviews and conference calls to post on the web if desired. It also happens to make use of Skype, a service that I and many of my colleagues are already using for VOIP, and supports a range of blogging tools I care about including WordPress and Drupal.
The downside is that posts do not appear automatically on the blog – an intermediary step is required for someone to retrieve the skype call sound file, save it to disk, and then upload it into a blog posting. This typically is a deal killer for this sort of thing, since it means that the process is slowed down and requiring human intervention means that only the calls in that that particular human cares about will be posted.
Since Skype does not record calls and host the recordings for public consumption, here’s how it would have to be done:
- Create a Skype account for the blog and sign up for a “skype in” number and you will automatically get Skype voicemail.
- Set up a means for recording skype audio and saving it in mp3 format – I use a mac and already use Recorder for Skype from Ecamm to record the occasional Kabissa meeting. Skype Recorder for Windows XP should do the trick too, and others may have their own ways of doing this.
- Create a blog posting and upload the mp3 file to display with it. The podPress plugin for WordPress should do the trick.
Option 3: Evoca
Evoca is new to me – but seems incredibly cool. It’s a Web 2.0 hype enabled audio sharing/podcasting site similar to YouTube, but with a simple design and clear purpose. Like YouTube, podcasts are categorized using tags and groups so you are effectively “social networking” by sharing the sound of your voice or whatever audio you want to share. Recordings can be tagged with the copyright or Creative Commons license of your choice, and can be flexibly displayed on blogs, myspace, etc. Nifty.
You can set up an account in minutes and start uploading podcasts and recording messages right away, through your web browser (if you haave a mic on your computer) or by calling in with your phone. It uses caller id unfortunately so you can only call from the number you have listed with your account, and presumably calls from Nigeria will not display the phone number.
I am struck by the richness of the features offered – even for the free version:
For blogs, very relevant for our Nigerian Election Blog idea, Evoca seems to offer some very exciting features, including RSS feeds (your own or for tags or groups just like Flickr) and a “Send a message now” type box like the one in the sidebar, which you can use right now if you feel like leaving me a nice comment and voice message on my Evoca profile page.
Here’s an example of how you can embed messages in blog postings:
The “searching audio word for word” and “order translations and transcripts” features scare me mildly – they apparently have figured out how to automatically transcribe voice to text, so you can use keyword searches to find podcasts you are interested in or have transcriptions (and translations!) sent to you. Wow.
All in all, of these three options – it seems that a combination of 2 and 3 are most interesting for a Nigerian Election Blog. With a Skype/Evoca combo, folks that can get to an Internet connection can send directly via the computer (quicker than typing, perhaps) and if they can get to a phone they can dial into the Skype-In number and leave voicemail, which the blog editors can then save to MP3 directly via Evoca or by another means and then simply upload them to Evoca later.