By Laura Urrutia

Issues affecting rural areas in India, where 70% of the population of the country live, are hardly ever reported on mainstream media, a virtual “invisibility” that motivated Jessica Mayberry to set up in 2003 Video Volunteers, a community media organisation to empower marginalised people in India. Over the years the initiative has evolved and adjusted to the surge of technology and more recently, after participating in ASPIRe's accelerator program, it has reviewed the role citizen video journalism plays in driving system change by using videos as valuable data to drive the country towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Unlike the majority of media outlets, Video Volunteers doesn’t measure success only in video views and total engaged time. Instead, the metrics that matter the most are the scale of the impact on improving the lives of the poorest and of the problems solved within the rural communities in India that this organisation works with.  

“In the last 13 years, more than one in five of the 19,000 videos we've produced have managed to solve the problem that a video tackled,” Jessica explains. “The content creation process  empowers participants and concretely changes something on the ground. It has an impact. That's been a big part of our story,” explains Jessica.

After studying French and Modern History at England’s Oxford University, Jessica went on to work in leading media outlets in the U.S. with the idea of using media as a tool for helping citizens to be informed. Later on, she moved to India to train rural women on video journalism who at a later stage became part of the network of rural community journalists Jessica set up through Video Volunteers. 

Today, Jessica runs a network of 230 community correspondents across 180 of the poorest districts in India, featuring the problems these vulnerable communities face, and helping to solve them.  

To date, the organisation has improved the lives of more than 35 million people who have benefited when, thanks to their videos, a local problem was resolved, an achievement that inspired a search for new ways to grow impact even more. That led to the collaboration with ASPIRe, an accelerator and a learning lab that supports social entrepreneurs to create system change at scale by activating agency and cultivating changemaking networks, using the power of data and technology. 


ASPIRe Accelerator, an alternative thinking

“To me, the ASPIRe accelerator was a very valuable mental exercise to imagine an alternative platform to Facebook or YouTube, which is what population scale means in the media context. ASPIRe helped me discover how a media organization could achieve scale digitally without only concerning itself with social media virality. This thinking helps you to create a pathway to grow your impact in a much more scalable way,” argues Jessica.

During this period of reflection, Video Volunteers (VV) revisited not only its strategy on how to create content to scale impact but also how it envisioned its role in the system change ecosystem.

One key outcome was the new role the organisation plays as a driver in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in rural India, as it’s proved to be able to generate valuable data to evaluate the results of government anti-poverty programs. The UN and other international institutions have recently recognised that besides traditional sources of information, citizen-generated data is a crucial source of information for the SDGs monitoring and implementation. But to date, these actors have had few real, on-the-ground methodologies for actually supporting and creating citizen-generated data, or citizen-owned and utilised data. Thus VV has become a pioneer in translating the aspiration for more citizen data from marginalized communities into real practice.

“There are huge data gaps that still exist towards tracking progress towards the SDGs. Many of those data gaps can be filled by citizen reporting. The communities themselves know the ground realities, because they live there every day. And now, nearly every household has a digital device. There is a huge potential to understand India better, by listening to community voices and investing in participatory development, including citizen-generated data efforts,” highlights Jessica.

“We have one of the largest archives on YouTube related to development in rural India and all videos have accompanying disaggregated data on root causes. Our archive captures, in citizens’ voices, thousands of community-led efforts, where citizens have identified a problem, worked to solve it, gotten stuck and persevered, and where officials have appreciated them or gotten angry. Basically, our archive documents all the beauty and the mess of making governance work in an Indian village or small town. The platform we are building can be used to track most of the SDGs, such as water, health and poverty, but perhaps more importantly, those like gender, peace and justice that are harder to track.”


The shift towards collaborative working

After receiving funding through ASPIRe's ecosystem, the organisation is currently working on a pilot featuring a news website for government officials – a dashboard connecting those who make decisions at the hyper-local level with the most vulnerable rural communities, who will present on video the most urgent problems and their solutions. The Correspondents are now being encouraged to work with officials not just to solve problems but to collaborate on longer-term projects and solutions. This ‘co-creation’ between different actors is one of the core values of ASPIRe that Jessica has embraced. 

“Government officials are usually exposed negatively by citizen journalism, but we don’t think the relationship between journalists and officials need to be so fraught,” Jessica reflects. “On the one hand, local officials in India are completely swamped and overwhelmed. And on the other hand, you have citizens who have the knowledge of ground realities that these officials could use. So we flipped this equation and imagined: ‘How could you build a platform, where government officials will want to tap in for local stories?’

“Platform thinking really lends itself to civil society organisations because it's about collaboration, it's about creating large teams of people who can solve together and who can construct together. The initiatives in the ASPIRe network often have a huge grassroots presence, so there is a lot of co-creation going on in the ASPIRe ecosystem, including at VV, where marginalised communities are at the center of the design. And that’s powerful because the needs of the poor are so often left out of technology development. In our pilots, our Community Correspondents are advising on each part of the design.”

The design of VV’s dashboard for local government officials is connected to ongoing long-term research by Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner, an associate professor at the University of Virginia. Studying data from 2010 to 2020, the research measured the success rate of Video Volunteers’ citizen journalists at solving problems and looked into the factors that led to successful problem-solving. Kruks-Wisner's recent paper shows that, given the high number of demands officials receive, claims need to be presented in a way that makes them relevant, salient and actionable to officials and videos proved to be an effective format to do it. 

“We saw an opportunity to also align the research with this pilot that features a collaborative way of working with the officials,” Jessica explains. “Behind most of our 3,500 impacts is a responsive local official, and that is something to highlight and celebrate. These officials stopped what they were working on and listened to the community representative standing in front of them – our Correspondent – and engaged in a conversation. 

“Nonetheless,we always looked at it from the point of view of the community – we didn't look at it, until recently, from the point of view of the officials and how they were receiving our videos, beyond whether they solved the underlying problem. What frames – meaning, ways of pitching and presenting citizens’ needs - are most effective for telling a local story that gets the attention of officials? Are they most moved by images, wise words, collective action, or individual leadership? How can we demonstrate to officials that rural citizens are not just complainers but the experts in rural development?” 

As a result, Video Volunteers is re-training its network of 230 community correspondents to help them present their videos as a useful tool for government officials to solve problems, and to understand the officials’ needs to be able to work in an efficient and cooperative way with them. 

“Instead of going to officials and saying, ‘Look at this footage, this thing is not happening, and can you fix it?’, our Correspondents will now go in and say, 'Hey, on this screen you’ll see all the data from the dozens of videos I’ve made that will help you understand this community better. Now how can we work together? What are you working on now?  Oh, you're doing a health camp. OK, so in the health area, are there any issues that people don't know about? Should I make a video about that?’ In this way, Video Volunteers could be the officials’ bridge back to the community.” 

Ongoing research in collaboration with Kruks-Wisner and Tanu Kumar (assistant professor at Claremont Graduate University) is also exploring these dynamics. Through in-depth interviews, surveys, and presenting videos to officials, the research seeks to uncover how officials view and respond to different presentations of citizen voice.


The use of videos as data

Coming to this realisation also helped Jessica understand that a video story could be a piece of data that different people could work with. Kruks-Wisner unpacks the unique role of video like this: “Video captures qualitative dimensions, such as citzens’ own narratives and lived experiences, in a way that ‘just numbers’ cannot. So it brings storytelling and qualitative dimensions to complement other kinds of data. And if a platform can use video at scale, it can bridge both qualitative and qualitative dimensions of data. This gives us a fuller and richer picture of citizens’ experiences. Secondly, videos like VV’s are organically generated by citizens on their own terms, rather than structured by the pre-determined agendas and categories of existing government platforms. This gives a fuller picture.”

This alternative use of videos is particularly relevant in India, where the government has invested in creating helplines and websites of so-called “Grievance Redressal”, where citizens can complain about the delivery of government anti-poverty programs. A case number is generated, and the case stays open until an official ‘disposes of it’, which means either resolving it or rejecting it. 

“Before we always thought, here’s a story about a problem and people affected by it. This video needs this problem solved. And here's the person who's going to solve the problem. That was it. So, it was quite enlightening to realise that when a video becomes a piece of data within a data platform, people will be able to use tiny little bits of it and those individual sections could be combined with other content or data from other sources. This will be useful not just to officials, but also journalists or development agencies or businesses that work at the community level - and of course, the communities themselves and the emerging changemakers there,” points out Jessica.

One of the big challenges ahead is to ensure future grievance platforms incorporate citizen's videos in order to utilise the valuable insights and knowledge of the community when it comes to problem solving and changemaking. This is something missing in the current system based on standarised forms and documents, which effectively makes it difficult for government agencies and officials to solve matters in a systemic way. 

“There is evidence that the government departments that are building these platforms acknowledge that they're so simplified that you don't know why things are the way they are. 100 families complain that they don’t have water, and each complaint has to be handled individually rather than the official getting insights into the root causes of the water problem in that village, information which the citizens have but currently have no way to put forth,” Jessica explains. 

“You need video for access to insights and patterns and local knowledge, told forcefully and with emotion. I believe the grievance redressal platforms of the future should have citizen videos in them, and we are working to create partnerships with government departments where we can enable this for them. For that to happen, we need to find a way to analyse videos with an AI solution. This is getting technologically more possible every day, and it’s exciting because we can now imagine that millions of videos can be data-mined for insights and that through this, the voice of the people will be heard in the development sector.” 

Video Volunteers spoke to almost 100 experts in an attempt to better understand and envision scalable ways to create an intersection of voice, mobilisation, improving governance, and building an effective media platform. Jessica concluded: “There’s no one solution because community media is really about all those four things. We've developed pilots and prototypes concretely in each of those four areas on how to empower people to use their voices.

“We've done the thinking, we've done research and we've developed partnerships. I feel these plans now hold together in a very robust way because they start from this premise of ‘How could this problem be solved at population scale?’”, says Jessica.

In a nutshell, Jessica is effectively empowering the ecosystem by providing key stakeholders with relevant data, insights, knowledge, and tools that enable them to make data-driven decisions and strengthen existing solutions. Ashoka's long-term experience and research show that the ability to explore, analyse, predict, and act on data and insights helps to identify future needs and problems and continues to seed new solutions. This process makes the whole network more responsive and agile and enhances the ability to learn and evolve.

Despite the rapid and effective implementation of many learnings derived from ASPIRe's accelerator, Jessica is aware that social entrepreneurs need time and support for their initiatives to fully adapt and change. 

She concludes: “Ashoka offers long-term mentoring programmes that in my case are so valuable because they recognise that making a big change takes a long time. And Ashoka is really there for the fellows to make big transitions.”