I have been working in the last month to a very cool project involving the Ushahidi platform for non-emergency issues. This is a project of Internews Network, an organization, that despite the misunderstanding of most people, is not a news agency, but an international media development organization that support media and journalists all over the world with the goal to empower local media worldwide.
The Kenyan branch of the organization has decided to set up an Ushahidi platform for journalists. This project intrigue me for several reasons: first of all because it is not an emergency or electoral monitoring use of the platform, as most of the Ushahidi instances have been in the last 6 months; secondly because this is the first platform that is actually applied to media and information sharing in the field of journalism outside an emergency.
A couple of days ago from Twitter I get the chance to see this video of Patrick Meier talking about the use of Ushahidi by media, and I decided it was the right time to write this post, which has been in my mind since the beginning of this project.
The Internews Ushahidi platform starts from a very simple idea: journalism is the base concept of spreading information, giving people tools to understand and know the reality they live in and, by this mean, journalism is a democratizing tool for populations; this is why one of the main indicator of democratization is the independence of media.
In the Kenyan context the importance of journalism is even more fundamental because of the involvement of journalists and media in the violence that occurred after the presidential elections in 2008. Good, independent and democratic media in Kenya represents today one step towards a more democratic country, especially with the constitutional referendum happening on August 4th. This referendum is in a kind of way the result of what happened in 2008, a search for a better system where the events of 2008 will not be likely to happen again.
The Internews project is for now at its very beginning, but I think that the potentialities of the project are huge. The first step has been to have a trusted and trained group of journalists. Those journalists have been trained by Internews on reporting on conflicts issues: not on the content of those reports, but on the most effective and balanced way to report conflicts news in the light of an urgent need to provide trusted and balanced information to foster the Kenyan democratic system.
Those journalists have then started to report on lots of different topics, from the idea that all information that can be useful for a better understanding of the social and cultural context, can be also useful for understanding and maybe also preventing conflicts.
The second step, still in its initial phase, will be to introduce the platform to Radio Stations, and have them contributing to it with the possibility to add audio files and news reports coming from their own field reporters. Radio Stations in Kenya are basically the main source of information and one of the most trusted: community radio stations, vernacular radio stations and even main-stream radio station are the cheapest and more effective channel to reach a country where the internet connection is still pretty expensive and the level of literacy in the rural areas very low.
The platform is based on a simple concept: the idea to provide journalists with a platform where they can share information with other journalists, and have in this way access to trusted information on areas that they cannot cover for obvious reason of capability and resources.
Right now all reports are coming from people that the administrators of the Platform at Internews know personally, because of their long presence in the country – 7 years – in a network that is both professional but also personal. Trust in this context I think is key: Internews knows personally those journalists, and those journalists know personally Internews, so the level of confidence created in the past 10 years is the base of a system of trust that allow this Ushahidi platform to have for now only verified and trusted reports in it.
For now of course the network is still pretty small, more or less 15 journalists reports periodically on the platform, through SMS, web-submission and e-mail, and all of them are periodically refunded for the expenses they incur in sending their reports. The platform is still basic and needs lots of customizations to be done yet, like the SMS alert function to be able to send those information to citizens – planned for the beginning of August.
But the idea is that one day this platform could be open to the public: and this is where Patrick’s Meier interview make me decide to write this post. What Patrick describes as a mix system of bounded and unbounded reporting is the future (expected at least) outcome of this Ushahidi platform. In a country where everybody, from the illiterate grandma in the rural area, to the 19 years old taxi driver, has a mobile phone, and where even a community Radio Station of a slum like Pamoja FM, that had no internet connection till one week ago, but has a short code for SMS from its audience, and receive almost 400 SMS day, the mix of citizens journalism and professional journalism is a natural outcome. Even without 3G phones, which, by the way, are making their way here in Kenya (introduced in 2009 by Safaricom).
As I briefly explained in my previous post, this system will have so many advantages: not only a platform where journalists can share information in between them, but also where citizens can inform them on issues they may not be aware of. But even more than that: a platform where citizens can verify journalists’ reports and vice-versa, and where false or partial use of information can be easily detected by both citizens and media. In this context falsification of information become even more costly and difficult for whoever would like to do use the platform to spread false information.
Of course, there is still a long way to go before this platform will arrive at that point: crowd-sourcing still requires a consistent amount of resources to be invested, especially in terms of human resources, but the path is traced. And 3G phones are still expensive, but I am sure this will not be for long time. Ushahidi definitely can be used outside emergency, and I think that it has still to show all its potential, especially in the field of journalism.
As Patrick said in his interview “We already see this rise in citizen journalism — people being interested in contributing information, creating information, the whole user-generated revolution — so I think that could be a way for a media group to harness the crowd to be the reporters and to provide that kind of information in real time. So I’d love to see, you know, maybe something like that work.” Be patient dear friend, and you will see it!