Oil slick reporting through mobiles

The potential of Oil Reporter, a new mobile application from Crisis Commons, goes far beyond its intended application to monitor the fallout of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf Coast. In a blog post written four years ago (Content without wires), I hinted at the potential for meaningful peacebuilding through similar applications, running on smartphones that are now increasingly the norm,

For peace, this means that grassroots communities will (finally) have the means through which their voices can be promoted, at little or no cost (certainly less than the combined cost of PC ownership and PC based wired internet access) through mobile telephony frameworks or WiMax & PDA combinations to a larger audience. In reality, this means that technologies already in development for news and journalism using mobile video can be used for human rights monitoring, bringing to light local government corruption, capture government officials who take bribes, help in alternative dispute resolution with regards to post-conflict land issues by giving mediators a better idea of the contested territory through video & photos, helping humanitarian aid work and strengthening community participation in peacebuilding frameworks.

However, as I’ve noted earlier,

…the mere introduction of technology will make our lives better is erroneous – 3G is not going to make our lives better. We need to figure out the ways through which 3G can and must feed into democracy that’s founded upon effective communication between peoples – and that’s not something telecoms companies operating under profit imperatives can always successfully envision.

Oil Reporter by Crisis Commons, running on Android as well as the iPhone, is open-source, polished and powerful. Although there are very few reports featured on the site produced by the mobile application, it’s the commendable thought that has gone into the design of this application that is worthy of emulation. There’s a visualisation component through Google Maps, a data aggregation component, an API, a mobile client for incident tracking and the Oil Reporter application itself – for me, the fundamentals of a citizen journalism newsroom.

Opening up the environmental and livelihood costs, over the long-term, to public scrutiny and debate, Oil Reporter’s website notes,

Oil Reporter’s Adopt-A-Beach initiative will provide the opportunity for virtual volunteers to review high resolutions imagery of the Gulf Coast and to map data elements such as perimeters of oil presence and injured wildlife in remote areas where physical assessment access is limited. This also provides an opportunity for Oil Reporter photographs and video to be joined with high resolution imagery to provide greater understanding and provide an ability to share data from these sources back to the public.

It is that greater understanding that applications such as this can provide in other contexts, such as terrains of violence and theatres of conflict. The robust contestation of issues and processes informed by multiple perspectives captured through mobile devices is a new paradigm for accountability and journalism that contests propaganda, mainstream media bias, marketing spin.

Even in Sri Lanka, though a basic camera phone, the callous insensitivity of government stood exposed and condemned post-war. Beyond this, I am interested in how applications like Oil Reporter can be adapted and leveraged to provide citizens with the power to bear witness and a voice to capture the world as they see it. All of the resulting content will (and must) be contested. But let’s not forget or underplay that much of it will never be featured in mainstream media.

And that to me, looking to the future, is the true potential of Oil Reporter.

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