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Digital Innovation Study

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to be innovative

With phones being used to deliver and create information even in remote corners of the world, projects don't have to be high tech to succeed says Erik Albrecht, co-author of DW Akademie's digital innovation study.

The DW Akademie's study, "Advancing Freedom of Expression: Using digital innovation to foster Article 19 in the Global South" explores some of the pitfalls and possiblities of digital technology projects in the Global South.

In this interview with #mediadev, co-author Erik Albrecht talks about the incredible diversity of initiatives involved in supporting Article 19, why participation and inclusion is vital for the future of freedom of expression and his fascination with feature phones.

#mediadev: When carrying out your research for this study, what did you find most striking?

Erik Albrecht: Writing this research, I was impressed with the broad range of new actors who are trying to improve freedom of expression and access to information with the help of digital technologies. Long-running newspapers are setting up new projects, new initiatives are forming to work on open data or to build tools for radio stations to engage with their audiences, and at the same time NGOs are using digital technologies to collate information on the issues they do advocacy work on, such as sexual violence against women, corruption or the shortcomings of their country’s health system. For media development organizations, this is a tremendous challenge and a great opportunity since all of these actors are potential partners in their struggle to foster freedom of expression and access to information.

Obviously as a researcher you start with an open mind – were there any discoveries that surprised you?

We looked at four functions the media environment has to fulfill in order to provide freedom of expression and access to information and analyzed how digital technologies can help strengthen these functions: creating a public sphere, fostering inclusion and participation, providing access to information, and holding those in power to account. Looking at how the projects we studied tried to hold those in power to account illustrated very well to what extent freedom of expression and access to information are enabling rights for other human rights. I have to admit that this is fairly obvious when you think about it. As a journalist, I am used to thinking that putting information out in the public is a value in itself. But actually our study showed that many projects use this right to fight for other causes – be they women’s rights or medical care for everyone. And this illustrates the importance of media development for society.

Was there anything you think the projects overlooked in general?

The sustainability of these projects is often very challenging. All the initiatives of our study depend on donors to be able to do their important work. So media viability is a crucial issue that has to be investigated further, something which DW Akademie has explored in other studies.

What do you think digital innovation could target vis-à-vis advancing freedom of expression in the future?

This is a very difficult question given how diverse the development of digital technologies is around the world. Looking at our research, I would say that inclusiveness and participation will have to be the area in which digital innovation is needed most in the future. Otherwise, there is a danger that digital technologies will actually create more exclusion for marginalized groups of society.

What digital technologies are you most excited by for fostering Article 19?

During my research, I was fascinated by those projects using feature phones, that is plain old mobile phones, to reach their audiences. They proved that digital innovation does not have to mean high-end new technologies that are only available to early adopters or those with the means to afford new gadgets. To me, the use of feature phones illustrates that tailoring your project to the communication habits of your audience is one key to success in fostering Article 19.

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