ICTs in general

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.

ICTs in general

The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive

Excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote for Groundviews (The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive and Propaganda 2.0: New challenges for online dissent), dealing with an archive I created that captures every single tweet published by the Sri Lankan President’s official Twitter account, and why this is so important.

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It is evident therefore that the President’s new media presence isn’t seen as a vehicle of engagement with society and polity, but rather, an extension of his government’s policy to pass off propaganda and partisan perspectives as news and official updates.

Complete archive
Because of what’s stated as well as the damning silences and evasion, Groundviews felt it imperative to record for posterity all the tweets published by @PresRajapaksa as well as all interactions referencing this official account, starting from Day One.

Groundviews is pleased to present a novel and easy to use front end to a comprehensive archive, constantly updated, of the President’s interactions and content generation on Twitter.

To see all the tweets (updated daily) access the full spreadsheet here.

There is also a data visualisation giving top-level information about @PresRajapaksa accessible here. Though the screenshot of the dashboard below is accurate at the time of publication, the link will always open a page with updated statistics.

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ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

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.

ICT for Peacebuilding

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

ICTs in general

Sri Lanka’s and South Asia’s first citizen journalism iPhone app

Thanks to the brilliant Cezar Neaga with whom I worked for around two months on this, I launched today Sri Lanka’s as well as South Asia’s first citizen journalism app for Apple’s iOS platform. The Groundviews app works on the iPod Touch, iPad and is optimised for the iPhone 4’s Retina display.

The press release I sent out today noted,

“This innovative app enables those, particularly in the diaspora, to more easily access updated content published on the site” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, founding Editor of Groundviews. “Based on our experience in developing this app, we welcome inquiries to help develop similar iOS apps for other citizen journalism and mainstream media initiatives”.

Apple has around 25% of the smartphone market in the US alone, and it’s mobile app store is the world’s largest, with around 350,000 apps downloaded well over two billion times.

The Groundviews app is free and allows a user to,

  • Read all the latest updates to the site
  • Read all the special editions, including the critically acclaimed End of War Special Edition
  • Read all the sections on the site including the satirical Banyan News Reporters, the long-form journalism section and A-Z of Sri Lankan English
  • Follow all updates made on our curated Twitter feed
  • Search through content on the site
  • The app also allows users to quickly take a photo, write down the context and fire off an email to the Editors of Groundviews, enabling new forms of real time journalism that can help bear witness to challenging events and processes.

Featuring high-resolution graphics that look amazing on the iPhone 4’s screen, the app also allows for user customisation.

Download the app from Apple iTunes here. Screenshots of the app here.

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

ICT4Peace: Beyond Crisis Mapping

At the invitation of Crisis Mappers, I delivered a presentation on ICT4Peace to an audience from around the world at an ungodly hour in Sri Lanka yesterday. Though Jen Ziemke’s notice on the Crisis Mappers website noted that I would be talking about the latest in the field, when in fact I spoke about the failures and challenges of my work in Sri Lanka for over ten years in using ICTs to bear witness to violence, in citizen journalism, in electoral democracy and in response to disasters.

Crisis Mappers promises to make available a recording of the session in the coming week, which I will link to once online. In the meanwhile, here the presentation around which my submission was based on.

The penultimate slide, #20, engaged the audience the most and was developed from the tweets I authored live on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s account during the Crisis Mappers conference in Boston, in October last year. Download a PDF of these tweets here. These are issues that I have spoken and written on widely, and I think require more robust attention – or more accurately, as much attention as the more optimistic accounts of crowd sourcing and crisis mapping get in the global media.