"It all started with me interested in the new political movements, calling for change in the streets, thinking that they [were] not getting enough coverage, and having a new digital camera, going down and taking pictures and posting them on my blog and wanting to make people interested in that….Then it evolved into taking videos of the violence and the demonstrations, and when people started seeing the violence and the demonstrations, they started sending me their own stuff. Videos that were leaked from police officers’ mobile phones, videos they shoot themselves during demonstrations or elections, or whatever….It was not intentional, but in the end what happened on the Internet encouraged people to use their devices, use their mobile phones, use their digital cameras, use their video cameras to capture whatever they think is interesting and send it to the people who will publish it without editing, without monitoring, without censorship, without anything."
(Full interview with Wael Abbas at Witness HUB)
This statement from Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian journalist and blogger, is both simple and devastating. We often complain about transparency in the US, but we live in a larger world dominated by nations with strong-fisted state control and a longstanding resistance to transparency. While journalists are still killed and arrested worldwide, anecdotal cracks are appearing in the armor. As Abbas sees it, his community sending him videos of police brutality is like the small spark that lights the oven. Tools of change are hitting the hands of a long overlooked majority—what we’d call the developing world. They’re small, they’re cheap, and their tinny music will drive you crazy on the day train from Cairo to Luxor. They are in the hands of 300 million Africans and 400 million Indians, for starters. It’s the mobile phone—what Erik Hersman (AfriGadget, WhiteAfrican.com) calls the "default device" of Africa.
So many tech conferences in the United States focus on the cool kids stuff—augmented reality, paper-thin flexible transparent screens, 3D, new models for film distribution, the iPhone. But there are hundreds of millions of people out there who never had a computer, never even had a land line, because of costs, bureaucracy and corruption. But many of them now have something perhaps far more powerful—a digital camera with the capacity to immediately send out its impressions to the world. The last thing I want to sound like is an evangelist, but this massive population of new mobile subscribers is often oddly left behind in future projections of video technology, despite the fact that the term "citizen journalism" is now so old it’s passe. There are so many potential applications for sparking entrepreneurship and change in the developing world beyond citizen journalism (although that still remains a strong, virtually unrealized one).
In many African countries the cost of plans, and the system itself has limited phone usage largely to calls and text messages (SMS). Several Q&As at this year’s related SXSWi panels pointed out that these basic services can be so expensive that other necessities—like food—are neglected. And according to the Guardian UK, while developing countries account for two thirds of active mobile phone users, mobile broadband has only a 1 percent penetration rate, which in itself spurs on some fascinating technology development.
If you compare mobile phone subscriptions on a map of Africa to access to electricity, it has a larger footprint. Imagine how many businesses have sprung up just to solve the problem of charging a mobile phone in areas where there is no electricity.
All this makes it sound like a video revolution is still a very distant dream. But a quick look at the innovation that’s grown from the current rate of mobile penetration hints at a potential so large, it shouldn’t be relegated to the sidelines of any conference on video. Here are a few.
When the violence broke out in Kenya after the 2008 Presidential elections, there was essentially a media blackout. Ushahidi—which means "testimony" in Swahili – was developed in three days as a way to map SMS reports of violence and get news out to the local and international community. Here’s an example post: "Protesters gathered in groups and attempted to walk into the town center; police fired live shots and tear gas canisters to disperse them. Three protesters were seriously injured and one shot dead."
As Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman likes to say, referring to the region’s limited infrastructure, if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere. Since its launch, Ushahidi has migrated into a free, open source tool that can be used to map any kind of crisis, and can filter the reports using crowdsourcing. But the long term potential of video to communicate momentary impressions of violence or protests is massive—it can circumvent language and literacy limitations, and though it can be manipulated (and manipulative) there is an element of truth in the eyewitness.
Citizen journalism always shines in a crisis—for recent examples see the Mumbai attacks, and the documentation of protests that arose in Pakistan when Musharraf declared martial law in 2007.
UNICEF and RapidSMS
When, in October, 2008, Ethiopia suffered from massive droughts, UNICEF launched a program to supply an oddly named high protein food, Plumpy’nut, to more than 1,800 feeding centers. In the past, UNICEF would have sent individuals to monitor the delivery of the food, its use and the villages’ future needs manually, with a two-week to two-month delay between the info coming in via land line or mail and the analysis (and life-saving food) coming out. UNICEF moved their monitors over to an SMS based reporting system, with its own syntax, which virtually eliminated the delay, and allowed the data to be sent to all interested parties immediately. The process itself was easier for the monitors, speeding up adoption rates, and in the end the move to SMS-based reporting saved thousands of lives.
A project of Africanews.com, Voices of Africa supports reporter training and the use of mobile video, text and photos as a tool for creating on-the-ground news and opinion pieces. The project is aware that these technologies, though basic in the developed world, are still too expensive for most Africans. News stories on the website demonstrate the current need to foster reportage through robust, on-the-ground support structures, rather that relying on market support. The reports still have an earnest, UGC feel to them, but the program has also won international awards.
Carrier-independent SMS systems
Several downloadable systems have sprung up out of a need to separate SMS out from state control and high costs. FeedeliX maps non-Latin languages to standard mobile phone keys to make communication easier. It’s also been used to circumvent censorship or the filtering of messages in Ethiopia. MXit is an incredibly popular text messaging freeware service based in South Africa, which also provides a cheaper alternative to SMS and has a mass following among high school students.
Designed specifically for the local market in Uganda, Status.ug allows users to send their status messages via text from their phones. They have plans to expand the service to allow access to other elements of Facebook to Ugandans with limited data access.
Mobile payments and agricultural market tools
With banking transfer fees at unaffordable rates for most Africans, several systems have sprung up to circumvent the traditional system. An Ethiopian friend of mine uses his own personal trust network to "transfer" funds. He sends a friend in Ethiopia a text message asking him to deposit a certain amount of money into in his (my friend’s) Ethiopian bank. The friend trusts that my friend will likewise deposit a matching amount of money into his family’s US bank account. They trust that the deposit amounts will match and no money will leave either country. Magic, no money crosses any borders, but everyone gets the funds they need. MPESA, Wizzit and Celpay all support mobile banking in Africa, in an effort to allow legitimate transfers to happen. Likewise, there has also been a need for farmers to understand the market prices of the crops they sell. Tradenet allows farmers in West Africa to find out what the local agricultural market is like, via SMS. For more info on all these services, visit WhiteAfrican.com.
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