Blogging and podcasting start to take off in Africa: first mobile phone podcast from Accra ?

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"Leaving the Annan Centre, David and I drove across town past the sprawling campus of the University of Ghana until we reached the site of my workshop on blogs, podcasts and video blogs. When we arrived, I discovered the cards were stacked against me; the facility had no projector (nor an empty wall on which to project, even if we had found one), and its Internet access was having problems. What those problems were, no one could really explain, but the end result was that my connection was no more than 10k per second.

Frustrating as this was, it was actually useful in a way, given the fact I'd be talking about publishing tools that usually require fast bandwidth. Would it be possible for me to demonstrate video blogging or podcasting on a connection slower than what I had at home in the 1980s? We'd have to find out".

Having written about the difficulties of getting bandwidth, Carvin met a local blogger at BusyInternet named Mustapha introduced himself. As Carvin tells it:"As we chatted, he saw my Treo 600 phone and he said that he just got a Treo 650, which has both video and bluetooth. I told him about my blog, so we decided to see how hard it would be to use the treo for video blogging here in Ghana. He shot 30 seconds of me talking about video blogging, and he beamed it to my laptop via Bluetooth. I then compressed it as two Quicktime files, one 500k and the other 1.5 megs, then uploaded it via the wi-fi hotspot at the BusyInternet restaurant".

The blogging and podcasting workshop was organised by the Technology Assessment Project, University of Ghana and the Technical University of Denmark, in association with African Security Dialogue and Research and, and was held at the main offices of African Security Dialogue and Research in Accra last Thursday.

This workshop reflects the growing popularity across Ghana and the African continent of blogging and its associated formats, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. “Blogging is not as big in Africa as it is in other parts of the world but is has been coming up fairly new over the past couple of years, specifically in the last year,” said Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of the Blog Africa project. Set up in the summer of 2004, features a comprehensive list of blogs from and about Africa, and collects content from these various blogs.

A weblog, usually shortened to blog, is a web-based publication consisting primarily of periodic articles, normally in reverse chronological order explained Zuckerman. “Blogging is a new word for the old phenomenon of personal publishing. What makes blogging distinct is that it is created for personal use rather than for an institution,” he said. “Many of the African related weblogs we have encountered have been set up by expatriat Africans talking about their experiences living elsewhere in the world, as well as Africans based on the continent,” he added.

Blogs can range from individual diaries to arms of political campaigns, media programs, and corporations and they can vary in scale from the writings of one occasional author, to the collaboration of a large community of writers. “Blogging is growing across the continent particularly in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana but there is already a large established local blogging community in South Africa and Kenya and much of the content in these blogs are either political, satirical or technological,” he added.

While some weblogs can be non-interactive, many allow visitors to leave public comments, which can lead to a community of readers centered around the blog. “Recently, through the commentary, we have noticed in Africa some very interesting dialogue between African bloggers. For example, there have been stimulating conversations between bloggers criticising the recent Live 8 events, which has been interesting,” said Zuckerman. “Through this kind of dialogue we literally have Nigerians and Kenyans going at each other, which can be exciting,” he exclaimed.

Since the introduction of blogging, a number of software packages have appeared to allow people to create their own personal weblog, while enhancements to weblog technology continue to be developed. Blog hosting sites and Web services to provide editing via the Web have proliferated such as Pitas, Blogger and LiveJournal. “To set up an account on these sites is usually free or sometimes may require a small fee. Setting up a weblog is easy; it is harder to promote a weblog and attract visitors,” said Zuckerman.

Some weblogs specialize in particular forms of presentation or on a particular theme, and acronyms have been developed for some of these, such as vlog for videoblog, which is primarily a medium for distributing video content, and moblogs for mobileblog, which consists of content posted to the Internet from a mobile or portable device, such as a cellular phone or PDA. One of the types of blog that has undergone rapid expansion since the year 2000 is the MP3 blog, which make audio files available to the user. MP3 blogs are normally targeted at highly specialized musical genres, however, personal audioblogs have been rising rapidly.

Termed as “Podcasting”, this is a method of publishing via the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed of new files, usually MP3s. It became popular in late 2004, largely to automate downloading of audio onto portable players or personal computers.

Podcasting is distinct from other types of online media delivery because of its subscription model, which uses the RSS 2.0 XML (or RDF XML) format to deliver an enclosed file. Podcasting enables independent producers to create self-published, syndicated "radio shows," and gives broadcast radio programs a new distribution method. Listeners may subscribe to feeds using "podcatching" software (a type of aggregator), which periodically checks for and downloads new content automatically.

Some podcatching software is also able to synchronise (copy) podcasts to portable music players. “There is a lot of hype surrounding this new phenomenon of podcatsing at the moment. Specifically, it has been hailed as the alternative to commercial radio,” said Zuckerman. “However, it has not caught on in Africa as quickly as it has elsewhere,” he added. According to Zuckerman, this is primarily due to technical limitations as the upload bandwidth in Africa is not sufficient enough for uploading MP3 files and the fact that a server is needed to host audio blogging, which is also lacking in Africa. The bandwidth issue also hinders the development of videoblogging and mobile blogging in Africa as well as the cost of video camera phones, which also presents a challenge.

Despite certain technological drawbacks, Zuckerman believes that Africa is just as ahead of the curve in some aspects of blogging as it is behind. “Something that is not unique to Africa but has become very predominant there is linking. When you can find one blogger, you normally can find the rest of the community,” he explained.

“Also, another exciting development there is that many weblogs have emerged in local languages like Swahili for example. Often, these blogs offer translations of other blogs, which opens up a whole new audience and community,” added Zuckerman.