27 October 2011

UNAIDS asks youths to create its strategy

UNAIDS, the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, wants a new strategy for young people and has adopted an innovative crowdsourcing approach to get their inputs. 
Youth are at particular risk of HIV infection, because they are sexually active but often lack awareness of the risks or the ways they can protect themselves. Around 3000 more young people aged 15-24 get infected with HIV every day.

CrowdOutAIDS.org is a first in the UN system and is designed to get large numbers of people to contribute ideas and share their concerns and their knowledge. UNAIDS hopes that this approach will not only ensure that its strategy is more relevant to young people, but also encourage many of them to be motivated to join in and be part of the solution.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel SidibĂ© said: "It is absolutely critical that we engage young people - not as recipients of our messages but as the actors and creators of change."

The interesting challenge for UNAIDS will be to ensure not only broad participation, but that the hopes and dreams of young people are reflected in a workable strategy that they recognise, understand and support. 

Read more at UNAIDS

UN communicating for development

The United Nations Development Group, a coordinating mechanism for UN institutions involved in development, has a new website on the topic of Communication for Development.

C4D as the jargonists are prone to calling this field, is far more than corporate or public relations, or community-based communication. As the new website states: "It is the role of Communication for Development in empowerment processes that helps distinguish C4D from other forms of communication".

This is a reasonably young and evolving field of study and practice with relatively few specialists. A range of conferences, workshops and online forums help to keep things moving within the UN and the broader development community, but in the age of Web 2.0 it makes sense to open discussion to the wider world and be visible about specific objectives for communication for development. 

Having a clear public presence may help the UN make faster progress in this area and spread the word. With knowledge mangers, communicators and specialists all contributing to an evolving agenda, hopefully more people will be encouraged to take a closer look at the opportunities for using communications in a development context.


18 October 2011

198 ways to protest

Occupy Wall Street is inspiring street protests around the world as representatives of society's 99% least wealthy declare their concerns. Wired magazine has responded with a how-to guide for peaceful and effective protesting.

The focus of this guide is on the practicalities - in a US context - of mass gatherings, rallies and marches. It provides some interesting information about the security of mobile phones, what to do if the internet or social media networks are blocked, and the ways that photos can be used. It is best supplemented by an older but no less interesting resource, from 1973: Gene Sharp's list of 198 forms of non-violent protest - to which you can add a few digital options.

What I find missing is the bigger communication issues of public and media relations: how to get your message across and effect change.

One of fundamental constraints for the Wall Street and earlier protests such as the 'Arab Spring', Chilean student rallies and others, is that the gatherings seem to have grown organically to express general dissatisfaction rather than the defined needs of a narrow interest group. Most appear to be true, grassroots protests reflecting widespread societal discontent.

While there are some themes and specific demands emerging from the Wall Street activists, the news media was initially slow to cover these events or to lend them much credence, due in part to the diversity of issues being expressed by individual protesters and the lack of organized representation. This left some journalists struggling to make sense of the events and to gauge their importance and potential impact.

Mainstream news media are accustomed to being drip-fed information. Journalists are actively sought out by aggressive media representatives from big business, academia and major non-profit groups. Fewer journalists will have experience of popular outpourings of public opinion that are not filtered through established processes.

These days we are accustomed to seeing media-savvy protests on clearly defined issues, where everyone is waving a professionally printed sign about one of a limited set of key messages. Such events are well equipped and short-term rallies of the faithful, bussed in for a day as part of a larger campaign or political movement. Occupy Wall Street appears to reflect a groundswell of public opinion with multiple concerns. It is not fronted by a celebrity (though many are joining in), not are the concerns and demands being carefully packaged into soundbites to be repeated on demand.

The idea of holding up placards reflects an understanding that the news media - TV and photography - can have a strong influence on the visibility of your cause. What is unusual these days, is to see hand-written signs scrawled on bits of cardboard box.

Do we need the semi-professional packaging of protests now there are social networks, blogs and independent digital media to convey messages? (for a more academic review of social media and activism see Johannes Schunter's interesting blog). Occupy Wall Street and similar campaigns have used online channels to organise, share information and discuss issues. And it is clear there are disgruntled communities around the world that feel the need to gather, share and express their concerns across many issues, whether they are well organized or not.

Is it really necessary for these communities of interest to select a single figurehead? Will a trained spokesperson be more effective in winning support?

Media-centric advocates will typically construct a campaign that can deliver against defined and measurable objectives. This should ensure that the group explores ways to achieve their goals using available resources - from writing to their representatives to marching down the street with a common message writ large on clear banners. But does this mean that all groups need a narrow agenda? Do they have to agree on all the issues, propose solutions and publish a manifesto? Or can they survive on raw passion?

I have seen protests that seem to be poorly organized, with no central message and activities that are pointed not at decision-makers, but to anybody who will pay interest (or nobody in particular). But that does not diminish the power of conviction that is apparent when enough people join together. Simply meeting to unite their voice and share their worries and anger can inspire others and move issues along. In fact the diversity of a crowd can send a clear message that discontent is broadly felt in the community. Perhaps the main requirement is simply that the protest is relevant to enough people that it draws broad support and becomes visible to the media and to those in power so that they take notice and effect the necessary change.

While the messages may be muddied and sometimes competing, the Wired and Sharp guides may ultimately be enough: just get out there, and the change will follow.

See also:
How to film a revolution, and
How to advocate with video

16 October 2011

10 ways to report data better

Turning numbers and trends into stories and knowledge can be challenging to journalists and scientists alike, but also fascinating for their audiences. A blog by Troy Thibodeaux, Associated Press journalist and blogger on the  Poynter University journalism website, provides a detailed and helpful list of tools to probe and present data.

The tools are divided into the following categories:
1. Spreadsheets, for basic presentation and analysis
2. SQL, for relational databases and more
3. Data cleaning tools, for removing impurities
4. Visualization tools, for the big picture
5. Mapping software, to see where you are
6. Scripting language, to help present this information
7. Web framework, for getting it online
8. Editing tools, to write code, and more
9. Revision control, to spot mistakes and save backups
10. Document analysis tools, to handle large document sets as data, provide an interface and overcome formats like PDFs.

See also:

13 October 2011

Making field reports really simple

Knowledge management and development blogger Ian Thorpe reports on Akvo.org of the Netherlands which is helping to simplify communications about development and aid projects. 

Really Simple Reporting is a web publishing system lets anybody update a website while on location, even in remote places. They are aiming this product at development projects and donors, to encourage more active and timely reporting on activities and results. 

This system means that some communications about a project don't have to be funnelled back to headquarters or through a centralised project or communications team. Instead, development professionals and others on the front line can use mobile phones or laptops to keep everyone informed; from donors and line managers, to partners, participants and even beneficiaries.

I'm not sure it replaces detailed evaluations and the thick, data-filled reports that Akvo refers to disparagingly in its promotional literature, but if it helps people communicate in a more dynamic and personable way, it could be very powerful. One powerful argument is that it could help local partners to simplify the reporting process, if these communications were considered sufficient for a multitude of donors and partners. The ability to geo-tag photos and reports and to link to data where necessary are among the many features that could be developed by the development community, due to the open-source basis of this product.

Any form of self-publishing needs clear corporate guidelines and standards, so that field staff are equipped and actively supported in communicating directly. Therefore, adopting this system will need thoughtful planning and the support of headquarters. However the results promise to be more meaningful and well organized than, say, a Facebook page. Development organisations and donors would do well to be wary of adding a new burden to otherwise busy front-line workers and volunteers, though many will doubtless relish the chance to share their experiences directly and to help shape public understanding and appreciation for the results they achieve.

10 October 2011

Infographic insights

A good infographic can convey a message faster than text, tables and conventional figures.

There are many styles to choose from and creative minds are searching for new ways to help tell complex stories more easily. Some efforts fall woefully short: simply bundling facts and figures together with artwork is not as effective as a well thought out figure or storyboard. Ideally, the graphic, poster or animation will contain the minimum information needed to convey its message, put things in perspective and perhaps even entertain and 'wow' the audience.

The Guardian, UK has blogged about this and uses infographics extensively in its award-winning datablog. I'm a fan of their contributor David McCandless of Information is Beautiful. He has helped pioneer this field despite - or perhaps because of - being self-taught.

Such is the popularity of infographics that some job applicants are even adopting them as the basis for job applications or CVs. Commentators continue to debate this approach, but Vizualize.me has even helped automate the process.

Here are some places to find interesting infographics. Suggest others in the comments below!


Good.is infographics
Fast Company daily infographics
Daily Infographic 

Fundamentals of online strategy

This blog post is a bit old and things move quickly online, but Dutch blogger Gianluigi Cuccureddu has done some thinking about this and provides a detailed and helpful framework for developing your online strategy, albeit from a commercial perspective.
He divides the issue up into website, internet and social strategies and digs into the detail about how the parts fit together and how to tailor them to your own needs.

Public services via mobile phones

How Mobile Phones Could Bring Public Services to People in Developing Countries.

One blogger's take on how mobile phones could help fill the shortfall in internet access in Chile, to give people access to better public services. Apart from the obvious elements of phones and a network, Chilean journalist Miguel Paz notes the need for services that people can use, databases for information, and elements like clear user interfaces and simple information that make it easier for all people, literate or otherwise, to make good use of this communications channel.

While there is nothing unusual here, it is good to see Paz moving the agenda forward. Next step: finding help in making it happen!

Read more: http://to.pbs.org/pRTa8G

05 October 2011

Academics tweet too!

London School of Economics has published an interesting guide for its academics about how to make the best use of Twitter. 
Apart from the basics (e.g. how to use #hashtags), it proposes categories for tweets as 'substantive' (e.g. those that convey information and a useful link), conversational ('this is what I am doing right now') and 'middle ground' (a bit of both). 
I like the fact that it goes beyond being a corporate policy and actively explores ways that staff can use Twitter, including growing their audience and using it alongside teaching and research activities. Part of the LSE 'Impact of Social Sciences Project', the guide provides links to further resources such as staff already using Twitter, by faculty, and research into the use of Twitter and social media in science and higher learning.

03 October 2011

Bank-rolling development communications

Is investment in communications the missing link in development? 

Social entrepreneur and communications consultant Rob Burnet, based at Kenyan comic-publisher Well Told Story, summarizes here his presentation to the Second Global AgriKnowledge ShareFair held in Rome, 26-29 September.
Though he gives his pitch with passion, I am unconvinced that the marketing of development programming is so easily compared with the budgets of for-profit Hollywood blockbusters.When the returns are tangible and bankable, perhaps that will change. 
The reality is that if more money was available, there would be more field work, more humanitarian delivery and more research as a priority. Of course needs differ markedly among the locations, people and issues being addressed, and in some circumstances communications can play a central role. But you typically don't see marketing investment unless you have a bankable script, and in many places development results are still on the cutting room floor. 
Burnet notes that a multi-national marketing campaign budget can stretch to the hundreds of millions of dollars - for a major movie. But that covers TV and display advertising worldwide. Need is the mother of invention, and there are a myriad of more affordable options for development. Notably, this video is on YouTube, which is accessible to almost all content creators and viewers. Social media and other word of mouth tools are eminently accessible. Part of their popularity is that they are by far the cheapest option. Of course there needs to be scope in the budget for communication experts - including consultants - who can strategise and help to deliver campaigns, but that does not mean communication budgets should suddenly balloon. 
For me, the real sizzle in Burnet's interview is his second point: that people (and not just youth, please) need to be interested in what you want to communicate. Stimulating imaginations and getting people excited is a sure way to have them take your ideas and do something about them... whatever your budget.