Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
During the Cold War period, violent civil strife throughout Central America claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In Guatemala alone, an estimated 150,000-200,000 people were killed and 40,000-50,000 disappeared within a few decades. While the killings themselves undoubtedly traumatized Central Americans, the lack of reliable news about the government’s role in the atrocities only aggravated tensions further. A small group of elites, who often valued their economic and political agendas more than democratic journalism, controlled the traditional media outlets, especially newspapers. Without an independent news sector to act as a watchdog, Central American societies that were already battered by armed conflict also grew disillusioned by a general sense of societal helplessness and passivity. Even though most violent conflict in Central America ended in the 1990s, a largely disconnected, fractured citizenry and elite control of information have persisted. Relatively low literacy rates (69 percent in Guatemala, 67.5 percent in Nicaragua, 80 percent in Honduras and El Salvador) still prevent a significant number of Central Americans from reading periodicals, and the geographic isolation of many communities limits access to both newspapers and television. Whereas a growing number of citizens in industrialized economies rely on the internet for news, internet penetration in most Central American countries remains very low. Community radio and mobile phones are the two communication channels that do have a broader geographic reach in the region. Mobile phone penetration is already impressively high in parts of Central America (in 2007, mobile phone penetration was over 60 percent in Guatemala and El Salvador and close to 50 percent in Honduras) and is rapidly growing each year (mobile phone subscriptions grew by nearly 50 percent in Guatemala and El Salvador in 2007 and by 80 percent in Honduras). The disjointed nature of Central American societies is reflected in the citizen sector as well, which is largely still in a process of consolidation after decades of political instability. Many COs remain increasingly isolated, particularly because of distrust, a lack of awareness, as well as an absence of infrastructure. For example, the Cultural Survival Community Radio Network helps public health COs distribute information to 500,000 Guatemalan listeners free of charge, but the distribution process involves saving data on compact discs and hand-delivering them to far-flung community radio stations, because broadband networks and rural mail delivery are non-existent. As a result, disseminating information in the citizen sector is cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient. COs have long struggled to find a more effective way to operate.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Coming precisely at the first time in nearly five decades that democracy has taken root in the region, Habla is the first Central American news-sharing platform built on mobile phones: the most pervasive digital technological applications available in these countries. In a region where social media applications like Twitter and Facebook are still not widely used because of their reliance on the internet and smart phones, Habla is providing an easily accessible, user-friendly means for grassroots participation in news generation and consumption. Habla’s technology platform allows users to send and receive information via text messages that are also posted to local “hub” websites in each of the countries where Habla currently operates (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela). The Habla platform has already experienced such high demand that Kara’s model has spread virally from Guatemala, where she began her operations in May 2009, to the other four countries through sheer local initiative.
Beyond being a mere communication platform, Habla is designed to promote civic participation through citizen journalism and collective action calls. Through educational outreach – provided to schools and citizen groups – as well as basic online tutorials, Habla encourages citizens to report news that is timely and relevant to their communities, thus creating a bottom-up flow of information to counterbalance the traditional top-down media. Kara is particularly interested in promoting citizen-based investigative journalism, a concept that is not well established in most of Central America. As a firm believer that news and information serve a larger purpose, Kara has also built the Habla platform to facilitate community action calls by the users themselves, such as sending help to disaster zones or disseminating information about recent political events.
Kara also envisions the Habla platforms to enable citizen organization (CO) partners to reach more people with their services and information. Characterized by rapid viral growth and extensive geographic coverage, the Habla networks provide a way for COs working on health, poverty, education, and other issues to disseminate information, particularly to communities where they do not already have an operational presence. Besides providing Habla with a potential revenue stream as COs pay to share information across the networks, partnering with COs also strengthens and enriches the network effect that is inherent to Habla’s success, attracting more users and creating more nodes of activity and communication.