The pilot of Africa’s Voices (2012-2013) explored how new communication technologies can be combined with traditional media to enable public spaces for discussion and debate about topics relevant to all audiences. By collecting the views of communities in East, Central, West and Southern Africa, the pilot underscored the potential for a continental dialogue, in multiple languages, on common topics that concern all the communities involved.
The main insight from the pilot is that the format and content of radio-mediated communications, within programmes that permit open formats, might not differ as starkly from spontaneous conversations as they occur in other public spaces. Audiences tend to express their opinions in local languages, with personal references, combining standardized answers, required for simple aggregation and comparability, with reasons justifying their choices.
Beyond the pilot, the research agenda in 2014 focused on advancing theoretical and methodological knowledge that offers a more integrative view of public opinion, framed in real contexts and social meanings. As an innovation valuing individual voices, spontaneously expressed in inclusive public spaces, and immersed in everyday real-life contexts, Africa’s Voices distances itself from classical methods to gather public opinion such as surveys or focus groups.
The post-pilot phase comprises: (1) the development of technology to gather SMS, tagged with socio-demographical information, in real time, that elucidates the dynamics of audiences' participation in radio shows (Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Project) and (2) the development of computational tools that allow to extract contextually grounded meaning from large unstructured datsets of SMS (Africa's Voices Research Developments).
In the post-pilot phase, the emphasis has been placed on the development of analytical tools that allow researchers to extract meaning from unstructured text messages expressed in African languages. During this phase, an important collaboration was established with Dr Sebastian Ahnert, who applied network analysis to model patterns of relevant words/expressions and socio-demographics from Africa's Voices datasets. CGHR also worked closely with IBM Research Africa Lab on a joint study during the summer of 2014 (Dr Lopes was seconded to their Nairobi lab under an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account grant), to explore the potential of machine-learning to extract themes shared by particular socio-demographical groups from large datasets of SMS messages.
While at the Lab, Dr Lopes investigated and developed a framework for understanding public opinion in Africa's Voices, combining social science with computational models. The basic idea was to extract contextually grounded meaning from natural forms of expression in African languages, in order to develop insights on socially shared knowledge of African social realities and practices.
This project (2013-14), funded by Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Fund, sought to strengthen an existing collaborative research partnership between CGHR and the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi and also to better explore the synergies between the pilot of Africa’s Voices and other concurrent research in the Centre's PiMA (Politics and Interactive Media in Africa) project. Approaching the issue from different perspectives, both projects investigate whether the new opportunities for voice, debate and claim-making in the public sphere that have been created by the intersection of prodigious growth in mobile telephony access and the burgeoning broadcast media landscape, are invigorating development and governance horizons in Africa.
This specific study attempted to identify the socio-demographical profiles and patterns of participation of citizens taking part in radio discussions. SMS texting is used in order to understand what the implications of the upsurge of poll-based radio programmes have been for levels of inclusivity in public debate - given that programmes such as Africa's Voices promote inclusiveness by broadcasting opinions through radio.
Researchers working on PiMA conducted representative households surveys in constituencies in Kisumu, Nairobi, on self-reporting levels of listenership and participation; the post-pilot Africa's Voices study will augment the data collected by adding behavioural evidence. The study also introduces technological innovations to gather socio-demographics from audiences through SMS in real time when they participate in Africa’s Voices programmes.
The Africa's Voices pilot methodology and results were presented during the Africa's Voices Seminar: Valuing new voices in African public spheres, held at the Department of Politics and International Studies on the 16th October 2013. Listen to and view Dr Abreu Lopes’ presentation here: