CGNet Swara: Voice Portal for Community Media in India

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CGNet Swara: Voice Portal for Community Media in India

Organization type: 
Project Stage:
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Phone Accessible Voice Portal for Community Media to Enable Participation in Democracy through Communication and Dialogue.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Information sharing and communication are keys to participation in democracy. However, many communities across the world are deprived of media and communication mechanisms, rendering them voiceless and therefore vulnerable to exploitation. Mainstream media content is biased towards what sells rather than what is balanced or relevant. e.g. Even with a tribal population of 90 million in Central India there are no newspapers, television channels or radio programs in tribal languages. Community radio is strictly regulated, rendering it out of reach for most communities. The internet and television are out of reach since both education and infrastructure are at a premium. In this landscape, mobile phones provide a ubiquitous medium that utilizes oral traditions already practiced by many of these communities. With 850 million cellphone subscribers, India is a prime market for voice based content platforms accessible via mass market cellphones.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

CGNet Swara is a voice-based portal, freely accessible via mobile phone that allows anyone to report and listen to stories of local interest. Reported stories are moderated by trained journalists and made available for playback online as well as over the phone. CGNet Swara is the first portal of its kind, where users can both listen AND record their own content. This 2-way interface allows for quick reports and reactions from the ground about issues that affect communities. Mobile penetration in the region is much higher than internet, television or print media and the ability to use the mobile phone as an information sharing tool has taken off well. With a one year pilot started in Feb 2010 in Chhattisgarh, we now receive 300+ phone calls a day from across the country, primarily from the Central Tribal Region. Swara was initially developed as an extension of the CGNet discussion group, also started by Shubhranshu Choudhary, which has been active since 2004. The aim was to extend the reach of CGNet into areas where there is no Internet and television.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

The solution uses open source components, the core of which was developed as a student project in MIT. It consists of a server connected to a telephony interface, running a software PBX system. The PBX directs all incoming calls to a very simple (2 option) IVR interface. Users can choose to record new content, or listen to recordings left by other people that have been published by the moderators. Since the interface is almost completely voice based and in a local language, the user does not have to be literate or specially trained to use it. Once the content is recorded, it is filtered by trained journalists who frequently call the contributor back to check and verify details. Once the story has been verified, the moderator releases it to the web and the IVR. The web link is also published to subscribed mailing lists and social media. The target user group on the IVR are grassroots workers and rural activists. The target group for the Web are urban activists, international development/ human rights organizations and the administration. Swara also helps forge partnerships between urban and rural activists based on reports and carries out training programmes for moderators and citizen journalists.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

While we have no direct competitors, several groups are also working with voice services. (Gramvani,,Gaon Ki Awaz). We are looking to forge partnerships with these organizations with the long term view of standardizing a platform for mobile content sharing, similar to a voice-web. In the short term we are looking to collaborate with GramVani to pool our resources and expand our reach. What we bring to the table is several years of experience in journalism and building grassroots partnerships. What differentiates Swara is the fact that we have spent over 5 years building strong networks in both urban and rural areas. Just reporting is not enough, action must follow and that requires a solid presence at both the administrative as well as grassroots level.
About You
CGNet Swara
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name

CGNet Swara

Organization Country

, DL

Country where this project is creating social impact

, CT

How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

The information you provide here will be used to fill in any parts of your profile that have been left blank, such as interests, organization information, and website. No contact information will be made public. Please uncheck here if you do not want this to happen..

Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Scaling (the next step will be growing impact on a regional or even global scale)

How long have you been in operation?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Social Impact
FOUNDING STORY: We want to hear about your “Aha!” moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution’s potential to change the world.

Shu Choudhary was researching a book in the conflict regions of Central India (Chhattisgarh/Andhra Pradesh/Orissa). While talking to Maoists, tribals and the mainstream population, Shubhranshu realized that the conflict was less because of politics and more because of a gap in communication between people.
Looking for ways to open communication channels, he first explored Community Radio, but realized that restrictive regulations prevented it from being a viable tool for conflict resolution. TV was ruled out, since much of this region barely has electricity. Shu first explored the Internet as an option and started CGNet, an email discussion group that has over 2000 members today. However, this still represented only the areas with Internet penetration. The question was how to get the people not on internet to join the conversation. Shu noticed that even people in the deep interiors carried mobile phones and found ways to use them. On his return to the city, he began talking to technologists about designing a mobile solution. Bill Thies at Microsoft Research and his academic colleagues at MIT stepped up to the task, designed the initial platform and helped Shu set up the pilot.

Specify both the depth and scale of your solution’s social impact to date

Since Feb 2010, we have received 58,000+ calls from 7,000+ unique phone numbers and have published about 900 reports. 71% of our calls are from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, 11% from Jharkhand and Bihar, the rest from Rajasthan, Delhi etc.
Many of these reports have been picked up by the national and international press, some with credit. Moreover, our follow-up network has been proven capable of tracking stories about one individual or issue by multiple sources. E.g. the case of Mr. Pitbasu Bhoi, a labourer who was not paid by the MNREGA scheme was reported by two independent journalists and later picked up by mainstream media
Swara has also helped empower our citizen journalists, by providing training, support and exposure to mainstream media.
We have also carried out training programmes for citizen journalists and moderators, the last one in collaboration with the Indian Ministry of Culture’s Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti.

What is your projected impact within the next 1-5 years? Is your idea replicable? If so, how?

Over the next 5 years we envision connecting communities across the country using a network of phone and web accessible audio channels, allowing users to create and access audio content from their cellphones, creating a “voice-web”. To this end we plan to develop an open technology platform that can be leveraged by communities everywhere to build their own applications and manage their own content.
We also plan to develop a partnership and training program to get communities started with the platform and how to use it to spark and sustain follow up action on issues raised by the community.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and mark growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Expand reach by starting 3 regional chanels with training for users and moderators in partnership with like-minded organizations

Six-Month Tasks
Task 1

Set up channels with independent moderators in Jharkhand, Orissa and MP

Task 2

Set up partnerships with organizations such as GramVani to share content and resources

Task 3

Host 3 citizen journalism workshops to train contributors, one for each channel

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Design & standardize technology/proceses that comunities can use to conect to a netwrk of linkd voice chanels that share content

12-Month Tasks
Task 1

Work in collaboration with GramVani and others to merge features and design an open, community supported, technology platform

Task 2

Work with grassroots partners, citizen journalists and activists to develop a training program for citizen journalists, moderato

Task 3

Raise funds to provide running costs and training and technology support for communities for free or at subsidized rates

How many people have been impacted by your project?

1,001 - 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Explain how your company, program, service or product is structured


What barriers have hindered the success of your project to date? How do you plan to overcome these and other challenges as you grow your solution?

1.Scaling up moderation: Moderation requires time and commitment, often difficult to sustain at no cost. Moderators have to verify news reports with the community and this requires training. We plan to distribute the task by having separate channels per language, each with a paid moderator. To sustain this, communities could eventually contribute to support the moderator.
2. Call costs: To popularize the service, we began calling users back after they leave a missed call. We are reducing this cost by setting up efficient call routing and encouraging users who can afford it to pay for their own calls.

How do you see the information-technology and media sectors shifting over the next decade? How will your solution adapt to and/or drive that changing environment?

We envision an upsurge in the number of people in India with access to the Internet and that media will evolve to this new consumer model. The primary mode of information consumption and exchange will be the mobile phone. By being well connected to the community at the forefront of the adoption curve in rural and semi-urban India, we feel that we are uniquely positioned to create the maximum impact

Failure is not always an option. If your solution fails to gain traction in the next two years, what other applications of the idea could you explore?

Given that smartphone penetration in rural India is set to shoot up, with companies like Micromax and Lava bringing out feature and smartphones at mass market prices. Irrespective of whether voice gains traction, we will be targeting that wave early on to find other applications for the same platform.
By making the project open source, we are ensuring that innovation will continue from the community regardless of our success

Expand on your selections, explaining how you will sustain funding

We are currently grant and donation funded. However, in the long term, we see a possibility of a revenue stream from a hosting service model, where in communities interested in running an audio platform will be able to sign up for an account and manage their own content from an administration interface. We could also supplement this revenue stream by providing paid training programs in citizen journalism and audio content management. A tertiary revenue stream could be advertising and content syndication, where in mainstream media could sponsor some citizen journalists in an area that they are interested in.

Tell us about your partnerships

Our core funding is through the Knight International Journalism Felowship Program, managed by the International Center for Journalists. We aditionaly work with other organizations at a program level basis, e.g. Ministry of Culture’s Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti recently hosted one training program with us and we have another lined up at the end of September with another agency
We also have many grasroots partners including Sitara and Prasoon. Our grasroots partners help mobilize citizen journalists and folow up on isues raised by the comunity.

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section?

We invite people with a passion for empowering communities through technology to work with us, particularly individuals and organizations interested in partnering with us on technology, to develop new features for the platform, multilingual people who speak at least one language from the region to moderate and translate messages and finally people interested in following up on messages in action.

Changemakers is a collaborative and supportive space. Please specify any community resources you would need to grow and sustain your initiative. Select all that apply

Investment, Human resources or talent, Marketing or media, Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.), Innovation or ideas, Mentorship.

Specify any resources you might offer to support other initiatives. Select all that apply

Human resources or talent, Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Innovation or ideas, Mentorship.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren’t specified within the list
Define your company, program, service or product in 1-2 short sentences

CGNet Swara: Call 08041137280 and speak to the world in your own voice, from wherever you are, using tools you already have.


Indrani Sharma's picture

Thank you for your participation in AFI Growth Prize Competition. We have a key question for you: What is your strategy for scaling-up and replicating this service? What is your plan for building a financial base to sustain this growth?

Please post your response as comment here before Dec 15, 2012, to be considered for final evaluation for this competition.

Ravi Saxena's picture

Hello Arjun,
I think this is a great idea and congrats on your success with implementation so far! I was curious if voice calls are being stored somewhere and if there is a cost associated with storing all this data? Can you talk a little about how you leverage all this data to help make an impact?


Dhruv Sarin's picture

This is a great idea! As a non-profit with similar goals, we are definitely looking at using SMS as a form of communication to reach the masses. Could you tell us a little more about the costs associated with setting up the infrastructure?

Arjun Venkatraman's picture

It's not expensive to get this going. For the price of a laptop (5000-7000 for a second hand or free if you can get a donation), a GSM gateway (~7000 INR) and some open source software (Free) you can get up and running. Then its a question of what bells and whistles you want to add

Dhruv Sarin's picture

Thanks. Is this two way communication or just outgoing?

Arjun Venkatraman's picture

It's two way..."Press one to two to listen" You can give the service a whirl by calling 08041137282. The number does respond and call you back if you leave a missed call, but we request people who can afford the call to ignore the message at the beginning and call through to the options.

CGNet represents a voice of the people really don't have voice today. Frequently their voice is subdued by middleman, politicians, and society who refuses to look at balanced development for all. Hats off to CGNet that they are exemplary of most needed voice. I would like to review cost model and would love to further scale by reducing cost of implementation for millions of groups around the world. We need more research and development from industry and reduced telecom cost from telecom providers in developing countries. As soon as we have we will start to see participatory democracies around the world.