REG4COVID: Community network responses to the pandemic

Image: Janastu, Visit to Uttar Pradesh​​​​​​​, India.

By Marta Kopp
Publisher: APCNews     04 August 2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is the agency of the United Nations concerned with global information and communication technologies, launched a global network resiliency platform to track pandemic response efforts. Known as REG4COVID, this platform is a space where regulators and other interested parties can share and discuss their own initiatives to deal with the outbreak in their own countries.

As a part of this initiative, APC’s Connecting the Unconnected initiative asked their community network partners to contribute to the platform, given the general absence of civil society input. This article gathers together the initiatives and programmes that have been submitted to the ITU by community networks in the past few months. Some of these initiatives include producing health information in local languages, efforts to fight misinformation, the creation of affordable physical telecommunications infrastructure, and digital services that provide relevant content to local communities, such as financial services and community notice boards. The original submissions can be viewed on the ITU website.

Argentina
AlterMundi

In response to the pandemic, people’s lives have largely moved online. This puts in stark contrast the lives of those who have quality internet access and those who do not. AlterMundi’s priority in this time is providing connectivity to communities who have been ignored by private service providers who do not find rural communities profitable enough to invest in telecommunications infrastructure. Given the implementation of social distancing measures, AlterMundi has developed new protocol guidelines that guarantee the recommendations of social distancing and prevention of COVID-19.

Brazil
CooLab [1, 2, 3]

CooLab was founded to develop and expand the capacity and awareness of community-based, self-managed networks. Their belief is that this model creates opportunities for those who cannot access market connectivity options, as well as those who wish to control their own data and technological platforms. As the pandemic has altered domestic and economic habits as well as the way in which data and information are disseminated, CooLab believes that community networks provide a valuable alternative. During this time, they are working to raise awareness on the topic of community networks in Brazil and providing support for partners and other civil society organisations who are implementing community networks.

The pandemic has clarified the extent to which connectivity is crucial to accessing basic services and information. Since so many Brazilians rely on mobile data, a problem that arose early on in the pandemic was data caps, implemented by large telecommunications providers. In response, CooLab launched a campaign called #liberaowifi (translating to “free your wifi”), which allows those with fibre data, ADSL, or extra mobile Wi-Fi to share their data with the community. This was implemented through channels on WhatsApp and Telegram. Another aspect of this programme was the distribution of share box kits, which consist of mobile devices that use data to create open temporary hotspots in unconnected communities.

Another aspect of CooLab’s work involves the capacity for students to continue their education from home. Schools had recently banned smartphone usage in class; however, the pandemic has forced students online. Many of these digital platforms were not designed to be used on low bandwidth and do not allow students to work in a manner that functions with their living situation. As such, CooLab, along with local teachers and students, began work on free and open source educational frameworks to work within community networks that can be adapted for schools with fewer resources.

IBEBrasil

IBEBrasil focuses on the creation of community networks as a common good. Particularly during the pandemic, helping communities that have been excluded from the traditional avenues of information to create and maintain their own networks is not only good for community health, but is also good for socioeconomic development and the preservation of local culture. Given the lack of commercial interest in providing telecommunication services in rural areas, the communities have resorted to providing their own networks.

Colombia
Colnodo

Colnodo assists indigenous and rural community networks in Colombia that had previously not had access to quality communication services. Because of the pandemic, the Colnodo networks have allowed residents of these communities to access information networks to learn about the virus virtually, preventing a community outbreak, which would not have been possible before the creation of local networks.

In Cauca, in eastern Colombia, the indigenous Nasa people want to use the networks to disseminate their own content to promote community health and education. Colnodo is currently building a wiki to discuss the processes involved in building, maintaining and managing community networks, so that communities across Colombia can share what they have learned with other interested parties and access a network of virtual support.

India
Digital Empowerment Foundation

In India, the pandemic has created unexpected challenges, one of which is the reverse migration of workers from cities. These workers have been denied access to various aid programmes and basic facilities, like subsidised food and financial services.

In response, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) created an ICT-enabled relief programme, with more than 600 digital resource centres and more than 3,000 volunteers. These volunteers are delivering food packages, remote banking, tele-health programmes, and other emergency relief initiatives. Additionally, access to crisis counselling has been offered, given the often-overwhelming impact of the pandemic on the lives of locals.

Janastu

The pandemic disrupted Janastu’s community network development plans from the beginning – they were planning to send a team of eight to Uttar Pradesh in March, but only two ended up going. They themselves brought safety kits and wore face masks, but there didn’t seem to be much happening in the way of social distancing. They returned to Bengaluru the day before the nationwide lockdown was implemented.

Originally, Janastu had planned on introducing mesh networks and Pi recorders to young women in Mirzapur to collect stories from the community. Lockdown meant forced re-strategising. New strategies were implemented, mostly around COVID-19 awareness and prevention. This included mask production, translating information into Kannada and other local languages, relief work in various communities, as well as story collection to hear how the pandemic was impacting their communities.

Photo from the visit to Uttar Pradesh.

Janastu-Futuretron Labs

Futuretron Labs, which works on electric vehicle mobility, collaborated with Janastu once the pandemic began. The lab began producing three new products to help with curtailing the spread of the virus: a foot pedal-operated hand sanitiser, an automatic contactless sanitiser dispenser, and a UV-based disinfectant.

Watch their videos here.

Janastu-Namma Halli Radio/Pragathi Foundation

A mobile radio station in Tumakuru district has reached over 25,000 people in over 60 villages. It focuses on local languages and dialects, and students and volunteers have been helping with programme production. The production information is then shared through public service announcements in local villages. The focus has been on vital COVID-19 information, including preventing the spread of the infection, containment, personal hygiene and social distancing, as well as fighting disinformation by sharing information from experts.

Image from village in Tumakuru.

BAIF Development Research Foundation

The lack of digital services for remote villages, combined with the lack of work options for young women, has resulted in the eDost program. The purpose of eDost is to create a digital system of services, created and maintained by women. The first eDost began in Maharashtra, in the village of Pathardi, and consisted of a woman named Anjali Tai offering financial services locally, which saved villagers from having to travel to the next town over to procure such services.

With support from APC, this model grew to 15 eDosts offering services like cash withdrawal, money transfers and bill payments, among other financial services.

The pandemic lockdown resulted in people being unable to leave their homes, and during this time, the Indian government also began offering financial support to community members. This is when the eDosts stepped up and offered financial services that enabled the community to withdraw money and recharge their cell phones from their front doors. Within a month, 10 eDosts offered services to 828 beneficiaries.

The district authorities appreciated the project and have requested it be scaled up across the district. The programme plans to expand into e‑governance and knowledge sharing services.

The Spoken Tutorial

One of the many impacts of the pandemic has been on education, and as such, virtual learning and distance-learning platforms have become increasingly popular. However, these initiatives are meant for users who have access to networks and connectivity, while there are still half a billion people in India without internet access. The Spoken Tutorial project, founded in 2009 and funded by the Indian government, aims to disseminate knowledge using free/libre and open source software, using 10-minute-long audio-video tutorials.

Since the lockdown in India began, usage of the Spoken Tutorial has gone up astronomically. The main purpose of Spoken Tutorial is to promote IT literacy and address the information accessibility gap. It empowers communities to create their own content, in their own languages, and these products are then made available on the Spoken Tutorial website, easily accessible even without any prior knowledge of software technology, allowing students to download zip files in limited connectivity environments.

South Africa
Zenzeleni

A challenge facing Zenzeleni has been the lack of relevant, reliable and up-to-date information in rural communities, particularly in isiXhosa, the local language. Given that much of the nationally disseminated information was not relevant to their communities, Zenzeleni launched a digital Community Notice Board with health resources tailored specifically to the local communities, available for free to anyone connecting through Zenzeleni’s networks.

The notice board also includes guidelines to discern between accurate and verifiable information and misinformation. Access to reliable and affordable information is Zenzeleni’s priority, and it is exceptionally important during a global health crisis.



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