Welcome

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The RootIO (roots radio) Project is a loosely-integrated, content-agnostic “solution stack” for peer-oriented radio networks.  The project aims to mix communities, telephony, networking, and radio to create new models of community information.  RootIO crosses the best parts of community radio, broadcast networks, and peer production into a vertically integrated platform, gluing together existing technologies and creating new ones where necessary.

RootIO grew out of the recognition that despite the wonders of mobile telephony and the Internet, radio is still a vibrant medium, and in many places it is where most people get the bulk of their information.  It doesn’t require literacy, a personal device, or much power, it is transmitted free of charge, and it comes built in to many of the phones used around the world.  But radio is a broadcast medium, and has yet to benefit from contemporary advances in peer networks and production.  We hope to find new ways of merging these platforms.

Working prototype micro-station!  Shown in Gulu, Uganda, with battery below and (not shown) solar panel up on the roof.  Goat optional.

Working prototype micro-station!  Shown in Gulu, Uganda, with battery below and (not shown) solar panel up on the roof.  Goat optional.

Another shot of the micro-station prototype, with antenna and the lovely Kololo skyline.

Another shot of the micro-station prototype, with antenna and the lovely Kololo skyline.

In Kampala

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The rootIO team has had a busy February! In addition to a coding sprint, the team has been conducting community assessments in Northern Uganda and meeting with a variety of partners that could serve as content providers for rootIO community radio stations.

The goal of the community assessment process is to identify five communities that would be ideal hosts for the first rootIO “micropower” radio stations. These communities might be large or small, peri-urban or rural, but they should have a strong civil society group (like a CBO, farmer’s union, network of SACCOs, or youth center) that could host the station.

To launch this process, Elizabeth Gin, rootIO’s Community Media Designer and Outreach Coordinator, and Jude Mukundane, rootIO’s Chief Technology Officer, organized eight partner meetings in Kampala; eight partner meetings upcountry; and six community site visits.

Through reaching out to friends and partners, civil and religious groups, NGOs and academics, the rootIO team gathered advice and insights from local experts that that helped shape their methodology. Based on the advice of rootIO’s project partners, rootIO has constrained the overall geographic area of interest to the Luo-speaking North, though obviously the team hopes to grow to other parts of Uganda (and the world!).

Finding Community
One of the highlights included meeting with Robby Muhumuza, who was generous to include Jude and Elizabeth in his Sunday afternoon plans. Robby is a Management and Communications Consultant who is working towards his PhD in Strategic Leadership and has extensive experience evaluating and advising UNICEF’s Youth ICT Center Initiatives.

Drawing from his wealth of experience working across many types of contexts — from grassroots communities up to international, behemoth institutions — Robby shared key insights from his own assessment methodology.  For example, when first evaluating a community-based organization or local civil society group, Robby looks for “indicators of sustainability.” These indicators could include an organizational strategy and personnel structure, physical infrastructure, diversified sources of income, and a strong foundation for volunteers.

“The success rate of partner-based initiatives largely depend upon how well the local group is organized and active before the outside partner joins,” explains Robby.

A critical aspect of rootIO’s community assessment process consists of bringing together multiple stakeholders who can share management of the station and facilitate dialogue with the greater community to decide upon a desired programming schedule. Robby emphasizes that in order to help foster this sense of collective ownership, the rootIO team - along with our partners - should expect to conduct direct trainings with as many members of the community as possible.

“Don’t just train one or two people and expect them to train the others. The message and skills will get distorted,” says Robby. This pass-it-along approach also does not contribute towards a shared sense of ownership over the project.

In many ways, the hardware and software of rootIO “micropower” radio stations has been designed to function on its own. Locally stored content, new content from the network, and regional and national programming can all play off the solar power system without local support or intervention.  Nonetheless, Robby reiterates that it is crucial to “locate the nearest technical person to fix the station in case of a problem.” And in fact, one of the rootIO team’s goals while meeting directly with communities is to identify local members who either already have the skill set or are interested in learning how to troubleshoot and grow their station.

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Exchanging insights with Robby Muhumuza over enjoy spiced African tea and cappuccinos.

Another meeting that helped the rootIO team prepare for the community assessment process was with Xin Li. As an Interaction Designer for Design Without Borders, Xin has been in Uganda for 16 months, working to improve the Uganda Content Portal and overall interactive experience within UNICEF Youth ICT Centers. Although she and her teammate Per Endre Skarvik are based in Kampala, they’ve spent many hours at a variety of UNICEF Youth ICT Centers, interacting with the youth leaders, understanding group dynamics, conducting user research, launching prototypes, and leading trainings.

Similar to Robby, Xin has also found faith-based organizations (FBOs) to usually be the most stable and enthusiastic partners for youth center sites in Uganda. Xin also emphasizes that it is important for the community to have a sense of ownership, transparent leadership, and open communication.

After the rootIO team completes the initial community assessments in February, the team will follow-up soon after in March with the goal of assembling three stations in preparation for launch once UCC licensing is finalized. With the impending launch of rootIO “micropower” stations in mind, Xin suggests initially limiting the feature scope until people learn how to use just the bare bone features of calling in, setting program schedules, and general station maintenance.

In deciding which communities to visit, the rootIO team is considering a mixture of sites closer to towns such as Gulu and more remote sites with only a basic trading center. Xin advises testing rootIO’s IT infrastructure in the more accessible locations first, and then launching stations in the more remote locations once all the obvious bugs have been addressed.

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Catching up with Xin Li, Interaction Designer for Design Without Borders.

Feeding the Airwaves
The process of identifying communities interested in hosting a rootIO “micro” power station runs parallel to the process of ensuring that these rootIO community radio stations have access to diverse, high-quality content. The rootIO team believes that just because a station is community-based with hyperlocal programming doesn’t mean that listeners should be subject to lower-quality audio or reports that don’t abide by the standards of ethical journalism.

As a result, the rootIO team is eagerly seeking partnerships with mass communication and journalism departments universities, media houses, NGOs, and CBOs that may be able to help provide regional or national content directly or the tools for local community members to produce high-quality content of their own.

For example, on the cool veranda at Endiro Coffee, Elizabeth and Jude enjoyed lunch with Gerald Businge, a Lecturer at Makerere University’s School of Journalism and Communication and Project Coordinator for the Sweden-funded Action for Transparency (A4T) project at Uganda Media Development Foundation (UMDF).

Gerald teaches a Multimedia Productions course at Makerere and he has a keen interest in how new media tools can improve journalistic activities. RootIO hopes to offer an internship for Acholi-speaking students within the School of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University. In addition to writing, reading, and recording regional and national news stories for the network of rootIO “micropower” stations, Gerald suggested that the internship could also include facilitated student travel to the chosen five communities so students could provide additional on-the-ground journalism training and support.

“Our students yearn for hands-on experiences,” summarized Gerald.

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Planning a partnership with Gerald Businge of MUK and UMDF.

The rootIO team also met with May Nakyejwe, Joan Nankya, and Catherine Apalat of Uganda Women’s Media Association (UWMA) / Mama FM. The concept behind rootIO deeply resonated with the women of Mama FM.

“The rootIO idea fits well with us because we are community-­based ourselves and we want to reach that remote, grassroots person,” explains May. “This grassroots person does not have airspace, like you’ve noted.”

The meeting was filled with questions that challenged the rootIO team’s streamlined explanation of the project, such as “What if the broadcaster, the host, and the people that call-in to the talk show speak a different language?” And also ideas, as Mama FM has internally been brainstorming ways to reach two key districts Wakiso and Kyankwanzi.

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Jude prepares a rootIO demo for the team at UWMA / Mama FM.

RootIO’s team has been honored to connect with Makerere University’s School of Journalism and Communication, UWMA / Mama FM, Deustche Welle, and the Uganda Community Libraries Association. We hope to work with these partners to help their high-quality information reach grassroots communities across Uganda.

North by Northwest

Rootio team members Elizabeth Gin and Jude Mukundane are up in North/Northwest Uganda demoing and assessing possible community partners.  They have visited some remarkable community based organizations, some rural villages that currently don’t have radio stations, and met with youth who would love to get their music on the air.

More detailed posts to come, but we wanted to give special thanks to BOSCO, which is running over a dozen very successful solar powered ICT centers around Gulu and Lira.  Where countless projects have hit the shoals, BOSCO has managed to run high-quality wireless connections hundreds of kilometers in many directions, create spaces for people to learn and use IT, and sustain these activities in many satisfied communities.  Thanks especially to executive director Rev Fr. Joseph Okumu for his generosity to our team.

RootIO Visits Kenya

Kenya has a vibrant media sector, with radio being the most popular medium, especially in rural areas. In addition, Kenya is in the midst of a ‘startup boom,’ initiated by creative technology and business incubators such as iHub. But at what point does Kenyan radio intersect with Kenyan startup culture? Possibly with rootIO.

Jude Mukundane, rootIO’s Chief Technology Officer, traveled to Kenya recently to check out some of the innovations at iHub and other innovation labs in Nairobi and assess how they could benefit from radio as a medium for information dissemination.

iHub in Nairobi, Kenya.

At iHub, Jude came across the following initiatives and mobile applications that have emerged from the space:

Eneza is an app that delivers educational content over SMS upon subscription. The company has considered using radio for hard to reach areas, but it is currently too costly as a channel for information delivery. However, rootIO’s goal of creating small, local stations with low setup and overhead capital requirements could provide a unique point of intersection with companies such as Eneza.

Mzalendo is an initiative that collects Parliamentary Hansards and makes them available to the general public in a searchable format. Through searching Hansards and using MP scorecards on the Mzalendo website, Kenyan citizens can assess the performance of their Parliamentary representatives and hold their leaders accountable.

Mzalendo blog posts and relevant information about the National Assembly’s activities assists citizens in making informed political engagements, and could serve as a crucial source of content for rootIO radio stations.

After leaving iHub, Jude met up with Jude Mwenda (formerly with the Nation Media Group but now a student at MIT researching into development of civic radio engagement tools among other things), a potential contributor to the rootIO’s open source software. Together, they made their way to Radio Africa Group, which runs Classic FM, Kenya’s most popular radio station.

Jude Mukundane and Jude Mwenda meet with the technical team at Radio Africa Group, discussing everything from IT to transmission.

At Radio Africa Group, the commercial and technical staff explained the in’s and out’s of programming and airing of shows, right from the studio to the technical aspects of having a show aired to the factors that determine what show is aired. Such large stations need to invest a lot in both technology and human assets.

Alex from Classic FM, explains studio procedures to Jude Mukundane and Jude Mwenda.

Jude’s final destination was the Innovation Lab at Strathmore University. Speaking to a group of about 10 students and administrators, Jude led a discussion about the current model of radio and the potential benefits that could be introduced by rootIO.

After the discussion, the students played with an example rootIO station, which used a Samsung Galaxy Pocket, a car FM transmitter, and a 9V battery for power.

rootIO micro station demo at Strathmore University.

To test the rootIO station’s diverse functionality, Jude played a music program, interrupted it with news streamed from the cloud server, and added a voice call-in to simulate a talk show. The demonstration left students wondering how they could appeal for a rootIO station spanning their university!

There generally was appreciation of the rootIO concept as a potential solution to the problems associated with radio and as a way of making a very powerful communication medium even more valuable to the societies that depend heavily on it. Without a doubt, the challenges facing radio in Sub-Saharan African countries are largely the same and rootIO is applicable beyond the boundaries of Uganda.

In the fold!

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Richard Zulu posts about the Rootio Team.

Thanks to Outbox for a great coworking space!

Team member Josh Levinger blogs about the live demo we ran for @ugandrn.

We are making rapid progress on both the cloud and station side of the Rootio system, with the team distributed in Kampala, LA, and San Francisco.  Here’s a taste of the database model for the cloud side.  Lots to do before Team America [sic] joins Team Uganda in a couple of weeks, but we’re very happy with the progress so far.

We are making rapid progress on both the cloud and station side of the Rootio system, with the team distributed in Kampala, LA, and San Francisco.  Here’s a taste of the database model for the cloud side.  Lots to do before Team America [sic] joins Team Uganda in a couple of weeks, but we’re very happy with the progress so far.

The team taking a break from coding during a weeklong retreat in Los Angeles.

The team taking a break from coding during a weeklong retreat in Los Angeles.