In three villages in Armenia, the CAST project installed a WiFi proximity network through which the community could access alternative sources of hyperlocal news and information.

In an area where internet access is often confined to one computer in the home, and where mobile data connections can be prohibitively expensive, the project trialled a location-based connectivity system by placing devices in places where people often spent longer periods of their day, such as at a bus stop, a health centre, or a common meeting spot.

People could then connect to the network and access the information and stories provided, or contribute their own news if they had chosen to sign up to the media literacy part of the project.

CAST is a partnership between the Media Innovation Studio at the University of Central Lancashire, Impact Hub Yerevan, and Wicastr.

"One thing that we set out to really look at was the capacity of decentralised technologies. It's very telling at the moment with the changes that are going on with Facebook's algorithm that there is a real hunger for an alternative way of distributing news," Clare Cook, the co-founder of the Media Innovation Studio, told in a recent podcast.

"We wanted to see whether or not we could serve alternative data insights to those news publishers and what we were able to do was pinpoint what content was being consumed where, so that allowed us to drill down to create completely new data insights around news consumption.

"So we can actually say that one piece of content was particularly popular at the school but perhaps a different type of content was popular at a bus stop, and publishers don't actually have access to that degree of detail when they use the big power houses of the internet like Google and Facebook."

Between June and December 2016, 4,938 articles were delivered, as well as 520 videos, and 12,521 images. This comprised 22GB of data.

As well as access to the network set up by CAST, the communities of Kamaris, Lchashen, and Lernapat were also encouraged to participate and share stories relevant to their communities. In Lernapat, over 70 articles were published by community authors and editors about village culture and sports.

A report has also been published, explaining more about the technology behind the CAST project as well as highlighting some data on news consumption from two of the three villages that took part in the project.

The project also raised important questions about the technology used and its potential, explained Cook.

"What's interesting is to really think about whether or not you're forcing people into a fixed set of options about their information needs.

"Our interest as a project was obviously a civic one but it's important to realise that if these technologies push news and information out to communities, whether that's via beacon technology or WiFi or near-field communications, it opens up an entirely new set of dilemmas around news agendas and who is in control of that, but equally it raises a raft of issues to do with policy because a lot of the policy around this technology is not fit for purpose."

To get access to CAST, interested users had to log in to the network from their mobile devices. But existing technology enables people to send push notifications to other devices whether or not they have signed up to receive updates, by simply targeting devices that have Bluetooth turned on for example.

"What we're trying to really show is how we could build networks that are alternative to going on the internet. Do we always have to go large when we're actually trying to achieve local? And do we need to reroute people a little bit in their habits and behaviours?"

The potential of these technologies to generate new revenue for publishers, whether through data or serving personalised content depending on contextual information such as the time and place, is another intriguing proposition.

"It's also important to question how journalism should be produced for those different environments, so whether or not we actually have to change the rules of storytelling based on these emerging technologies," Cook added.

Listen to the full podcast about CAST here.

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