Mignon Hardie – Fundza: Getting teens and young adults reading and writing on cellphones

This month Mignon Hardie from Fundza will be speaking to us at the ICT4D Digital Participation Lab monthly seminar.

Date & time: Friday, the 17th of April from 1pm (sessions usually go on until 3pm) at the TB Davie room in the Post Grad Centre on Upper Campus, University of Cape Town.

Earlier this year Alette Schoon and I attended  a networking meeting (the mLiteracy Network Meeting) for South African organisations working in the mobile literacies space. The meeting focused on mapping work in mobile literacies in South Africa and was hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg in January 2015. The starting point was the UNESCO study Reading in the Mobile Era which presented new quantitative data around the prevalance and implications of reading on mobile devices in developing countries. I enjoyed discussing the implications of our research findings with NGOs, publishers, mobile developers, librarians, and authors working to develop  and understand literacy in the mobile space.

Mignon Hardie

Mignon heads the FunDza Literacy Trust, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to growing a culture of reading and writing among South Africa’s youth. She has been involved in the organisation since inception and has been instrumental in ensuring FunDza’s growth and success in getting young people reading for pleasure. The organisation is hailed for its innovative use of mobile technology to disseminate locally- generated, exciting content and for developing a new generation of writers. The organisation has received various accolades for its work. In 2014 it was selected as a finalist for two international awards: The WISE Awards and The Tech Awards.

In addition to her work with FunDza, Mignon is a director of Cover2Cover Books, an innovative for-profit publishing house. Previously she has been involved in the start-up and management of a number of small and medium enterprises. Mignon has a BA (English and Economics) from UCT and an MBA (distinction) from Stellenbosch University.

Mignon will be presenting on “Getting teens and young adults reading and writing on cellphones

Please RSVP to anjaventer AT gmail dot com for catering purposes. We look forward to seeing you all there!

Centre for ICT for Development

As a field of research and practice, Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) aims to harness information and communication technologies to achieve economic, social and political goals in low-resource or low-income regions. A crucial aspect of ICT4D research involves developing ideas that can broaden access to modern communications technologies.

Digital Participation Lab

People around the world are embracing computing and digital media, using an array of devices, operating systems, local media sharing and cloud-based services. Increasingly affordable consumer electronics have expanded the number of contexts in which media, games and other software can be accessed. This technology has also improved our ability to create, share and interact with and around various forms of media. Many new voices can make themselves heard particularly through social and mobile media as they converge with mass media. Nonetheless, key voices in society are still silenced or struggle to gain attention. Digital surveillance, monetisation and algorithmic controls also threaten freedom.

By taking user-centred, ethnographic and action-research approaches our Digital Participation group studies technologies in use in field contexts such as homes, libraries, clinics, classrooms, community broadcasters, after-school and holiday programmes, as well as in controlled settings at the university. Such fieldwork allows us to understand the economic, social and power dynamics that come into play as people access, use and create digital media, in addition to highlighting areas of need and allowing a close focus on the usability, communicative value and cultural significance of specific designs and communicative strategies. Through a variety of methods, technical and creative, we explore these relationships and tensions, with a focus on implications for practical designs. This research, at the intersection of creative arts, anthropology, linguistics, information technology, and media studies, is inspired by the need to understand agency and obstacles to digital participation.

Mobile Code and The Department of Sharing


The web initially took off thanks to the DIY efforts of many millions of self-taught web developers. Many people (including myself!) learned to build websites thanks to the ability to ‘view source’ in browsers. We learned by studying (and cutting and pasting) the HTML source code of the websites we admired.

The same openness and learnability is not there for mobile apps – unless their source code is released, that is. Even then very few users know how to go to look for it. My project Creative Code is inspired by a sense that we should also be able to “View Source”, tinker with and customise our mobile apps, thus driving interest in and knowledge of mobile coding on the most accessible platforms available. Through the series of customisable open source youth culture apps that we are building and testing for Creative Code we want to spark a DIY ‘appmaker’ DIY spirit among young people. While there are many comprehensive online resources available for this, they are somewhat inaccessible to the majority. Young people are fascinated by technology but they have shockingly limited opportunities to learn to code on computers – fewer than 1% of South African Grade 12s have the opportunity to study Information Technology at school level. After-school programmes like Creative Code are limited by young people’s very restricted access to computers. While people in urban areas generally have a level of internet access via mobile phones, they certainly do not want to spend all their airtime downloading Khan academy videos. Furthermore the web-based live-coding environments do not work on mobile browsers.

Until recently mobile coding seemed pretty far away – apart from some simple tutorials and visual tools teaching very young children the principles of programming. Recently this has changed with Mozilla’s Appmaker and Microsoft Research’s TouchDevelop, which, like APDE, allows on-device coding. We have elected to use APDE because it allows on-device coding in Processing, my favourite language (Java-based but designed around the needs of artists and other interesting people) and moreover it’s a mobile IDE which is not cloud-based. This may seem somewhat old-fashioned but it does means it can be used under our usual circumstances of limited or intermittent connectivity.

After four months of preparation, Creative Code is all set now to launch mobile coding lessons that can easily be edited and adapted on Android phones. We will try out these lessons during a series of three workshops that centre around developing animated, playable stories,  made with our new app, The Department of Sharing.

The idea of making interactive, sharable stories was inspired by discussions I had with two young writers, Anathi Nyadu and Vhuthu Muavha. I met them in January 2015 at a networking meeting for South African organisations working in the mobile literacies space (hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg). Anathi and Vhuthu were as engaged by games and instant messaging as they were by reading stories on their phones. They were at the meeting because their love of reading had led them to write their own stories, and publish them through the Fundza Fanz programme.

A global movement to develop mobile reading has taken off since the m4Lit project launched in South Africa in 2009. See, for example, the recent UNESCO study Reading in the Mobile Era surveyed users of Worldreader/Binu and presented new quantitative data around the prevalance and implications of reading on mobile devices in developing countries.

As a result, a wide range of organisations provide reading materials designed to be read on cellphones.

Anathi and Vhuthu brainstormed with me about how text-based mobile stories would be more attractive if they could be given more gamelike features such as interactions, branching and animations. This was where I first developed the idea for the Department of Sharing. It is a Processing app for making and sharing animated, playable stories.

Collocated sharing or ‘side-loading’ (copying stories to a friend’s phone via Bluetooth or cable) is a very important feature of the app. For example, when we were doing the research for m4Lit,  readers complained that they could not download mobile stories to read them later and share them with their friends. Similarly Daily Sun users post their phone numbers so that other readers can send them the videos published by the Daily Sun on Youtube via Whatsapp. (This way they keep their own copy on their phone and can watch it and share it without using their airtime). The Department of Sharing creates cc licensed stories which belong to anyone who might be interested in reading them and which promote creative commons licenses.

Department of Sharing runs in the Processing mobile IDE, APDE, which allows on-phone editing and vastly simplifies the process of exporting from .pde to .apk files  (a Herculean task  for beginners). The first sharable story was completed using artwork and a game story from Khazatown Blues, a Mario mod designed in 2014 by five Grade 12 students.

Khazatown Blues was based on a Mario mod created by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana.

When published on Android phones, Department of Sharing stories are playable with written stories and simple interactive visuals. Since Android is popular but still not ubiquitous, it is really important to be able to give stories to people who are using simple feature phones rather than smartphones (running Android, Windows or iOS).  For this reason, stories created by the Department of Sharing can be exported in more basic formats – e.g. images or gif animations, such as the one below.

Created by the Department of Sharing
Created by the Department of Sharing. Visuals and story from Khazatown Blues by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana

The idea here is simple – there are plenty of cloud-based mobile reading libraries, including Yoza, Fundza, Worldreader, and the African Storybook Project. Yet it is surprisingly difficult for people to create their own mobile stories and share them with those around them without needing to use their airtime to access a website or join a cloud-based service such as Facebook or Binu.

Here’s Lungile Madela at work configuring our Convergence Lab for the next series of story-making workshops with The Department of Sharing. The Convergence Lab includes a smart TV, a charging trolley and a pair of large cupboards  stocked with smartphones and tablets.

There is still a long journey ahead on the road to mobile coding, but I am very grateful indeed to UCT Strategic Equipment Fund and the Shuttleworth Foundation – without their support these big steps towards a mobile coding curriculum wouldn’t have been possible.

Creative Code


Want to support the development of young creative coders in South Africa? You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund.

Creative Code is a prize-winning World Design Capital 2014 recognised project. Winner of a WDC2014  “Best Pitch” award (27 May 2014), Creative Code introduces school kids to computer coding, making coding and visual design more accessible through youth media, gaming and mobile phones. You can see some of our lessons here.

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Winning pitch: The Creative Code team at a World Design Capital 2014 pitching session

A low-cost media literacy coding curriculum is presented through weekly lessons and longer workshops during summer and winter vacations.

Khazatown Blues: A localised version of Super Mario

Projects  emphasize youth culture (mobile photography, pixelart games) and local visual languages and media  (beading, patterns and fabric design) to engage students with the logical and procedural dimension of visual design.

In contrast to the ‘black box’ approach of most digital literacy curricula, Creative Code emphasises tangible programming, embodied learning, web-making, visual design, FOSS development processes, and game design and development.

Our goals

Code craft

A central goal is to engage young people in meaningful creative digital design projects. Over the past eighteen months, the Ikamva Coders have produced several   original games and many visual designs. These experiences and learning processes  have been documented with the aim of producing curricula, learning materials,   and research into the representational and conceptual processes at work as   young people learn about coding and digital design.


Logo for Khazatown Blues – a game developed by Grade 12 students from Creative Code.

Careers and further study

We also encourage and assist the coders in applying to courses of study involving digital media and Computer Science.  The Coders learn about various opportunities that are open to them – not only Computer   Science (where Maths can be a big barrier) but also the many creative career   paths which today require digital skills or coding.


We mobilise code

Our key long-term aim, is to make our coding lessons accessible to young people via low-cost mobile phones and tablets, and to use our research to improve the accessibility of such introductory materials. Right now we’re experimenting with our own tablet apps, and with the great resources available for mobile coding from TouchDevelop.

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Why coding lessons?

Only the most privileged young South Africans have opportunities to study Visual Art or Information Technology at school level. According to the Department of Basic Education, in 2013, only 4 874 of SA’s 562 112 Grade 12s studied Information Technology and only 6 755 studied Visual Art for the National Senior Certificate. This means that only around 1% of matriculants are getting a foundation in the subjects which would help lead them to careers in Digital Media or Computer Science.

Who are we?

Creative Code is run in partnership between the Centre for Film and Media Studies from the University  of Cape Town, and Ikamva Youth, a multi award-winning youth development  non-profit organization. Ikamva Youth relies on volunteer tutors and equips learners from disadvantaged communities with the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to access  tertiary education and/or employment opportunities once they matriculate.

We often work collaboratively with staff and postgraduate students from Computer Science and UCT’s Centre in ICT for Development.

Bhavana Harrilal from the Centre in ICT4D and Paul Mesarcik from Thingking

The Ikamva Coders are twenty eight members of Ikamva Youth, ages fifteen to eighteen. They   participate in a volunteer-run after-school programme, attending extra-mural   homework and tutoring  sessions and holiday workshops.

Contact Us

Our Facebook page


You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund


We publish our artwork and games on our website


More about Ikamva Youth

Ikamva Youth   http://ikamvayouth.org/

Incomes based education and digital literacies

Did you benefit from unequal education? If you’re a South African and you can access this website, there’s a good chance you did – either because of apartheid education, or because of the ‘incomes-based education’ which followed it. All the more reason to use your digital skills to sign a memorandum to the Minister of Basic Education from  NGO Equal Education. You can add your name to the memorandum by emailing  tracey@equaleducation.org.za and make sure you join the March on 17 June.

The Equal Education campaign has rightly focused on bringing our attention to the inadequate educational infrastructure in many schools, where teachers and young people must cope without electricity, or water, and unhygienic forms of sanitation.

A few months ago, a group of colleagues and myself also sent a submission to the Department of Basic Education to put our support behind the campaign and draw attention to what seems to be some back-pedalling around minimum norms and standards for Internet access and electricity in schools. A couple of years ago the department seemed set on a course to make electricity and internet part of a school’s basic infrastructure, and set ambitious goals regarding the development of digital literacy. Now the draft norms and standards only refer in general terms to ‘energy’ and any form of connectivity.


Equal Education cite some recent data from the South African National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Reports in  May 2011. The figures in the graph above show how schools in the Eastern Cape and KZN provinces struggle most with lack of access to grid electricity. In total, 14% of schools have no electricity while 7% use solar, generator or other less reliable sources.  This is a (small) improvement on 2006, when 17 percent of SA schools had no electricity.


Other data from the NEIMS reports form a good background to my research which explores the consequences of the fact that many young people, even in urban areas, don’t have much access to computers or the web either at home or at school. In 2006, 68 percent of SA schools had no computers, and figures from the government’s e-education report in 2004 show that only about half the schools which had computers then actually used them for ‘teaching and learning’ (rather than purely for administration). There is a bit more detail about learner access in the 2011 data,  which shows that only 10% of South African state schools have stocked computer centres. Only 33% of schools of schools even have a space for a computer centre. More than half, or 57% of the  schools which have an allocated space for computers do not use it for a computer centre.  These 2011 figures show that teachers and young people in the richer provinces Gauteng and the Western Cape are indeed at a great advantage in relation to their access to computers, these provinces provide 43% and 34% of schools respectively with computers in stocked computer centres.

[Edit – There are some discrepancies between the above computer access figures and those cited by the Western Cape government, which claimed 100% access to computer labs  when announcing its plans to provide each child with a tablet over the next five years.  I’m  not totally sure how to explain these discrepancies. They may relate to the fact that this province installed labs in all 1464 schools under the Khanya project, but the labs were not all well managed or maintained. ]

The report does show that the Western Cape is the only province which has made much progress in making Internet access available more broadly.  It has connected 86% of schools, and 97% of schools in this province have a landline telephone. Outside Gauteng and  the Western Cape, South African schools rely on mobile connectivity, with 92% of schools using cellphone networks while only 46% have a landline.


From the 2011 census, we know that  64.8% of households in South Africa don’t have Internet access. Almost half of the 33.2% of households who do have some Internet access, get online via the most expensive (per bit) route – via mobile phone (16.3% ). Research with colleague Jonathan Donner showed how in Cape Town young people are learning to use computers at school and that there is huge demand for public access facilities such as cybercafes and public libraries for safe quiet spaces after school and for free or more affordable internet.

These figures suggest a definite failure to attain the policy goal of digital literacy set out in the 2004 e-Education white paper, which stated that, by 2013, all young people in South African schools would be “ICT Capable”:

Every South African learner in the general and further education and training bands will be ICT capable (that is, use ICTs confidently and creatively to help develop the skills and knowledge they need to achieve personal goals and to be full participants in the global community) by 2013.

Schools and libraries need to think urgently about how to address this state of inequality. On the one hand children have a right to equal facilities.On the other hand, educational resources are limited and strategies need to focus on providing them with appropriate and available technologies, devices, training, media and skills, without deepening existing inequalities.

A 2007 study of 290 grade 7 learners from four different schools in the Cape which all had computer labs found significant differences between the level of skills students developed at various schools, depending on how much access students actually had to computers, their prior knowledge of ICTs, technical support provided to teachers, and home use of computers (Gudmundsdottir, 2010). Guaranteeing access at school can indeed even the playing field in some respects, but it also introduces new inequalities. To get a clear sense of how teachers need a great deal more than just basic infrastructure from the Department of Basic Education, see this interview by Kobus van Wyk with HoD Penny Vinjevold ,conducted at the time the Western Cape’s Khanya project was concluded. Kobus’s blog post became a space for teachers to express how they felt when suddenly faced with the prospect of reduced technical support as they struggled to make eLearning part of their daily practice. Make sure you read the comments!

It is also definitely worth reconsidering the role of cellphones in schools. Unlike computers, cellphones are available in almost all schools, and in many homes as well, which brings huge advantages. Phone charging stations may play an important role for children whose families only have intermittent access to electricity. Landline Internet access combined with wifi or other free or cheap networking technologies such as Bluetooth or MXit and mobile devices can allow schools to make educational media on the web more accessible, particularly media especially designed for phones. More importantly, strategies and curricula should utilise the available mobile devices and free or cheap networking which teachers and young people already use and understand.

While it may be sensible to ban cellphones from some types of school classes and from some areas of the library, many such bans prohibit learning as well. Blanket bans mean that neither teachers nor young people are able to use the educational capacities of their phones  or to develop the  digital literacies that emerge this way.

[Edit: Thanks to Kobus van Wyk and Mark Carolissen for helping me check the lab access figures.]

Youth participation and social media in SA

Here’s my talk from the keynote for the Digital Youth & Learning conference.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.


I’m here to talk to you today about the rise of social media in South Africa – it is exciting to see a potential space where young people’s voices can be heard, one which can help to place youth issues on the national agenda. But today I’m going to ask you to look beyond the stories that we like to tell about the successes of social media, stories of Arab and other Springs, Occupy and so on, and see what we’re really dealing with when we rely on these forms of media in our local organisations and networks.

Francis Nyamnjoh has explained beautifully why social media is so exciting to us in Africa – its sociality builds on local traditions of informal communication, or ‘pavement radio’. Building on this idea, Herman Wasserman pointed out how SMS and other mobile communication works to help ordinary people obtain information, share it and create possibilities – especially where mainstream media and free expression are out of reach.

So we tend to see social media as having powerful potential for citizen media and participation. That’s the promise that ‘citizen’ journalism and social media could be opening new opportunities for democratic citizenship.

Who gets heard?

And yet, when we look at who actually gets heard on social media platforms, unfortunately the picture is not so democratic. We know that, on online platforms, our attention is governed by what we call ‘power laws’. Economically these power laws tend to mean that the rich just get richer. On platforms like Twitter, where there are an infinite number of voices, and where people have a limited amount of time, power laws and the way information flows through the network means that, while new voices can rise to prominence relatively quickly, a small number of people tend to get more and more attention.

In a nutshell, this means that the large majority of people are still very unlikely to be heard, while others are ‘trending’, celebs who get huge boosts of attention and access to the microphone.

SA’s Massive rebellion of the poor

Let’s move our focus to young people in South Africa, which has been called the country with the highest number of community protests in the world. These protests mostly challenge the state’s non-delivery of basic services such as electricity, water and housing. My students created a map visualising the ‘service delivery’ protests that police data recorded between 2009 and 2012. In that time apparently the police dealt with 2.9 ‘unrest incidents’ each day.

So we may ask, given these incredibly frequent community protests, how are people expressing their discontent? Researchers like Professor Jane Duncan and my student Nicole Wilcox have shown that we definitely can’t really rely on traditional media to tell the stories of the protests. Mainstream media are particularly bad at reporting the perspectives of the protesters. Given these gaps in coverage, you may be wondering whether social media is helping to convey the protestors’ stories to a broader audience? You may well ask – let’s look at a case study of a protest that happened in my own home town of Sasolburg in January 2013.

Zamdela’s burning

Let’s visit Sasolburg – an industrial town in the rural Free State province. Sasolburg was literally built by and for a group of wealthy chemical industries situated in the area. Despite this wealth, in the township of Zamdela, the average income is now R400 per month.

In January, 2013, Sasolburg residents embarked on a protest against some extremely unpopular decisions involving a proposed merger of their local municipality and a deeply indebted neighbouring municipality. Government turned a deaf ear to the protest, and things turned really ugly. Television screens were full of burning cars and people looting. In the course of the protests, police killed four people. 

Sadly in a country where people’s rights are routinely just ignored protesters may have found that spectacular violence is a way to get attention really fast. As community leader Nkanyiso Xaba explained:

[The protestors] have marched, they handed over a memorandum and no one is willing to come back and answer to their memorandum. So the resolution that we are taking is that the community will continue burning tyres to demonstrating their anger until somebody listens.

Analysing social media

Nonetheless, to understand how these events played out on social media, we need to look at two very different but equally important questions

  1. The first is, when the protests are reported, who speaks?
  2. And the second is, when we learn about the protests via social media, who actually gets heard? 


So let’s first look at the question, who speaks? I took a random stratified sample of tweets from the time of the Zamdela protests. The tweets were captured using the Twitter REST API.

Tweets were downloaded on 23 January 2013 using NodeXL ‘s Twitter search network importer, resulting in a sample of 1599 tweets posted from 899 distinct Twitter accounts. (NodeXL used Twitter’s ‘garden hose’ search API – v 1.1.). Graph metrics for the search network were calculated based on retweets and mentions in the network.

Of these tweets, 571 (or 36%) included a link to an image. These tweets formed the basis of the content analysis.

I divided the dataset of tweets with linked images (n=571) into two strata according to how influential the tweets were in the larger search network. Accounts with the highest in-degree metric (>=2 retweets or mentions) were selected for separate analysis.

This identified the most influential accounts for content analysis of the images considered highly sharable, newsworthy or important in this network

The less influential tweets constituted the majority of the tweets (66%). These had not been retweeted and their author had not received mentions in the search network (i.e. in-degree <2). A smaller set of 192 tweets with linked images (34%) were more influential (in-degree >=2). These tweets had been retweeted, or the author had received mentions in the network.

Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions
Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions

I drew a stratified random sample from these groups for the content analysis. After duplicates were removed, the final dataset for the content analysis consisted of 27 images from more influential tweets and 18 images from less influential tweets.

Despite the potential for citizen media to tell the story from the protestors’ perspective, mainstream media appears to have played a dominant role in defining which images we saw on Twitter. The 27 highly retweeted tweets in the random sample together constituted 34% of the edges in the Twitter search graph. Thus this was pretty much a media ‘echo chamber’, which highlighted spectacular and highly “newsworthy” images of violence, arson and particularly of looting and its aftermath.

Sources of influential images posted to Twitter
Sources of influential images posted to Twitter

Citizen media (mostly from the white right wing) accounted for only about 11% of the images. Print news publications posted the majority of the images that were circulating (51%), perhaps because of their strong networks of photojournalists and links with freelance photographers. Broadcast media posted only 27% of the images, perhaps because their large team of journalists covering the story spent a good deal of time under siege in the Zamdela police station, but possibly also because they were not posting still images for their audience to share.

Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station

Finally, online-only news (particularly the Daily Maverick) was relatively well represented with 11% of the images.

Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests
Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests

I’m sure you’re wondering why the Zamdela protesters weren’t telling their own stories on Twitter in the same way as we have seen activists from Occupy or Ferguson do. In the first place, social media demographics are different in South Africa, and they were even more different in 2013. At the time of these protests Twitter, much beloved by South African journalists, had been adopted by the wealthier middle class, not by people earning only a couple of hundred rand per month.

In the second place, at the time, most South Africans used feature phones, not smart phones. Although they could access Facebook and Twitter, many still preferred cheaper instant messaging. Consequently, lots of grassroots participation was likely taking place on Whatsapp and other messaging platforms such as Mxit.


A search network gathered via the Facebook API revealed that Zamdela activists as well as local witnesses of the protests and their aftermath were posting their experiences to Facebook rather than Twitter. This citizen journalism primarily took the form of Facebook status updates posted to personal Facebook pages.

As seen in other contexts, this mode of citizen engagement is highly emotive and dominated by strong expressions of affect. The sample included several attempts to mobilise support for the protests and retaliate for the police killings:

n wat i sow was really sad fire arms were every where tear gas acid water n our fellow strikers were killed tdy im worried cos i left my kid behind hes only 6 years old guys fuck ace n fuck the police who killed our friends guys let sasolburg turn to marikana now

The Facebook sample also included commentary by observers, who were not directly involved in the protests, critical commentary on media coverage, rationales for the protest action and debate among community members, both pro and anti mobilisation.

The sample even included (informal) posts by police officers, who posted Facebook comments of desperation and revenge, apparently while in medias res:

“our hands are full”

“the back up can’t get threw”

“this is now personal”

It is notable that this wide variety of posts and commentary did not include a single image of the protests taken by a participant or a local observer from the community.

There are several possible reasons for why this analysis was unable to identity the visual “voice” of Zamdela activists or the broader community. Posting images on public platforms such as Twitter may have been too risky for protestors. Taking and posting images is relatively difficult on feature phones. Images also require quite a bit of mobile data, which is expensive in South Africa, particularly for cash-strapped consumers who tend to buy prepaid airtime in small denominations. Even zero-rated mobile services (such as Facebook Zero) do not zero-rate images.

Despite the possible problems with posting images, even the text of the Facebook posts would have provided very interesting perspectives and contacts for journalists reporting on the events. Sadly journalists’ were not paying attention to Facebook. In 2013, ‘pavement internet’ and grassroots citizen participation were still pretty invisible to mainstream media.

Being heard

It’s time to go back to Twitter and look at our second question, who gets heard on Twitter? It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what people are paying attention to on social media. Still, in our sample we can see what sources were retweeted and mentioned in the tweets. Judging from this evidence, during the Zamdela protests, the mainstream media, particularly print media and professional photojournalists were highly influential in determining whose perspectives were seen. Citizen media by protesters didn’t’ make much impact and this category was dominated by those tweets by the white right wing that I mentioned earlier.

So, when we think about citizen media which goes viral or gets thrust into the spotlight, we’re thinking about exceptional cases. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of tweets in this sample had very little influence on others discussing the topic of the Zamdela protest. They were neither retweeted nor mentioned by others using the keyword. Instead, a small number of high influence accounts (in this case primarily from mainstream media) received the lion’s share of the retweets and mentions.

In conclusion, I would challenge you to consider how our society and our public media can work against these ‘power laws’ and harness viral to help to equalise public participation. We can see the huge potential of social media to extend and amplify ‘pavement radio’, but there is still extremely limited grassroots use, especially of Twitter. People who do have access and are using the networks to report their experiences are not being heard. Neither are their perspectives being seen.

Nonetheless, I believe both journalists and activists could be playing a huge role in bridging this gap between affordable and accessible messaging platforms and mainstream media. Only when this happens to a far greater extent than it does now will people learn to trust the power of documenting and sharing their experiences, and start to become confident that they, too, are being heard.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.

More Processing … this time for Kids

mapcoords mapcoords ms_pacman

Mozilla is running a free online collaborative course to explore new ways of teaching digital literacies through making and learning together. It’s called Teach the Web This leads up to the Mozilla #makerparty, which celebrates the web and making, two of my favourite things.

I’ve joined a group who are discussing ‘Creative Coding with Canvas’ and so am hoping to get some new ideas and tips about how to teach coding-shy design students and newbies about the HTML Canvas element. As my contribution to this group, I thought I’d share an introductory programming course that I’ve been running with a group of teens at the Ikamva Youth branch in Makhaza, Cape Town.  They call themselves the Ikamvacoders – what an inspiring group of young people.

Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break
Hard-working Ikamvacoders take a break

The course introduces some basic programming topics using Processing and Processing.js, a language designed for visual expression. Processing is based in Java, but now makes it easy to export procedural art, interactive sketches, simple games and animations to Javascript, via processing.js, which uses  the HTML5 canvas element. Processing now also provides a very effective and easy Android mode.

Learning Processing from Pacman

Processing comes with absolutely beautiful tutorials, clearly explained examples and extensive online resources. In my experience, although these resources are aimed at non-programmers, they are generally pitched a bit high for absolute beginners, particularly for kids. The Ikamvacoders asked whether they could learn how to build a simple 2D game. This led me to develop some absolute beginner Processing tutorials around a Pacman theme.

As you’ll see the tutorials are still quite sketchy, and I hope to have some time to put in some extra explanatory details which I handle verbally in my classes. But the examples all work and they should provide a good starting point for anyone who wants to take this visual approach to teaching programming.

The Ikamvacoders also want to make web portfolios and I’m looking forward to introducing them to some of the new Mozilla tools, so that they can start publishing their own work using tools such as Thimble and Popcorn Maker, which look perfect for kids and teens working at this introductory level.

Future goals – mobile Processing

I’m extremely impressed with how the Ikamvacoders have taken to  Processing, but its frustrating that they have so little access to computers, so little time to practice their skills. Overall my objective is to investigate mobile interfaces to developing Processing sketches. These need to work on the phones even when they are out of airtime (this happens a lot of the time). This kind of app will allow them to tinker and mess around more,  even when they’re not at the computer.

If I have time, I’ll also post about a similar course I run with media students at the University of Cape Town, where the focus is on webmaking for journalists.

‘Dissatisfied with service delivery’

What do protestors say during South African ‘service delivery’ protests? Burning tires and violent actions make the news, but protesters’ perspectives are seldom heard in the media.  After the crowd has dispersed, what happens to the protesters and their demands? Unlike in other countries, where social media can be used to mobilise and bring issues to the attention of a wider public, in South Africa, social media are expensive and inaccessible to many. Police records describe the protests as ‘crowd control incidents’, they note whether the crowd was peaceful and lump a wide range of issues, grievances and campaigns together, categorising them as ‘Dissatisfied with service delivery’.

Police crowd control data - Map of protests in South Africa 01/01/2009-30/11/2012
Police crowd control data – Map of protests in South Africa 01/01/2009-30/11/2012

This visualisation project uses police data to represent the number of service delivery protest incidents in South Africa, during 2009-2012.

This visualisation shows how many protests are recorded in the police crowd control data for the period 01/01/2009-30/11/2012, The red circles indicate which areas have experienced more protests than others. We’ve also included links so that you can check Google to see which incidents received attention from South Africa’s media.

The project is work in progress by Marion Walton and UCT’s Interactive Media class. The class is taking their first steps in data journalism, and are learning about JSON data and the Google Maps API. We are currently cleaning the data and exploring visual techniques to show the frequency of protests and the nature and distribution of media coverage.

Code  adapted from Gabriel Svennerberg.

Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.

Anti-social? Links from #unlikeus Amsterdam

Peter Olsthoorn showed us how to work out and claim our value to Facebook:

What is your Facebook value? Work it out here

Benjamin Grosser introduced everyone to his Facebook Demetricator
Facebook Demetricator and the Easing of Prescribed Sociality

Karlessi from Ippolita unpacked Religions 2.0 or the rituals of the participation society and how they feed the friendship algorithm

There was a Skype video of Richard Metzger challenging Facebook’s strategy to get publishers to pay for ‘sponsored stories’

 Facebook I want my friends back

Hester Scheurwater shot back after her fantasy self-portraits fell foul of Facebook’s censorious gaze

Shooting back

For a world where Facebook is our passport, Tobias Leingruber offered us a Facebook ID

FB Identity

There were also some great links shared in Simona Lodi’s presentation: Art as Networked Machinery: When Art Becomes Anti-Social for Being More Social

Anti-social blocks social sites


A crowded apocolypse  draws on crowdsourcing to generate a multitude of conspiracy theories

Rui Guerra and David Jonas

Uncloud: Control your own cloud

Les Liens Invisibles



Getting started with social network analysis

I teach an MA course in Advanced Media Methodologies at the University of Cape Town. This  year I’m presenting an elective which introduces Media students to Social Network Analysis. I’m really looking forward to teaching the course and seeing how a conceptual grounding in social network analysis and the  techniques of visualisation will change the work my students are able to produce for their dissertations.

We don’t have much class time and there are so many new skills to be learned.  I decided to design the course around a series of exercises and readings that students can use to prepare before class.

Here is a first draft of the outline with the course readings and exercises. Any feedback welcome!

Analysing Social Media: Text, image, network


Early adopters (joined pre Dec 2007) in my own Twitter network
Early adopters (joined pre Dec 2007) in my own Twitter network

Week 1: Reading and exercise

Garton, L., Haythornthwaite, C., & Wellman, B. (2006). Studying Online Social Networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(1).

  1. Create a blog (if you don’t have one already). You can use a free site such as wordpress.com. You’ll be posting your answers to the class assignments on the blog.
  2. After reading the Garton et al (2006) reading for this week, prepare and pilot a short interview. Your interview should explore a research participant’s use of social media to communicate with his/her strong ties and should be designed to yield both quantitative and qualitative data. Post a short rationale for the interview questions on your blog and bring the questions to class next week.
Spreadsheet listing connections in our class
Spreadsheet listing connections in our class
  • Complete the Connections spreadsheet We will use this to map social networks during class.
    1. Click through to the editable spreadsheet on Google Drive
    2. Add your details to the final line of the spreadsheet.
    3. I have already added my details and the fact that I know all of you.
    4. Add your details by putting your name below the final line of data in the first column. In the second column, (next to your name), add the name of any other student you already know in the class, one per line. (I have already added the connections between the Interactive Media production students.
    5. In the third column, indicate from which class you already know that student.
    6. If you know the student from more than one class, add another line with your name, the student’s name and the name of the additional class.

Week 2: Readings and exercises

Hansen, D., Shneiderman, B., & Smith, M. A. (2010). Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.  Morgan Kaufmann. (Chapter 3) Chapter 10)

Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. (2012). Researching News Discussion on Twitter. Journalism Studies, 13(5-6), 801–814.

1. As shown to you in class, and using the vertex data from the Connections spreadsheet:

  • Download NodeXL and follow the installation instructions. You will need a Windows PC with Excel (or Windows and Excel installed on your Mac). You will also need internet access on the machine. NodeXL will not work on the UCT network behind the firewall.
  • Work through the NodeXL tutorial
  • Create a NodeXL sociogram to depict the relationships recorded in the Connections spreadsheet
  • Calculate the graph metrics. What are the various centrality measures? What do these numbers mean? What does this suggest to you?
  • Are there any clusters? What do you notice about them? What does this mean?
  • What is the graph density? What does this tell us?
  • How can you make the graph more readable?
  • Create a matrix to depict the relationships..
  •  How would you go about showing how everyone in the class communicates with fellow students and tutors about the social media assignments?
  • Do you have any criticism of the data we collected or how NodeXL represents it? How could we improve the data in the graph?

2.      Advanced (for students who want to use social network data for creative projects)

Week 3: Readings and exercises

Hansen, D., Shneiderman, B., & Smith, M. A. (2010). Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.  Morgan Kaufmann. (Chapter 10)

  • Papacharissi, Z., de Fatima Oliveira, M.: Affective News and Networked Publics: The Rhythms of News Storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication. 62, 2, 266–282 (2012).
  • Lewis, S.C. et al.: Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data: A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 57, 1, 34–52 (2013).
  1. Read Hansen et al. Chapter 10 and download your own set of Twitter data to explore and graph your own personal network on Twitter.
  2. Download Twitter search data for a keyword that interests you.

Optional (for creative projects):

  1. Read Chapters 6-11 Stanton, J. (2013). Introduction to Data Science.
  2. Conduct your own popularity contest to compare and graph Twitter activity around two words or phrases which are in the news right now.