From hate and harm to aid and advocacy: Angelo Fernando’s ‘Chat Republic’

Cross-posted from Groundviews.

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Angelo Fernando, in addition to being a long-standing columnist in the Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD) is also the author of a new book, Chat Republic: How Social Media Drives Us To Be Human 1.0 in a Web 2.0 World.

We begin our conversation on matters digital and online by looking at how Angelo’s father in particular networked socially in the world of brick and mortar, and how this shaped the author’s take on online social networking and new media. After going into how Angelo started to get interested in new media, and web based communications and communities, we talk about his take on media literacy, and its importance today.

We then explore, based on a particular section in Chat Republic, the author’s own journey in using social media, from the time just after the Asian tsunami when his blog became a virtual clearinghouse of information, to the more recent advances and platforms he covers in the book. Flagging what at the time of the recording were unprecedented social uprisings in Turkey, we go on to talk about the current state of the debate on professional and amateur journalists, and whether this really even matters anymore.

Given what is a genuinely disturbing rise in online hate speech (in Sri Lanka, but more generally around the world), Angelo then goes into how he perceives the ‘Chat Republic’ can and should address this issue, and why media literacy in important in this regard.

We then talk about the culture of what can be called over-sharing, and how a tsunami of multimedia and geo-referenced content from mobile and web based apps, platforms and services stand, in large part, to be irrevocably lost and also owned by corporations to often reuse as they see fit. Confessing that he actually writes letters on paper, Angelo then talks about how he approaches the art of writing.

Towards the end, we talk about PRISM, and the mind-boggling revelations by Edward Snowdon (who at the time of recording the programme was in Hong Kong) which all point to a very disturbing state of affairs regarding privacy on the web and Internet in general, and social media platforms in particular. Angelo shares his thoughts on what has recently come to light over the nature and extent of surveillance in countries like the US and UK.

Our conversation ends by Angelo sharing some thoughts about where he wants to take Chat Republicand whether it will be made available in Tamil and Sinhala.

Media Innovation at the World Editors Forum 2013

Innovation and paywalls were the buzzwords at the  20th World Editors Forum (WEF) and the 65th World Newspaper Congress, held recently in Bangkok, Thailand. There was hardly any panel which didn’t address the ostensible merits of establishing a paywall, or how innovation – proposed and perceived mostly as mobile app development, responsive web design or changes in the newsroom culture to embrace new media and mobile first strategies – had changed the fortunes of media companies.

In my own submission at WEF, I flagged the innovations pioneered under Groundviews in using web based platforms and services to highlight stories otherwise marginal, or untold. Whereas WEF was agog with the potential profit making potential of paywalls, innovations through Groundviews focussed on content that would not otherwise be known to a wider audience, or recorded for posterity. Groundviews doesn’t have a multi-million dollar budget, any newsroom staff or a graphics department and yet launched an iPhone app to access site content, Twitter feeds and report from the field as far back as 2011. Optimised for the then freshly introduced Retina display on the iPhone 4, the app was the first of its kind in South Asia for a citizen journalism initiative.

While the innovations paraded at WEF by some of the world’s largest and best known media companies and news organisations where mostly rants about how one needed to embrace the mobile web or else face rapid obsolescence, Groundviews offered a different, and I hope, more compelling story – a meta-story if you will, about how it captures, archives and visualises content often no other media institution in Sri Lanka can or will feature. I spoke about the use of Google Earth in the visualisation of the bloody end of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as in the fate of mass graves in the North and East of the country. I flagged how the site archives tweets around significant events and processes in Sri Lanka. Data visualisation and open data journalism are alien concepts in Sri Lanka, and yet this is precisely what – without calling it such – Groundviews is providing examples of, and moreover, how to do it for free or little cost.

But beyond the technology, I spoke about how Sri Lanka is NOT a story in the global media today, after the end of the war and more precisely, how the feel good tourism coverage on the country glossed over real violence. Flagging, inter alia, the serious and growing violations of human rights, the systemic breakdown of democratic governance, the rapid rise of Islamophobia, the near total mockery of the Rule of Law and the continuing and the violent marginalisation of the Tamil community, my presentation was in effect how a platform as simple as WordPress could bear witness to that which no one else was recording, interrogating, archiving or investigating.

The most valuable innovation for me is not what you do with a multi-million dollar budget. It is what you do, and how you do it, using little or no resources – human or financial. It is how you showcase the best journalism under duress, and a violent content. It is how you report when you know what you focus on will invariably result in serious pushback – physically, virtually or both. It is strategically planning for this pushback. It is leveraging the power and potential of freely accessible web platforms and apps, which may have never been designed with journalism in mind, to capture stories that need to be told. It is the self-education that is necessary to keep subjects and contributors safe, and yet, get their stories produced and published. It is how a simple archive of tweets can be, over the years, the richest source of critiques over promises unkept or broken. It is to embrace arts, theatre, music, photography, dance, painting and data visualisation as forms of journalism and then see how digital media can augment physical production and performance.

All this and more, over seven years, Groundviews has pioneered. WEF was a rare honour to participate in and contribute to as well. Yet for me, it was substantively largely passé. Innovation in media blossoms not just with millions of readers subsidising its real cost, or for and in the developed world, but when there is no help, safety net, international media gaze, human resources or financial resources. It’s this innovation that also needs to be flagged, and models to support and sustain, created.

Attending 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference

Stepping into the MIT Media Lab is akin to leaving this world, and stepping into a different one. I chanced into the building to meet Ethan Zuckerman earlier this year as part of the ICT4Peace Foundation‘s work, and will step in again in two weeks time as a participant at the 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. MIT’s Media Lab exudes the applied research orientation of its inhabitants.

Littered across vast hallways are interactive touchscreens, experiments in progress, vast panes of glass from where you can see researchers pouring over minutiae and open spaces where others, mostly on Macs, peer at their work interrupted occasionally by a muttered expletive or more vociferous sounds of jubilation, clearly indicating that something went to plan. It is a massive building, and needless to say, even when connected to its free wifi, the throughput and bandwidth exceed anything that is possibly even commercially available in Sri Lanka.

I look forward to all this, but more towards the substantive content of the conference as well as meeting the other Knight Journalism Fellows. I believe I was the first cohort of Ashoka News & Knowledge Entrepreneurs supported by the Knight Foundation, and my work on Groundviews in particular and the use of ICTs and new media for conflict transformation and to bear witness have been supported by the Fellowship.

Over the years, I’ve reflected a number of times on this blog how the use of web media and mobile phone in particular during war, and after it, changed the manner in which for example, the violence in Sri Lanka was recorded for posterity. I have cautioned that technology alone isn’t a solution, and that the focus must always be on people. There are however real challenges. As I’ve noted in the past,

As an Ashoka Fellow, I feel particularly privileged to be part of a group of thought-leaders shaping the way the news and media agenda grapples with significant social, economic, political and identity based conflict and violence. Yet there’s always more to the solution that adding ICTs to the mix. In Sri Lanka, the fact that there is little or no civic consciousness is the real challenge to new media and citizen journalism. It is a country of voters, and the difference is not just semantic. There is a real dearth of critical thinking, media literacy and a sense of public outrage at the breakdown in governance, human rights and corruption. New media can create that outrage, or hold to scrutiny issues mainstream media cannot or will not. But this requires citizens to write in with their ideas and thoughts – which proves exceedingly difficult in a society that does not work in this manner.

There are other challenges too, for example, on how to measure the impact of citizen journalism on the web. In addition to articles on how citizen journalism operates in Sri Lanka, I have also critically analysed the underpinnings of professional blogging in similar authoritarian contexts. All this reflection, based on real world work and its evaluation, was mostly possible because of the Knight Fellowship. One of the best pieces I wrote at the invitation of Keith Hammonds from Ashoka Foundation was to look at what changes ICTs would bring to media over 2010. This was published in Ashoka’s website in early January 2010.

I end that article by noting that,

Technology can be a great leveller, and we must ensure it is used to strengthen democracy, for increasingly, the enjoyment of our fundamental human rights rests on it. I hope that by the end of the decade, this vital realisation will find expression in constitutions, policies and practices of governments, initiatives of civil society and the ethics of business and journalism.

The 2011 MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference offers a great venue to carry some of these discussions further, in a room full of some of the world’s leading minds on citizen journalism and new media.

I’m looking forward to this.

3 day training course on new media

I recently conducted a 3 day course on new media for students, coming from academia as well as mainstream journalism, at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism. In 2010, I did a similar course for the SLCJ Faculty and senior administration staff to build internal capacity to engage with new media.

Though this outline gives a framework for the technologies and issues that I cover, in actual fact, after my initial presentation, the delivery and content respond to what I ascertain are actual needs and challenges faced by those in the classroom. I teach largely in Sinhala and make the class environment as interactive as possible, which is not something many are used to, since lectures in Sri Lanka are often thought of as sterile environments to take down notes and stay silent. Each student has access to a computer and SLCJ encourages them to bring their laptops if they have one.

Far more than web technologies, I teach them new media strategies to deal with censorship, online safety and security basics, minimising risk, content management and disseminating strategies using cloud services and a range of other platforms and tools, including VOIP, web based file transfer and field based multimedia production tools for mobiles. So it’s a large spectrum we cover, and because it is based on class discussion and pegged to real world challenges, including censorship and violence, three days goes by in a flash.

I also bring to bear experience from setting up and curating Groundviews and sites like Websites At Risk, which help the class understand though real world challenges I have faced how best to use new media to bear witness to whatever issues they are passionate about, ranging from sports to human rights violations.

High-definition documentaries and photo essays from Sri Lanka

Moving Images is a series of stunning short-form documentary and narrated photographic portraits on facets of life in post-war Sri Lanka.

These high-definition productions, the country’s first, range from portraits of resilience from the war ravaged Jaffna and reflections on the Eurasian community by the last surviving Eurasians themselves to fascinating lives in Colombo invisible even to most who live and work in the city.

Produced for and supported by Groundviews, this unique content is will be progressively uploaded to the Moving Images website over April and May.

Trailers for the productions follow along with the flyer announcing the launch of the content.

Walkabout: Slave Island

Koothu, kerosene and paper: portraits of resilience

A Lost White Tribe: The Eurasians of Sri Lanka

Groundviews for iPad: Lessons for online media

One of the advantages of using a robust and recognised content management system for an online media initiative, such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal, is that unlike a custom tailored solution, it is able to leverage the innovation of third party developers. Onswipe is a key example of this. Developed for and now available on every single wordpress.com blog, and also available as a plugin for any self-hosted WordPress site, it renders the site content on Apple’s iPad look very nice. Visually akin to the stunning Flipboard, Onswipe is not an app and relies of HTML5 to render site content on the iPad.

Groundviews has from 2006 run on WordPress. A few days ago, we enabled Onswipe on it, making it the first media website in Sri Lanka to tailor its content to iPads, a few days after we launched a native iPhone 4 app for the site. As noted in a blog post,

GV iPad app

After our launch of Sri Lanka’s as well as South Asia’s first citizen journalism app for Apple’s iPhone 4, we are now pleased to launch a version of the site tailored for Apple’s iPad. Leveraging Onswipe for WordPress, the site content now viewed on an iPad 1 or iPad 2 is beautifully rendered and provides easy access to share content through Twitter, Facebook as well as via email.

Click here for more screenshots of Groundviews running on the iPad.

Onswipe on the original iPad has some ways to go before it becomes as polished as Flipboard. It’s still not very configurable, and compared to the smooth transitions and animations of a native app, the HTML5 processing takes its toll on page load and response times on the original iPad, though this may be better on the iPad 2 with its dual core processor and far better graphics. That said, the content is much more readable and even comments are presented in a very accessible manner.

There are bugs. HTML5 video embeds (from Vimeo) don’t work. Site navigation is very rudimentary. The plugin does not give any option to tweak the navigation options / menu items it automatically sets up. Some pages scroll and load with a lot of screen flicker. Scrolling takes time. Airprint functionality is not available. There is no search functionality, and that which is built into a self-hosted site does not always work.

Onswipe promises many improvements in the future,

“The full Onswipe platform will come with a vast number of themes, support a ton of touch devices, and other sources such as twitter, flickr, and youtube. There’s also some secret sauce we’re working on for social interactions across all Onswipe powered sites.”

The reason Groundviews embraces plugins like Onswipe is that I believe journalism’s content delivery has to match the consumption patterns of consumers. It also showcases what can be done using standards based web technologies to promote compelling content through engaging design – form follows function, and allows for more persistent engagement with and sharing of what is published. The news industry in Sri Lanka is outrageously ignorant of best practices on the web. Without exception, all major mainstream and well as many citizen journalism websites in the country demonstrate so many flaws in design that it reflects an approach to online news as an adjunct to what is published in newsprint. Instead of a bad facsimile of what is in print, Onswipe demonstrates what is possible, for zero cost, when web media is developed on a standards based technical architecture, and with news consumption trends in mind in and out of Sri Lanka.

Not that anyone in Sri Lanka’s media industry is listening, or comprehending.