Connecting immigrants with NYC services through CycleNews by Madeleine Bair

Latina bike messengers provide a two-way info service in Queens

Originally published on Medium.

Each weekend this summer, a group of women donning neon vests and helmets has mounted bicycles and dispersed throughout Corona, Queens, to hand-deliver information to the neighborhood’s Latino immigrants. The women are members of the grassroots organization, Mujeres en Movimiento(“women in movement”), which partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and the Department of Cultural Affairs to launch CycleNews.

The pilot kicked off in late May, and two months later in a backyard in Corona, I had a chance to sit down with some of the women behind it to learn what motivated CycleNews, and why choose bikes, clipboards, and info cards to reach Latino immigrants with news and information.

The idea, they explained, builds on Immigrant Movement International, an art project and community center developed by artist Tania Bruguera in 2011 in collaboration with the Queens Museum and Creative Time. The artist encouraged community members to imagine a better Queens, and empowered them to manifest that vision, drawing from tactics of art and community organizing. As the current Public Artist in Residence with MOIA, she has continued to collaborate with immigrants to pursue those questions and design ways to create their own solutions.

One of the gaps identified through this process was free group exercise, hence the creation of Mujeres en Movimiento, which began as a dance therapy group and has grown into a grassroots organization that advocates for bike safety and the empowerment of immigrant women.

Another gap that surfaced was better information. “It’s our right to inform,” said Veronica Ramirez, one of the founders of Mujeres en Movimiento, “and to be informed ourselves.”

Women from Mujeres en Movimiento delivering information as part of CycleNews.  Source

Women from Mujeres en Movimiento delivering information as part of CycleNews. Source

In a city with one of the country’s most vibrant ethnic media ecosystems, what’s wrong with the news provided by local Spanish-language newspapers, television, and radio?

Plenty. “Many people say that the news outlets misinform. That what they do is frighten the community,” said Valeria Reyes, echoing a complaint I’ve heard from immigrants in Oakland about their local Spanish-language media. “They are motivated by ratings,” Valeria added, so they prioritize shock value over providing useful information.

That’s what they are trying to do through CycleNews. When the women disperse on bikes throughout the community on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, they take two things with them. One is a stack of cards with information about municipal services available to immigrants and how to access them. There is an illustration on one side, and Spanish text on the other. They use these cards to talk to people on the street and engage them in conversation about what city services they might need.

The second thing they carry is a clipboard, which they use to pose to strangers on the street the same question that inspired them to start Mujeres en Movimiento: “What do you want to see in your community?” Each week they share that information back to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, creating an information loop that both helps immigrants access services, and assists the city in understanding the needs of the community. “It is to give,” Veronica says, “and also to receive.”

Now that the pilot has come to an end, Mujeres en Movimiento and their partners will evaluate the success of CycleNews and determine if and how to continue to spread information to the city’s immigrants on two wheels and from one person to another.

This is the second in an occasional series exploring offline approaches to distributing news. How does your community share news and information in person? How would you like to see a version of CycleNews implemented where you live? How might news delivered on bike engage audiences that wouldn’t be reached on a website, Twitter, or mobile notification?

For the first blog in the series, about plans to reach rural communities in Zimbabwe from the founder of 263Chat, click here.

Taking the Internet Off the Internet to Reach Offline Audiences by Madeleine Bair

How a Zimbabwean news entrepreneur plans to reach across the digital divide

Originally published on Medium.

If news innovation is understood through the lens of digital technology, who is left behind? What opportunities are missed, what audiences are neglected, and whose voices and stories are left out?

That question has plagued Nigel Mugamu. Nigel is the founder of 263Chat, a media outlet that uses Twitter conversations, WhatsApp groups, and videos to engage Zimbabweans in conversations about national affairs. The outlet, founded in 2012, has more than 200 thousand Twitter followers, and Nigel has won several awards for entrepreneurship and innovation. But while the news company has grown, Nigel is conscious of the fact that a large fraction of the country will never check out his website or take part in Twitter chats. That’s because a majority of Zimbabweans live in the countryside, and most of them have limited to no internet access.

I met Nigel at the Stockholm Internet Forum earlier this year, which brought together human rights activists, journalists, and internet freedom activists around the theme of Access & Power. During the closing plenary, Nigel posed this challenge to the group: Considering how many people are offline, how might we “find a way to bring the internet off the internet for those who have no access.”

This resonated with me. While the digital divide is not nearly as stark in the U.S. as it is in Zimbabwe, internet use is very different across socio-economic, generational, and ethnic divides. I know plenty of people in their 60s and 70s who have internet access but prefer to read their paper in print because it’s been a part of their routine for decades. Some working-class news consumers have limited cellphone data and are less likely to stream videos or download news apps on their phones. And in rural and immigrant communities, many people rely primarily on offline social networks for news and information. What sorts of innovative distribution strategies will more effectively reach those audiences?

DVD & WhatsApp distribution to engage with rural Zimbabwe

I caught up later with Nigel to ask him how he’s working to “take the internet off the internet.” Speaking via WhatsApp from his home in Harare, he explained to me that even for the minority of Zimbabweans who have internet access, that access can be severely limited. “For some people, Facebook is the internet. For some people, WhatsApp is the internet.”

For many Zimbabweans, especially the 60 percent of the population that lives in the countryside, the Twitter chats and online articles produced by 263Chat, not to mention their YouTube videos, will never reach them. “A lot of times,” he said, “marginalized communities are missing out on conversations that influence and affect them.” He realized he needed to go to where those communities are.

263Chat radio show about the 2018 election.  Source

263Chat radio show about the 2018 election. Source

This year, he’s experimenting with ways to do just that. “One of the things we identified: we’re a radio nation. And so what we did was partner with one of the national radio stations here.” The station needs good content, and 263Chat needs to reach their audiences. “So we’re in the process of making more audio content to be played on the radio.”

Another technology popular in Zimbabwe is DVDs. Street vendors hawk copies of the latest movies and television shows, which buyers can watch, trade with friends, and recirculate. 263Chat produces plenty of videos for their website and social media, but now the team is thinking, “why don’t we put these on a DVD and hand them out in the city?” For now, it’s just an idea, but Nigel has a vision of DVDs containing a series of short videos on news, culture, and public affairs, sponsored by advertisements, distributed on the streets, and delivered on motorbikes to rural villages.

Finally, Nigel is thinking through how mobile content can circulate through a community that lacks internet access. By sharing information on WhatsApp via an image or an entire article, rather than a link to an online report, that information can then be spread via SMS or simply shared in person. “For people who don’t have access, someone in the community has a smartphone, and sometime during the week, that person congregates and shares it with others.” Think of it as the 21st century version of leaving a newspaper on the bus.

In the next few weeks I’ll be sharing other examples of low-tech innovation designed to reach marginalized communities, and I’d love to hear from you. How has digital-first innovation left offline audiences behind? What other ways do news publishers and consumers “take the internet off the internet” and distribute it to offline communities? Chime in with a comment to share your thoughts.