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.

It’s ok for government to infiltrate online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens?

A wide-ranging interview published in the Daily Mirror with Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also the brother of the President, addresses the issue of internet and web surveillance. The relevant excerpt follows:

As an IT expert, do you think that it is ethical for a government to infiltrate into the online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens by gathering information, with regard to their political affiliations?

Actually, if we could do that it would be good, however as a third world country we don’t have that facility. But in all other developed countries they monitor emails, telephone conversations, SMS and people in the streets. So they have a lot of monitoring systems and also all their systems are integrated. Unfortunately, ours is not. All security agencies in these countries could, by simply giving a number; they can obtain all the details of a person. But we don’t have that facility and in fact we have to develop such a system.

Our ID card system is not effective, so we have to introduce a better system. We faced a situation in the past 4 years, we saw the weakness of the ID card system, where every suicide carder and terrorist had a bogus ID. Further our passport system is not fool-proof.

We don’t have a close CCTV surveillance system in Colombo; whereas in all the other big cities they are monitored.

We cant monitor SMS’s or email, we need to have such a system but we don’t and we are not doing it.

While it is not true that all developed countries monitor internet, web and mobile communications, many in fact do. As I noted in When even democracies go awry with online dissent, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Thailand, Indonesia and even the United States are guilty of online filtering, blocking and surveillance. As I wrote then, it is extremely important that we condemn these proposed and enacted measures as vehemently as we decry actions and policies to censor online content by regimes like China, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

And yet, the clear and present danger of the kind of pervasive surveillance championed by the Defence Secretary in post-war Sri Lanka is best expressed by Tapan Bose, a well known Indian journalist, film producer and political activist.

Today, in Sri Lanka nobody feels safe. There is an elected president. The election to the parliament has just been held. Yet this is the country where the main opposition candidate in the presidential election was summarily taken away by the military police and is now being forced to face military court martial on trumped-up charges. In Sri Lanka, whether one is a businessman or a politician or a judge or a media person no one escape the scrutiny of the intelligence wings of the state. The most powerful organ of the state is the intelligence apparatus of the government. This is return to the “Arthashastra”, ancient Indian treaties on governance written by Chanakya. The advice of Chanakya to the “Prince” was that the success of the regime depended on the system’s ability to get the subjects to spy on each other and constantly report to the state. (Review of Sri Lanka: The Emergence Of The Power Of The Intelligence Apparatus, published in Sri Lanka Guardian)

One also recalls columnist Kumar David’s dire prediction earlier this year – which I flagged in Sri Lankan President halts web censorship, which raises more vital questions.

The problem is this, the government will get draconian measures ready but will not reveal them till after the elections – why give the opposition another handle to beat it with – then will come the LIDA communication straight-jacket and legislation to smother dissent.

Prima facie, what Gotabaya Rajapaksa points to is certainly desirable from the perspective of intelligence operations to thwart terrorism. But the real fear, given the government’s noted tendency to clamp down on dissent and political opposition is that a sophisticated surveillance system will lead to persecution, execution and censorship – in sum, a system in the control of a few in government to contain and control media and content.

We have such efforts before. Citizens.lk, now largely forgotten, has gone through two versions without any significant improvement. The first version was downright farcical. The second version was no less bizarre and dysfunctional. I have never bothered to enter my details into this site and once told the Cinnamon Gardens Police, who politely insisted I enter my details to this system, to come back with the legal basis that required me to do so. They have not stepped into office since. So clearly, we already have intrusive websites created and promoted by government with no legal basis that at their most benign, serve no purpose other than to replicate information already in multiple locations in the administration.

In sum, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in favour of a Police state. There is nothing more important for him than command and control of citizenry, a mindset that fuels an architecture of monitoring private communications and public media inimical to democracy given the lack of legal redress and quite often, the extra-judicial nature of government reprisals. Sadly too, there is no progressive vision here for the use of ICTs to strengthen government. Initiatives like the US State Department’s Opinion Space, or one of my own through Groundviews to foster progressive ideas on democracy, are not even on the radar of this government or its supine puppet, the ICT Agency.

Kumar David may well be correct. Given the bent of the Defence Secretary, post-war Sri Lanka is set to head into an Internet dark age.

Communications tapping, taping and paranoia in Sri Lanka

An excerpt from a story published in the Sunday Leader, 29th November 2009, demonstrates the reach of communications surveillance in Sri Lanka, and the sheer paranoia of the Rajapakse administration that drives it.

Painfully aware of the chinks in their armor the former Chief of Defense Staff could exploit, the Rajapaksas have moved swiftly, decisively and of course, ruthlessly. The Sunday Leader learns that state intelligence has been tapping both the land and mobile phones belonging to Sarath Fonseka, his family, staff and senior aides for months.

Even ministers, officers at the Defence Ministry, and senior Presidential aides who are known to have associated with Fonseka, are now said to have had their phones tapped. And in the latest bout of paranoia following Fonseka’s formal announcement of his candidacy, it is reported that editors and defence correspondents who have had any contact with the General are now being wire tapped.

Of course surveillance of opposition politicians and anti government editors is simply the de facto state of affairs in this state of serendipity. But the extent of the government’s current bout of surveillance is Orwellian and reminiscent of the most paranoid and sinister of authoritarian dictatorships. And surveillance is not restricted to wire taps — several key opposition figures are now being constantly shadowed, kept in the sights of government operatives day and night.

Initially, phone tapping was handled by the rather shady State Intelligence Service (SIS) but the government’s need to eavesdrop is such that the Military Intelligence corps has also begun tapping phones, with assistance from the Army Signals Corps.
Headed by a Brigadier specialising in telecommunications, there are specialised groups within the intelligence corps for tapping, taping and reporting vital information to superiors.

Superiors inevitably from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and SIS who report to the Ministry of Defence what they have heard and await further orders. The details regarding phone tapping were leaked to The Sunday Leader by an officer involved in the tapping. But despite the brazenness and openness of the surveillance now being conducted, under the law of this Lankan land the tapping of any land or mobile phone conversation is illegal.

Of course, it is well known that the law in Sri Lanka is somewhat optional. What is particularly outstanding in this case however, is that this abuse of individuals’ constitutional right to privacy are not being carried out for the security of the nation, but to secure the interests of the Rajapaksa regime.

Sarath Fonseka and his associates aren’t having their phones tapped because they pose a threat to the citizens of this nation, but because they pose a threat to the absolute power of this regime. And for all the talk of patriotism, that ultimately is the thinking that drives this regime — the nation recedes into insignificance when the administration’s interests are threatened.

And phone tapping isn’t the only instance where the national interest and this nation’s law has been subordinated to the government self interest.

Also read Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Legal action against MoD regulations on CDMA and mobile phones

The Daily Mirror carries the story of a lawyer who has filed a writ application in the Appeal Court yesterday against the proposed law to prevent the use of mobile or CDMA phones by anyone other than the registered owner.

“The lawyer complained that the proposed law would create a series of problems to phone subscribers and users. He said this law would even prevent people using phones registered under their spouses. He said this would ultimately result in a large number of cellular phones and CDMA users being be forced to discontinue the existing phone connections and buy new telephone connections.

The petitioner charged the proposed law was arbitrary, unlawful, against the Telecommunication Regulatory Act and it was not in the interest of the telephone users of this country.

He asked court to issue an order staying the alleged announcement made by the TRC preventing the use of cellular or CDMA phones by anyone other than the registered owners and quash the proposed law in this regard. “

Read the story in full here and a related story on Lirneasia’s blog here.

Revenue for content providers vis-à-vis new media

Chamath from JNW asks me a few questions through a recent comment on a post I made on his mobile news service that hit the core of sustainable content generation for the web. What follows are some basic thoughts – they aren’t answers in the sense that Chamath expects from me because revenue generation from web and mobile services and content is not something I have any experience in, though I share with him a keen interest in exploring ways to do so given my on-going experiments with citizen journalism in Sri Lanka.

Where is the revenue for content providers going to come from?

Depends on who you mean by content providers. For someone such as yourself, providing news and information that may require you to subscribe to wire services the incumbent costs of content generation would have to be met by your subscriber base. This is why you went with a partnership model with mobile service providers, since without incorporating or aligning your business with theirs you would have found it far more difficult to attract a customer base and sustainable revenue model. Getting into their systems also allows the provider to go with opt-out services, whereas independently from outside, all you can ever offer are opt-in services / information products. Opt-out services seem to have a higher retention of customers.

Content providers such as myself (with Groundviews and Groundviews mobile for example) do it without any financial costs aside from the initial setup costs for the website / idea / brand and to kick-start interest in it by a steady stream of content in the first year. What you have as public messages in your website is also content generation along the lines of groundviews, in that you have only to moderate and where you can, check the veracity of the content that is deliverd to you at no cost.

Another is a Rasasa like service model, which say creates a way in which you can get content from the web on to your mobile. Though Rasasa doesn’t do it, users I suspect will tolerate some ads if, as they can with Rasasa, customise their delivery schedules, media and content selection according personal preferences. This tolerance will in turn be based on how the advertising and placement / delivery technologies themselves. Basically, the more the ads reflect personal preferences, the greater the chance that people will not be turned off by them.

Having said this, while web based advertising models are fairly robust and mature, (exclusively) mobile based revenue generation is embryonic. There’s no real model for mobile based revenue generation aside from the usual subscription fare. Also, it isn’t as if click-through ads will work on mobiles. Interesting in this regard is the work of ZMessenger in Sri Lanka. Some of the marketing techniques could be leveraged to augment JNW’s subscriber base, by extension leading to more revenue generation.

Is the web and web applications that find ways of taking free content to readers ignoring the fact that content generation is a costly exercise. Wouldn’t it be futile if content providers are undermined in this process?

Ref. answer above. Depends on which content you are speaking of. Delivering content already on the web through downstream services that terminate in mobiles has no incumbent content generation costs. You are merely a conduit, a facilitator of information on the web through mobiles. Plenty of services that do just that for a wide spectrum of web media that are transformed into mobile friendly media (e.g. Widsets, which I’ve personally tried though it ran too slow on my Nokia E65 to be really useful. Great eye candy though!). Sure, some of these are Web 2.0 with little or no sustainable business plans themselves, but the idea of a critical mass is important. Create enough buzz and through it enough users and the natural progression seems to be that the number of users themselves enhance the value of the company. Facebook is a cogent example of a strong user base that attracted in-line advertising and product placements (even though some of their more outrageous marketing ideas got them sued), instead of advertising supporting the growth of a user base.

JNW on the other hand generates original content in addition to your redistribution of wire news. Both require revenue to operate, so you do have a point that content providers should not be undermined (but specifically by whom or what I wonder – mobile service providers or free web based services like RSSFwd that allow say for content off the JNW website to be delivered to the handsets of non-subscribers?).

Is the solution then the advertising model?

Could be. Could also be a subscription model. Early on, I recommended that you try to attract international subscribers to JNW, based at first on the idea that your SMS news bulletins would be hugely attractive to many Sri Lankans abroad and then on actual instances in which some lamented the fact that they couldn’t get your updates where they lived. Your website was a key tool in this regard, since it captured interest in your service even where you didn’t or couldn’t offer it. Technologies like TextMob or FrontlineSMS may be useful in this regard to expand your geographical reach, provided there’s no breach of contract with your current business partners. Given that your updates also appear on the JNW website, which is then public information even for non-subscribers of your service in Sri Lanka, I guess there are ways in which you can monetise some of that content – by frequency (only subscribers get all updates), by preference (subscribers can select what they want to get based on issue, keyword etc) or by length (subscribers get full messages instead of summaries provided on the web).

Ultimately, subscription is pegged to brand awareness and this is where JNW can explore the potential of the likes of Facebook apps and groups (e.g. The New York Times Facebook application that nudges users back to its site), Ning communities, content syndication (see point below) and Twitter feeds.

On the other hand, you may become the local news and information content generator for a particular mobile service provider. In this case, though you will become invisible you will be able to run a profitable business if you are able to negotiate the funding necessary to maintain local content generation operations, particularly from the embattled North and East, from where reliable news and information are the most scarce and valued.

Coincidentally, I got two emails in the past month from two separate entities wanting to place ads on Groundviews.  I’m not interested in opening up the site to advertising, but found it interesting that the niche audience that Groundviews attracts is suitably attractive for marketing agencies. Clearly, good content seems to attract revenue models.

Are there no alternatives to the advertising model on the web?

Not sure about what you mean here. I’ve understood this as alternatives to a web based advertising model to sustain content generation. Off the cuff, there’s venture capital in the short term, corporate partnerships in the medium term, corporate buy-outs in the long term, donor funding for some types of content generation and private equity. Depending on the nature of your content and the models you employ for its dissemination, there may be other funding available (the example of Digg comes to mind here.)

In addition, there are also a plethora of other ways to generate revenue from content – some of which seem particularly suited for JNW to explore. Syndication seems to be a good model to explore – by displaying your original content on traditional electronic and print media that attract a significant audience, you may be able to negotiate a fixed monthly revenue (e.g. JNW TV ticker exclusive to a particular channel, or cross branding, where you are allowed a banner ad on a newspaper and in turn put a banner ad for it on the JNW website).

I am sure there is growing aversion to advertising (especially unethical advertising). Pay services that gives one the option of not receiving advertising may be the way forward, though new web technologies seem to undermine this.

Again, not sure what you mean by the two parts of this question. What would you say would be an example of unethical advertising and what are the subversive web technologies you are referring to? Are you suggesting that web services undermine a subscription business model? For example, given that you publish all SMS updates on your website / blog, I could use ZapTXT or Rasasa to create a custom alert for me on any mobile, anywhere in the world without having to pay you a cent (or Web Alerts if I’m based in the US or Canada). A less elegant, but in the case of JNW equally effective solution could be this (or a similar trick here).

Point is, you can put a stop to all this by not publishing each and every update on your website, but the catch there is that for all Dialog subscribers (I am one) who are fans of JNW, that pretty much means that the last link we have with your service would be lost since JNW is now only on Mobitel, Tigo, Suntel and Hutch.

You seem to be in favour of a subscription model and I agree. There may however be the danger of a subscription model used from the very beginning that may serve as a deterrent for those who don’t know the quality of your service. Trial services, or a tiered subscription model (x amount gives you x amount of alerts, or x amount gives you y selection of issues on which alerts will be sent, or x amount gives you y list of issues to choose z amount of messages per week from and so on) may be useful to explore. The experience of Malaysiakini’s move from a free service to a subscription based service is deeply instructive in this regard. Launched on November 20th, 1999, Malaysiakini.com offers between 20 to 30 items of news, opinions, editorials, features and letters a day. Since its launch, the website become the leading source of independent news and views on Malaysia. It currently attracts over 50,000 visits a day and over three million page views a month.

So we are back where we started. If all else fails, suggest learning Japanese and going to Japan to learn a few tricks. They seem to be willing to buy books written on and for mobiles, with the authors making small fortunes in the process!

Also read:

SMS News Alerts in Sri Lanka – A short review of JNW’s new site and service
Ideas on SMS news from New Mexico!
News and information through SMS!
News and information through SMS – A second look at JasmineNewswires in Sri Lanka
News, analysis and information through MP3 – JasmineNews through podcasts

Hometown Baghdad and a similar idea for Sri Lanka

It’s not the first time that I’ve written here on the power of video to transform conflict, facilitate reconciliation and highlight insights and facets to war not often covered by traditional media. I guess the most well known of exercises in recent times was by Kevin Sikes and his compelling work with Yahoo to document life in conflict zones. There is also the example of Videoletters, the website of which sadly does not exist anymore (another write up of the erstwhile initiative can be found here). The WITNESS Video Hub is yet another example. And in Sri Lanka, I’ve pioneered the Vikalpa Video Channel, that’s already got tens of thousands of views.

Its in this vein that I was happy to come across, admittedly rather late in the day, Hometown Baghdad that is an “online web series about life in Baghdad. It tells the stories of three young Iraqis struggling to survive during the war”.

The videos, all online but not downloadable, are really interesting to watch – even though on my ADSL connection, they were really choppy. As noted in the Guardian review of the initiative and the videos:

In contrast to mainstream media reports, the short clips – a mixture of home-made diaries and professionally- shot footage – offer viewers an alternative Iraqi reality, as the trio confront the everyday challenges posed by living in Baghdad amid spiralling sectarian violence last summer.

Sadly, the three key voices from the ground are all male – it would have been interesting to see what a female, of a similar age and middle-class background, would have brought to the commentary and perspectives offered by the videos.

An idea for Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Dialog was the first to create a mobile phone based video competition.

MoFilms

While extremely commendable for raising the awareness of the potential for user generated content through mobiles in Sri Lanka (and some neat guidelines), the content generated by this competition would have been largely limited to an English speaking audience, if only to first comprehend understand the legal argot of the Rules and Regulations published only in English.

Here’s the challenge. No corporate entity is going to be interested in a competition that strengthens the type of content Hometown Baghdad is about or even what Vikalpa Video today generates. There are media houses in Sri Lanka that do some interesting terrestrial broadcasts in a similar vein, but their impact is minimal at best. Further, as I’ve noted earlier, the problem with these productions is that they are hidden – once broadcast, there is no way to access them.

Which agency I wonder, and here I’m thinking perhaps of the marketing and advertising community, can step up to a competition on vital and challenging issues such as corruption, human rights, language rights and local government that asks citizens to record through their mobiles phones what they experience? A combination of SMS, MMS and mobile video could be used, with web, mobile and print media used and in all three languages.

We need to emphasise the good as well as the bad, so the competition could be in two parts or have two prizes – one for the best video that highlights an aspect of say governance that actually works (and there are hugely under-recognised public servants out there committed to public service), the other for weak or failed governance mechanisms.

If anyone is up to the task, call me!

IPS story on New Media in Sri Lanka – A first attempt to grasp new media agenda setting in Sri Lanka

Amantha Perera, with whom I spoke to on the phone around a fortnight ago on Groundviews, ran with a story on new media and its impact on shaping the news agenda in Sri Lanka on IPS today. Titled MEDIA-SRI LANKA: New Media – First With Reports On Intensifying War the story is a explores the growth and impact of JasmineNewswires (JNW), Lanka E News and Groundviews in particular.

It’s not a particularly well written or researched article, typical of so many other traditional media journalists attempting to grasp the pitfalls and potential of new media and and the gamut of technologies supporting it, but it’s a valuable first take on the nascent new media news and information services in Sri Lanka by a respected wire news agency.

JNW

I’ve reviewed and written on JNW more than once on this site and was involved in some discussions with its founder, Chamath Ariyadasa, on expanding and strengthening its services further into areas that I felt it had potential to make far more of an impact than what it has to date through just SMS based news and information dissemination. Chamath seems to have settled on SMS news services through various mobile operators, with sadly no real interest in pursuing ways through which the service, that I am a subscriber of and love, can be made more meaningful, interactive and pervasive. As I noted here:

JNW, in trying to be all things to everyone (which may have worked as a new startup) will soon begin to frustrate its subscribers with an overload of information that is mass produced and sent to everyone, with no real emphasis on the sectors they each work in.

Lanka E News

Lanka E News, that was recently raided by the Police, is a daily staple for me. I found what it’s founder had to say interesting:

Lankaenews has carved a niche among the upstart websites due to its quick news gathering and dissemination in Sinhala (Sri Lanka’s main language together with Tamil). “I think the fact the we operate in Sinhala opened up a huge untapped audience, the Sinhala-speaking internet users who don’t have a high proficiency in English,” Lankaenews founder, Sadaruwan Seenadira, told IPS.

He told IPS that his site gets about 100,000 visits every day, a third of these are regulars. “What made the news website workable was that we developed an HTML based Sinhala font,” Seenadira said.

From the response to Vikalpa and Vikalpa Video, I can confirm that the thirst for critical analysis and commentary that questions the status quo is growing apace on the web. Lanka E News and Vikalpa however diverge in their use of fonts on the web.

Vikalpa (and Groundviews before it) took a conscious decision to go with UNICODE fonts for Sinhala and Tamil. Lanka E News took another route and developed fonts of its own. The difference is that content on Vikalpa even in Sinhala and Tamil is searchable through Google, whereas content on Lanka E News (such as its archives) is simply not indexed on Google or any other search engine. UNICODE is tough – the keyboard is irascibly different, some of the characters don’t display accurately and it doesn’t work on Macs. Our decision was based on the fact that a couple of years down the line, UNICODE’s flaws would have been sorted out. It was important to us that the content we published on our sites today would be immediately and easily accessible even a few years down the line.

Sadaruwan’s statistics for the site clearly demonstrate the interest in vernacular content that mirrors the growing figures for Vikalpa as well. However, Amantha could have explained more clearly as to what “100,000 visits” a day really means.

100,000 hits is meaningless. 100,000 page views is incredible.

Vikalpa gets around 300 page views a day, a far more useful and honest metric of a site’s real readership. Groundviews stats, as of December 2007, are available here.

Email to IPS and Amantha

In an email to Amantha and IPS penned earlier today, I noted inter alia that,

… the point about stories on IDPs I made explicitly over the phone was not just that they appear more frequently on the site when compared to traditional (newsprint) media, but that they are WRITTEN and/or PRODUCED by IDPs themselves and published on the site after being translated to English. Such stories are the raison d’etre of citizen journalism and what differentiates it from occasional stories by journalists on the same issues / peoples in traditional media. The site is replete with such stories. For example:

‘I want a decent Education’ – A twelve year old’s plea

The divide between Muslims and Tamils: Perspective of an IDP

It is also the case that Groundviews, more than any other newspaper I know (web + print) has published first-hand investigative reports on the situation the embattled East and North of the country. For example, two recent and complementary narratives on the situation in the East are:

“Liberated”- A Personal Account Of Batticaloa And Ampara

WHAT LIBERATION?

I ended by saying that “… Groundviews in particular, which along with Vikalpa and Vikalpa Video are sui generis in Sri Lanka in the manner they introduced, promoted and raised the awareness of citizen journalism and a news agenda markedly more compelling and free than what traditional media offers today.”