Co-creating a locally relevant web

22 November 2019 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 9 min.
Dr Melissa Densmore visits a school in Ocean View.
Dr Melissa Densmore visits a school in Ocean View.

Who is the internet designed for? Is it locally relevant? Who are the people being left behind in the fourth industrial revolution? These are a few of the questions that have emerged from Dr Melissa Densmore’s research into bandwidth-constrained communities in and around Cape Town.

A senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Cape Town (UCT) School of Information Technology, Densmore is also the coordinator of the UCT Hasso-Plattner Institute Research School and part of the UCT Centre in Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D).

Since joining UCT in 2014, she’s been involved in research projects to understand mobile phone and internet use in bandwidth-constrained communities in Cape Town and address some of the resultant inequalities. Much of her work also looks at providing computer-based support for maternal and child health, and socio-economic development in these communities.

Densmore recently shared some of the insights she’s gained at the 18th and final instalment of Café Scientifique – an event hosted by UCT Research Contracts and Innovation (RC&I) and supported by leading intellectual property law firm Spoor & Fisher.

 

In recent years, there have been initiatives to roll out free WiFi throughout the city and its outskirts.

Her talk focused on the barriers hindering internet usability that face low-income communities –beyond access to the internet.

Connecting communities

With the fourth industrial revolution upon us, access to fast and affordable internet is nothing short of essential. Despite this, many rural and low-income communities in South Africa and around the world remain offline and, by extension, cut off from a host of opportunities others may take for granted.

“There are a lot of ways in which Cape Town is trying to approach this, and primarily, it’s about providing access,” Densmore says.

In recent years, there have been initiatives to roll out free WiFi throughout the city and its outskirts.

The Western Cape Government, for example, has embarked on a long-term project to provide government buildings, public schools, communities and businesses with access to affordable telecommunications through fibre-optic infrastructure.

Earlier this year, residents of the Cape Flats were also given access to unlimited free WiFi through an initiative by Google. And a joint initiative between the City of Cape Town and the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa extended the Eduroam wireless network to 57 public libraries across the city, making it possible for students who don’t have internet in their homes to continue researching off-campus.

Densmore, together with Dr Josiah Chavula and Dr David L Johnson, lead the Net4D and Human–Computer Interaction labs at UCT. As part of their multi-disciplinary iNethi project, they have partnered with community-led OV Comm Dynamic Coop to pilot a community wireless network.

Through the network, people living in Ocean View, a community on the outskirts of Kommetjie in Cape Town, are connected to a host of opportunities.

In short, in Cape Town at least, there is no lack of drive to get as many people as possible connected.

“But, once they have that connection, how are they going to use the internet effectively?” asks Densmore, highlighting the fact that barriers still exist. These include things like slow and unproductive connection speeds, and a lack of relatable and language-appropriate content.   

A question of visibility

It comes down to these communities not finding themselves visible or accurately represented online.

 

The internet’s perspective of low-income communities – in Cape Town and elsewhere – has been distorted through the gaze of those who have always had access to the internet.

Using the community of Ocean View and the Wikipedia page describing it as an example, Densmore says, “[It] is ridiculously short and only has one picture.

“The article doesn’t say anything about the artists who live there or the Rasta community and their creative projects. Also, there is nothing about the music industry engaging with Ocean View or the non-governmental organisations that are doing work there and advocating for the community.

“[The authors] only see Ocean View for being a coloured township that was forcibly relocated and now is poor.”

The reason for this, Densmore argues, is the internet’s perspective of low-income communities – in Cape Town and elsewhere – which has been distorted through the gaze of those who have always had access to the internet and haven’t had to cross any major hurdles in either consuming or creating content for the web.

“The goal of my research is to change that narrative and help empower communities to create representative content of their own,” she says.

Co-creating content

Unlike many other initiatives to roll out WiFi, ICT4D’s Ocean View project aims to create content with the people in the community – instead of for or about them.

“The core part of our work in Ocean View is not internet access – even though we’ve done that – it’s the server called iNethi,” explains Densmore.

iNethi is a computer that hosts local content (such as websites, music, videos) and services (for chatting, file sharing, etc.), allowing community members who are connected to the network to access community-based resources from their own devices even without access to the internet.

 

“The goal of my research is to change that narrative and help empower communities to create representative content of their own.”

Densmore and her team have been working closely with OV Comm Dynamic Cooperative, which administers the network, to establish what types of content the community would be most interested in seeing and creating.

“Our vision is to create content from the community and for the community that reflects the culture and the values of the community,” says Andre van Zyl, one of OV Comm’s directors, who is also a high school teacher in Ocean View and a master’s student in Densmore’s department.

According to Van Zyl, initial statistics have revealed that video is the most popular content type and will thus become the focus of the cooperative’s work.

Workshops have helped to inform the community about iNethi, and there’s a major drive to involve as many people as possible – old and young. For Densmore, this kind of buy-in is key to changing the internet’s distorted narrative about low-income communities.

The goal is to inspire and empower the community to be digitally connected and create locally relevant content.

“Maybe they’ll upload their videos to YouTube eventually, or perhaps they’ll edit that Wikipedia page,” she says. “Once your focus is on creating content with the community and recognising the strengths of the community, it changes the whole narrative.”

Read more about iNethi.


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