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Drone journalism in Sri Lanka: Footage and key examples

The event was aimed at journalists from the programme and also from outside, including the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, mainstream media, freelance journalists and civic media, around the ethical, rights based use of drones for journalism, also in compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority’s regulations from February 2016.

The Q&A session after the presentation focussed on rights, the ethics around the use of content and footage, the tensions between public interest versus private property and the right to privacy, the technical capabilities of consumer grade drones, specific points of the CAASL regulations and indeed, as has been previously noted, the lack of awareness amongst journalists of how best to use a drone in their reporting.

As I tweeted,

As award winning journalist Amantha Perera tweeted soon after,

As part of the presentation, a short video, showcasing some of the best footage from a recent OneSriLanka Fellows field trip to Polonnaruwa, Welikanda, Batticaloa and Kattankudy, was shown. This footage has to date been used in Lankadeepa, BBC Sinhala, Daily Mirror, Roar.lk reports in Sinhala and English, amongst other sites and publications.

These are the first reports in Sri Lankan media that use drone footage in a manner that sets an example for others, across the media landscape, to follow.

ICT for Peacebuilding

Digital transformation and the role of civil society in Sri Lanka

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The Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit Regional office South Asia organized a regional seminar on “Promoting Liberty Digitally” in Sri Lanka from 15th to 17th October 2016. I was asked to speak on “Digital transformation and the role of Civil Society in Sri Lanka” and to be present at a group discussion on “Civil rights and the Internet”.

My presentation covered how technology in general, and social media in particular, had been leveraged by civil society around a range of issues related to elections, democracy, rights and governance in Sri Lanka. Looking at Facebook statistics in Sri Lanka, and also CPA’s own social polling data around Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province, I noted how designing and developing for mobiles first was essential if CSOs and NGOs wanted to engage with digital natives, who in Sri Lanka are also the most politically active and fall within the 18 – 34 demographic / 1st, 2nd or at most, 3rd time voters.

Noting the results of CPA’s social polling, I flagged that,

  • Not everyone needs to be connected to web to be influenced by it.
  • The influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks.
  • This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

I also flagged key changes, as I saw them, brought about by the ever increasing adaptation and adoption of technology by civil society (and indeed, government),

  • Ubiquity of two way communications
  • Addressable peoples, even those who IDPs or refugees
  • Disintermediated models vs. traditional media model
  • People as producers
  • Low resolution, hyperlocal helps focus and granularity
  • Aggregation of low resolution helps macro analysis and strategy

I then looked at specific apps and technologies and how they had been used in Sri Lanka (e.g. Abdul Halik-Azziz on Instagram, or Groundviews on WhatsApp).

I then looked at how technology helped remember the inconvenient, harking back to my more detailed presentation on this topic at Colomboscope 2016 (‘Remembering is Resisting‘).

Groundviews has pioneered long-form and responsive web based storytelling on platforms like Adobe Spark, Atavist and Shorthand – I flagged these as important to embrace in light of the fact that so many consumed content over mobiles and smartphones.

Flagging the path-breaking Change Sri Lanka campaign leading up to the General Election in 2015, I also noted how infographics, the web and mainstream media were leveraged to capture opinion from a broad section of the public in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

I also flagged drone journalism, immersive VR content (360 degree videos for use with the likes of Google Cardboard) and the many aspects of Facebook, ranging from Notes to Facebook Live video, as ways to communicate and engage with more effectively target audiences.

Finally I flagged some questions around identity, safety, security, information overload and ‘slacktivism’ – noting that increasing digital advocacy and activism also meant opening oneself, and institutions, to greater more pervasive surveillance, especially in South Asia which remains colored by a democratic deficit.

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I also said that the biggest challenge facing the greater adoption and adaptation of technology for advocacy was not a paucity of apps, platforms, tools or services, but a crisis of imagination in civil society itself – noting that civil society is usually unable and unwilling to think outside the box.

ICT for Peacebuilding

Presentation at Shape South Asia 2016 on ‘Corridors of Power’

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I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

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Interrogating constitutional power (between centre and periphery) through architecture, as a design venture that sought to engage citizens to think more about how they are ruled, has never once been attempted before, anywhere in the world. The project brought together one of the country’s foremost architects, one of its leading constitutional theorists and I in a three way, over year long conversation culminating in the exhibition, anchored to architectural principles, design, aesthetics and constitutional theory.

‘Corridors of Power’ interrogates 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, through architecture. What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

Led by the input of Asanga Welikala and in collaboration with Channa Daswatta, ‘Corridors of Power’ through architectural drawings and models interrogates Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. The physical exhibition, held first in late 2015, critiqued Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and essentially the tension between centre and periphery. The original exhibition output included large format drawings, 3D flyovers, sketches, and models reflecting power dynamics enshrined in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and 19th Amendments.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.

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Chaotic pluralism

What we see today in Sri Lanka is that the most textured discussions on politics is often led by those outside political parties. It is a discussion that is rich, varied and multi-polar, anchored to not just one entity, location or language. It cannot be censored and through a variety of mediums encourages those who were never before part of these dialogues to participate, freely, through like, comment, selfie, hashtag, video, soundbite, emoticon, filter, livestream or instant message, aside from the consumption of traditional mainstream media.

My conversations with individuals and institutions over the course of last week highlighted what a few in government and many more outside already know and fear. Since the 8th of January 2015, politics as usual has trumped the promise of a new political culture, captured best by the yahapalanaya brand. This was expected, though to see and live through it, is no less depressing. A friend succinctly flagged salient features of the challenge at a meeting held to trace the contours of what today is a promising, new, government led communications initiative. Those in power now trust more those they perceived to be loyal (either to self or party) more than those with skills and experience. Critical commentary, including that which holds the President, PM and the rest of government accountable to the promises they themselves made, is seen as unnecessary, inconvenient and as a sign of trouble. So…

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ICT for Peacebuilding

Drone Journalism in Sri Lanka

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Over August and September this year, I conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshops on the ethical, legal use of drones or UAVs in journalism. The workshop was heavily anchored to the ethics around the use of drones, the detailed regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) around UAVs flights, a practical, hands-on segment where all participants got to fly a DJI Phantom IV drone and finally, a discussion around imagery processing, quality and ethics, around content captured during flight.

A one-page description of the workshop can be downloaded here.

As a result of these workshops, I was also able to engage the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) in on-going conversations around regulating the use of drones in Sri Lanka particularly for non-commercial use, as well as making it easier for journalists and farmers to register more easily with the CAASL. More on this later.

Released in February 2016, CAASL’s second version of regulations covering the flight of drones and UAVs in Sri Lanka is available online, though not easily discoverable even on the CAASL site. It is comprehensive, well-drafted and isn’t overly restrictive in comparison to regulations from the US, UK and Australia for example. Conversations with the CAASL, still on-going, have been anchored to making these regulations available in Sinhala and Tamil, in a more accessible, reader and user-friendly formats, through short-form video and available at the point of sale in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, I have also been informed that a new version of the regulations is in the works, and will be released to the public domain soon.

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Photo by Maatram, via https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10210655565414664&set=pcb.10210655609655770&type=3&theater

The first drone journalism workshop was supported by Internews, and the result of conversations with renowned journalist Amantha Perera, who also wrote about the workshop. There were around 20 participants, from the pathbreaking One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship programme as well as from mainstream media.

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The first workshop was also supported by Sam de Silva from Internews, who also went on to wrote about it. As he noted,

Kaushalye, a reporter for the Sinhala language newspaper Lankadeepa in Sri Lanka, had planned to purchase a drone to photograph weddings and other events. He had never heard about using drones for journalism until he attended a workshop in Mount Lavinia. Kaushalye’s interest was kindled – he said he found the rules and regulations and ethics components especially useful.

Some media outlets in Sri Lanka have already started using drones (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs) to provide aerial footage for their stories but there was no awareness or training for journalists about the regulations governing the flying of such craft, the ethics involved and the safety and security checks that need to be followed.

Some photos from the workshop, taken by Sam.

Given the incredible interest around the first workshop, I organized a second in September, supported by the ICT4Peace Foundation. As noted by me in the foreword to The Use of Unmanned Unarmed Aerial Vehicles for Peacekeeping, authored by Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meier and published by the ICT4Peace Foundation,

For the best of intentions, UUAVs can lead to the worst of outcomes if their use isn’t carefully contextualized, and their deployment plus operation sensitively managed. With the democratization of UUAVs, and add-on technologies, serious challenges like the relatively easy weaponisation of off-the-shelf UUAVs will grow, as well as the use of UUAVs by non-state actors and certain arms of government for surveillance, and of course, continuing military operations.

The Foundation’s interest in promoting the ethical, rights based use of drones in humanitarian and peacekeeping domains merged with my interest in support the use of UAVs in Sri Lanka for journalism. The second workshop was held for journalists, activists, those from civic media, and others using drones for commercial operations including aerial photography.

Importantly, the CAASL sent a representative to act as an observer in the second workshop, and in a short speech delivered mid-way, reiterated the CAASL’s interest in supporting the ethical use of drones in journalism, as well as efforts to promote the awareness of existing regulations. Editor of Maatram and journalist Selvaraja Rajasegar has some photos from the workshop.

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The other advantage of the second workshop was that permission was sought and received from the Warden of S. Thomas’ College, adjacent to the workshop venue, to have the hands-on lessons on the cricket grounds in the school, allowing for easier Line of Sight (LOS) flying.

That’s a short video from footage shot during the flights when the participants took the controls, including a segment where I demonstrate the Phantom IV’s (slightly creepy) active tracking mode.

The second workshop also included developments in Sri Lanka since the first was held, most notably the proposed use around and advertisements for drones in agriculture, and amongst farmers in the country.

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There is still a long way to go. As I was typing in this blogpost, a callous example of how not to use a drone for journalism surfaced from Colombo.

As award-winning journalist Dharisha Bastians noted (she also participated in the 2nd workshop),

Furthermore, the Sunday Times reported that,

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is urging operators of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) including drones, to register with the CAA, as the use of these instruments are fast gaining popularity in the country. CAA Director General (DG), H.M.C. Nimalsiri said, only around 50 UAV s are registered with them to date, while many more are believed to be in operation.

Only problem is that the CAASL to date has no way the public can register their drones. It is also unclear to what extent local authorities including for example the Police, Civil Defense Force and Army, especially in the North and East, are aware of the CAASL regulations.

But the interest from the CAASL in engaging with media, civic minded citizens around drone flights, the agrarian sector and other commercial operators is very positive. Given an enduring interest in the issues covered in the workshop, I intend to conduct more in the future.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

ICCM 2016, Manila, Philippines: Video message from ICT4Peace Foundation

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The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) is the leading humanitarian technology event of the year, bringing together the most important humanitarian, human rights, development and media organizations with the world’s best technology companies, software developers and academics. As thus one of the few neutral spaces where such important conversations can take place, the annual ICCM conference brings together a wide range of diverse actors for important conversations that lead to concrete new projects and deliverables across a variety of diverse domains. As a community of practice, the ICCM thus helps facilitate new projects and catalyzes innovation in the area of humanitarian technology.

This year’s conference is being hosted in Manila, Philippines September 28-30, 2016 with field visits from October 1-7.

Couldn’t make it to ICCM because of logistical issues, but did this short video, which was shown at the start of the conference, on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation.

The keynote address I made at ICCM 2011, in Geneva, is below. Good times.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Remembering is resisting

I gave a short talk on the politics of digital memorialisation through personal archives at Colomboscope 2016 on a panel titled ‘Rendering Realities’, moderated by Subha Wijesiriwardena.

The festival’s description of my presentation read,

Sanjana focuses on the role of the human in creating digital archives. He reflects on the ways digital archives are being generated, some of the technologies and platforms that allow for these archives to be created at scale and at the role and relevance of a citizen archivist. He explores the increasing yet often under-valued tension between ubiquitous and persistent recording (of life moments) and the essential fragility of digital storage.

The presentation was anchored to two recent articles of mine published in the mainstream media in Sri Lanka (The Sunday Island) as well as on my (other) blog. ARCHIVING THE FUTURE and DIGITAL MEMORIES both look at the challenges of archiving the discursive terrains online in contemporary Sri Lanka, and attempts to capture the politics, content and tensions therein for posterity.

The panel was recorded and a link will be put here once the content is made public by the organisers.