KARA ANDRADE

Guatemala,

Built on mobile phone networks and Internet “hub” sites, Kara’s HablaCentro model has rapidly spread through the region, as grassroots demand for a reliable source of information has surged.

This profile below was prepared when Kara Andrade was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.

INTRODUCTION

Kara Andrade is the daughter of generations of United Fruit Company banana pickers in the plantations of Guatemala. When her mother became a coyote, Kara had the opportunity to leave Guatemala as a young child, become a U.S. citizen and work as a public health advocate, community organizer and journalist. She is now using all her cumulative skills to develop a citizen-based information sharing platform throughout Central America, where democracy is gradually beginning to emerge. HablaCentroCentro.com is a local mobile-driven network of regional citizen information websites in Latin America where contributions can be anonymous. Contributors, especially young people, from each country share and discuss information in various languages, including local indigenous languages. People use whatever means is available to them—computers, email and cellphones—to contribute and access the websites. A team of mostly volunteers share information and tools to participate and own the websites within each country.
Built on mobile phone networks and Internet “hub” sites, Kara’s HablaCentro model has rapidly spread through the region, as grassroots demand for a reliable source of information has surged.




THE NEW IDEA

Coming precisely at the first time in nearly five decades that democracy has taken root in the region, HablaCentro is the first Central American news-sharing platform built on mobile phones: The most pervasive digital technological applications available in these countries. In a region where social media applications like Twitter and Facebook are still not widely used because of their reliance on the Internet and smart phones, HablaCentro is providing an easily accessible, user-friendly means for grassroots participation in news generation and consumption. HablaCentro’s technology platform allows users to send and receive information via text messages that are also posted to local hub websites in each of the countries where HablaCentro currently operates (i.e. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela). The HablaCentro platform has already experienced such high demand that Kara’s model has spread virally from Guatemala, where she began her operations in May 2009, to the other four countries through sheer local initiative.
 
Beyond being a mere communication platform, HablaCentro is designed to promote civic participation through citizen journalism and collective action calls. Through educational outreach—provided to schools and citizen groups—as well as basic online tutorials, HablaCentro encourages citizens to report news that is timely and relevant to their communities, thus creating a bottom-up flow of information to counterbalance the traditional top-down media. Kara is particularly interested in promoting citizen-based investigative journalism, a concept that is not well established in most of Central America. As a firm believer that news and information serve a larger purpose, Kara has also built the HablaCentro platform to facilitate community action calls by the users themselves, such as sending help to disaster zones or disseminating information about recent political events.

Kara also envisions the HablaCentro platforms to enable citizen organization (CO) partners to reach more people with their services and information. Characterized by rapid viral growth and extensive geographic coverage, the HablaCentro networks provide a way for COs working on health, poverty, education, and other issues to disseminate information, particularly to communities where they do not already have an operational presence. Besides providing HablaCentro with a potential revenue stream as COs pay to share information across the networks, partnering with COs also strengthens and enriches the network effect that is inherent to HablaCentro’s success, attracting more users and creating more nodes of activity and communication.




THE PROBLEM

During the Cold War period, violent civil strife throughout Central America claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In Guatemala alone, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people were killed and 40,000 to 50,000 disappeared within a few decades. While the killings themselves undoubtedly traumatized Central Americans, the lack of reliable news about the government’s role in the atrocities only aggravated tensions further. A small group of elites, who often valued their economic and political agendas more than democratic journalism, controlled the traditional media outlets, especially newspapers. Without an independent news sector to act as a watchdog, Central American societies already battered by armed conflict also grew disillusioned by a general sense of societal helplessness and passivity.

Even though most violent conflict in Central America ended in the 1990s, a largely disconnected, fractured citizenry and elite control of information have persisted. Relatively low literacy rates (e.g. 69 percent in Guatemala, 67.5 percent in Nicaragua, and 80 percent in Honduras and El Salvador) still prevent a significant number of Central Americans from reading periodicals, and the geographic isolation of many communities limits access to both newspapers and television. Whereas a growing number of citizens in industrialized economies rely on the Internet for news, internet penetration in most Central American countries remains low. Community radio and mobile phones are the two communication channels that do have a broader geographic reach in the region. Mobile phone penetration is already impressively high in parts of Central America (e.g. in 2007, mobile phone penetration was over 60 percent in Guatemala and El Salvador and close to 50 percent in Honduras) and is rapidly growing each year (e.g. mobile phone subscriptions grew by nearly 50 percent in Guatemala and El Salvador in 2007 and by 80 percent in Honduras).

The disjointed nature of Central American societies is reflected in the citizen sector as well, which is largely still in a process of consolidation after decades of political instability. Many COs remain increasingly isolated, particularly because of distrust, a lack of awareness, as well as an absence of infrastructure. For example, the Cultural Survival Community Radio Network helps public health COs distribute information to 500,000 Guatemalan listeners free of charge, but the distribution process involves saving data on compact discs and hand-delivering them to far-flung community radio stations, because broadband networks and rural mail delivery are non-existent. As a result, disseminating information in the citizen sector is cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient. COs have long struggled to find a more effective way to operate.




THE STRATEGY

At the heart of the HablaCentro strategy is the idea that access to timely, relevant information improves people’s lives, especially if that information is used to fuel civic participation. Until recently, providing Central Americans with consistent, inexpensive access to such information was nearly impossible as violent civil strife gripped many countries and political elites stifled democratic decision-making. As democracy begins to take root in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the time is finally ripe for a mass communication platform built and used by citizens themselves.

Kara has created a mobile phone-based platform that allows people to send and receive SMS text messages to local telephone numbers, which are routed to a national hub website that aggregates submissions and disseminates them throughout the HablaCentro network (i.e. which is itself centered upon a regional hub called HablaCentro). The national hub websites enable users that do have Internet access, particularly users living outside of Central America, to learn about events on the ground in Central America and contribute their perspectives via web postings. For those Central Americans who still do not have access to mobile phones, Kara has created HablaRadio, which allows listeners to submit reports and comments by voice, using Spanish, English, or various indigenous languages. The HablaRadio audio files are also posted on the hub websites, where users can listen to the reports online or download them to their mobile phones. Kara and her team support the HablaCentro user experience through online technical assistance as well as tutorials for people who have Internet access and off-line community education. Her team places a special focus on teaching children and youth how to generate their own journalistic content and how to be responsible consumers of information.

To foment civic participation based on the HablaCentro information-sharing platform, Kara and her team are forging partnerships with a range of COs that can use the network to disseminate information about health, education, human rights, or any other social topic. For example, in the case of the Cultural Survival Community Radio Network (i.e. which distributes health information via radio stations), HablaCentro is piloting an Android-based application that allows 22 community radio stations to receive compressed audio files via mobile phone and upload them to an HablaCentro site. Users can then download files directly to their mobile phones—far more efficient than hand-delivering compact discs. Moreover, the incorporation of CO partners provides HablaCentro with a potential revenue stream as COs pay for distribution rights. Kara is not only forming journalistic partnerships with freelance investigative reporters who can find source contacts via HablaCentro’s network, but she is also developing relationships with news organizations and bloggers to aggregate and disperse information for a wider audience. As with any network model, creating more partnerships helps extend HablaCentro’s user base and enriches the diversity of sources and perspectives feeding into the information exchange.

As a digital platform, the HablaCentro model is relatively simple to replicate in other countries, as has already been the case with the HablaCentro hubs that have sprung up in Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. While the growth of the HablaCentro network must remain viral and stay in citizens’ hands, Kara realizes that certain centralized structural elements must also be put in place. The creation of national HablaCentro hubs in each country enables a degree of standardization and quality control, but also ensures that the information shared within that hub is both locally owned and consumed. Each national hub will become self-sustaining as it generates more partnerships with local COs and other actors, thereby extending its network of users. While Kara’s current focus is on consolidating HablaCentro in the countries where it already exists, in the next five years she envisions supporting the implementation of HablaCentro hubs in other Latin American countries and setting the stage for a second iteration of HablaCentro; once smart phones become more widely available in Central America. Not every user will have to possess a smart phone in order for more sophisticated HablaCentro functionality to be developed and deployed; even the presence of a handful of smart phones in each community will create the possibility for faster and more complex information sharing.




THE PERSON

Kara was born in a town in Guatemala called Bananera, "Banana town," a town that provided a pool of cheap labor for the United Fruit Company from generations of families, such as her mother who put the stickers on bananas and her mother’s mother who picked the best bananas to ship to the U.S. It was like something out of a Garcia Marquez story, they lived through summer bouts of cholera and malaria and then moved to the poor barrios in Guatemala City, where seven of them struggled to survive during the period of genocide, called la violencia. Thousands of indigenous Mayans would be murdered by the time the Peace Accords were signed in 1996 and her mother to become a coyote and head North, through the Guatemalan border into Mexico and wading past the Rio Grande.

She was born at the beginning of this period of unrest, during Guatemala’s Day of the Soldier, which meant, her mother told her, that she would be a fighter, and more importantly that she would pursue a cause for which she had great passion. Journalism is that passion for her because freedom of expression is not something she associated with Guatemala, a country where the police reported 5,338 murders in 2005, an average of more than 14 murders a day, and where 17 percent live on less than one dollar a day according to the 2005 US Aid report.  That citizen journalism could come out of this Guatemala, sprouting from the cracks, inspired her. She identified with the Guatemalans struggle to overcome their socioeconomic limitations as she struggled to overcome hers by gaining access to information that provided educational and financial opportunities to pursue a Master’s in Journalism. She created a quantum leap for herself simply by having access to the information she needed, the teachers and mentors to help her make informed decisions with that information, and then teaching those skills to others.

As a young professional, Kara accrued experience in public health, social work, as well as journalism, a combination that fulfilled her passion: The utilization of media as a tool to help low-income communities gain access to resources. After working for the Oakland Tribune as a young journalist and writing 40 front-page stories in three months, Kara enrolled in a master’s program in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time, she began to research ways in which the Guatemalans who had stayed behind in her native country were expressing themselves and communicating with each other in the post-conflict period.

In the summer of 2008, Kara won a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to report from the remote Petén region of northern Guatemala where environmentalists were fighting environmentalists in a behind-the-scenes ideological conflict over how best to save the vast but rapidly shrinking Maya forest. She hiked through the jungle with a team of three fellow reporters and archaeologists to document the stories of citizens affected by transnational conflict in northern Guatemala. As Kara rested atop an excavated Mayan pyramid, she noticed that the three Guatemalan archaeologists accompanying her were all holding their mobile phones up to the sky, sending text messages in the middle of a remote jungle. Surprised, Kara began asking questions about mobile phone connectivity and penetration in Guatemala and quickly realized that mobile phones could be used to create a citizen-based information sharing platform in a country where Internet connectivity was still low. Technology in the shape of cellphones that are cheap, accessible and ubiquitous was transforming Latin America—home to 12 percent of the world’s almost 4 billion mobile subscribers in 2009. Cellphones and the Internet create opportunities for governance, economic advantage, transmission of culture and skills.

Toward the end of 2008, Kara returned to the U.S. and submitted a proposal for the HablaCentro concept to the Fulbright Commission, which granted her a scholarship for 2009 to 2010. With the Fulbright funding in hand, Kara moved to Guatemala to begin implementing her idea. Within its first year in operation, HablaCentro has grown rapidly in Guatemala and neighboring countries, largely thanks to grassroots demand for an information source that citizens can trust. Other hubs grew in Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Costa Rica and many requests were made for other countries. HablaCentro now acts as both a “regional pulse meter” and a place for democratic, civic activities based on the sharing of information that is useful, relevant, has impact, geographic significance, timeliness and veracity.

Given Kara’s life story of agile persistence and success against difficult odds, combined with her passion for empowering the disenfranchised through newly emerging digital journalism, she will not rest until she has democratized information access throughout Central and then Latin America through user-friendly and accessible technology.




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