A USC professor and team of graduate students have helped create an online social media platform that allows immigrants in the Los Angeles area to share their stories via cell phones.
The platform, called VozMob — short for voces móbiles, Spanish for “mobile voices” — has gained popularity in recent months, said François Bar, an associate professor of communication who helped lead the project.
Anyone with a cell phone can send in stories, opening the platform to many without Internet access or additional software on their phones.
VozMob was created from an existing collaboration between the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The team included members of IDEPSCA, USC graduate students and Bar.
Bar said the platform is significant for immigrants because it allows them to share their stories without the filter of the mainstream media, which he says depicts immigrants “unfavorably and [with] bias.”
“[It allows immigrants] to give a direct expression on what matters to [them],” Bar said.
Bar said he got involved in the project through graduate students working with IDEPSCA.
“What drew me to this project [was] finding an area where technology is not designed and [being able to] invent new things,” he said.
Bar also said he is interested in seeing how far he can push technology and what the obstacles are, something that he said he is discovering with this project.
According to Bar, VozMob is significant because it was designed with the community in mind.
The program also gives users an incentive to learn new skills, such as using advanced media editing software. Classes on how to use the software are offered by IDEPSCA.
In the past few months, the popularity of VozMob has grown mostly through word of mouth, Bar said. One goal for the future is to expand the user base by working with different organizations.
The program is currently for Los Angeles-based immigrants, but nationwide expansion is a possibility that Bar and the rest of his team are looking into.
“I see it being used by more groups and we’re in the process of figuring out which groups will be the best fit for using it,” Bar said.
The open-source technology used in VozMob can be used outside of the networking context as well.
“I am talking to colleagues who want to use the tool as a part of classes [in Annenberg], either as a reporting tool or to complement the story [with sources],” Bar said.
The project is already being implemented globally by USC graduate students. Charlotte Lapsansky, a graduate student studying communication who is currently working in India, is using the same open-source technology to create a program that can be used for workers in the field to communicate and post their findings.
“VozMob is not going to be the next Facebook,” Bar said, adding he hopes it will become a resource for immigrants wishing to share their stories with the world.
Graduate students from USC were a central part of the small team creating VozMob. The majority of students were from Annenberg, but students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts were also involved.
Benjamin Stokes, a member of the team who is pursuing his Ph.D. in communication, said he was drawn to USC because of the opportunity to work on VozMob.
“My work is to be an advocate and do outreach for the project, [to] tell other people about it and then put [them] in contact with IDEPSCA,” he said.
Karen Romero, a freshman majoring in business administration whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, said she thinks the website is a good idea.
“It seems like a good resource for people to learn about others from all walks of life,” she said.
Stokes said he was drawn to the project because it allows immigrants to tell their stories.
“As human beings, they deserve to express their voices,” Stokes said. “[Through VozMob], people with the least voice will be heard.”