Pocket & palm photography: New frames of social witnessing


Just over a month since I last gave a public presentation at the American Centre, I spoke today (along with Anush and Iromi from The Picture Press) around the evolution of smartphone photography – calling it ‘Pocket and palm photography’ (download high quality PDF here).

I quickly went through a history of photographic technology from film to digital, and within digital, from the digital camera to phones with increasingly sophisticated optics. Building on this incredible evolution in technology, I explored key dynamics of an explosive global and local growth in smartphone photography. I then flagged the democratisation of photographic production, dissemination and consumption, the ubiquity of geo-tagged photos that is largely the result of smartphone cameras, the growth in smartphone camera apps and sophisticated software filters, the immediacy and ease with which anyone with a mobile Internet connection could share photos, the vastly reduced cost of production and as a result of increasingly inexpensive smartphone availability, the prevalence of photography amongst youth, and even younger children.

In some detail, I then explored some of the implications of these developments, and then flagged several key Sri Lankan examples of smartphone photographic platforms and communities (around, for example, Instagram) and what they chose to focus on.

Finally, I looked into the near future and submitted that what we took for granted as the capabilities of smartphone cameras today would tomorrow be worn or biometrically implanted, leading to vital questions around privacy, ethics and rights in an age where photographing was omnipresent.

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.

ICT without agency?

Cross-posted from my blog featuring my regular newspaper column.


There is in Sri Lanka an Information and Communications Technology Agency. There are also Ministries of Science and Technology, Mass Media and Information, Telecommunication and Information Technology and incredibly, Technology and Research. In addition, we have the Department of Government Information. Finally, there is a National Science and Technology Commission.

The combined financial and human resources needed to maintain these institutions are significant – billions of rupees per annum. And yet, not a single one has any on-going or planned initiative, made public, around post-war reconciliation in general, or the curation of vital discussions around the final report and recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in particular. And while the LLRC has it’s own website, it is about as useful an archive as a bakery in Colombo during April’s long Avurudu break – there’s a clear structure, but nothing of any worth in it. As I noted in a longer article penned recently for a Sinhala publication, there are already over 18 million SIM registrations in a country of just over 20 million people according to the latest topline census data. 2.3 million smartphones were sold over 2011 alone. Mobile phone companies have an SMS code or service for a plethora of entertainment options, lifestyle choices, news updates, cashless mobile commerce, utility payments and even astrological updates. And yet, there’s no short-code or service yet to inform 18 million subscribers about the contents of the LLRC report, or broadly, host discussions around post-war reconciliation.

Sri Lanka could have set an example on how post-war ICTs can strengthen reconciliation. Sadly and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not done so. Whether online, on the desktop, via mobiles, using a combination of mainstream print and terrestrial media with web platforms or strictly through SMS and online social networking platforms –technology that can be leveraged to strengthen and support meaningful reconciliation is either already present and used in the country, or can be without much effort and investment, introduced. Mainstream media can play a role. So can so-called ‘serious games’ – games that through small mobile downloads or through the desktop browser use rewards and social recognition to promote engagement with tough issues like reparation, accountability and transitional justice. From online memes – the growth and potential of which I have recently addressed in this column – to bearing witness through mobile phone photography, from citizen driven curation of audio-visual content online to audioscapes of ordinary life in different communities even within a single city, from how we can localise compelling examples like Videoletters that brought together displaced and dispersed families from the former Yugoslavia through video to powerful examples of memorialising violence like the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, literacy, age, socio-economic group, geographic location, topography, language or cost no longer impedes us from leveraging the full potential of ICTs for reconciliation. However, in Sri Lanka, the absence of political will remains a significant challenge. In our country, ICTs will be used for reconciliation despite government and, for the foreseeable future, without any subsidy or support from any major telecommunications company.

The galaxy of line ministries, departments and commissions dealing with information and technology alone, supported by public coffers, should be leading innovation around reconciliation. Clearly, they are not. It is unlikely they ever will. This can be turned around. Every published indicator unequivocally suggests Sri Lankans are more connected today than any other period in history. We call more. We text more. Young Sri Lankans use the Internet more. Mainstream media is on the web, on Twitter, on Facebook. Civic media online, in Sinhala and Tamil, is on the rise. This is a real opportunity through a historic intersection – the contents of a report on reconciliation published at a time when there are growing numbers producing information for and consuming information off online channels. And it’s not just for the Twitterati – information online, when available, debated and highlighted, has the potential to shape policies and practices that affect far larger numbers of citizens. We have the infrastructure, and both government and civil society have much to gain from thinking and using more ICTs for reconciliation.

Either we step up now, or deeply regret later.


Published in The Nation print edition 1 July 2012.

Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice | A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution

Till I received a PDF of the chapter I wrote for Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice: A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution as it appears in the tome, I had entirely forgotten about it. Ethan, Daniel and Mohamed are three of the finest minds in ODR today, and writing this chapter for them was how I wish it would be for every invitation to contribute to a book – exciting and fun. Glad the book’s now out and on Amazon. Sri Lanka’s postal service has eaten my first copy, but another I’ve been promised is on the way. Looking forward to reading the other chapters as well.

As I note in the start of my own, titled ‘Mobiles and ODR: Why We Should Care’,

The events earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the region commonly referred to as the Middle East were powerful markers of how information and communications technologies (ICTs) undergird struggles for democratic governance. It is not only these struggles they support. ICTs are in and of themselves mere tools, and are increasingly used by repressive governments for their own parochial ends, in stark opposition to those who seek to foster democracy and strengthen human rights. This is a double-edged sword, for the same ICTs that help bear witness and strengthen accountability are those that place activists at greater risk.

It is no different with mobile telephony and communications. The mobile phone is to many in this region as well as in my own region – South Asia – their first PC. Mobiles today are more capable in fact than average PCs were a few years ago. They are more pervasive, affordable and utilitarian. The mobile today is first a device for the exchange of information through text messages (SMS), including mobile commerce, and only then a device for voice conversations. In the case of smartphones, the mobile is even more akin to a PC, revolutionising in the vernacular as well as in English, the way content is consumed, disseminated and archived through text, video, audio and photography.

Few in the world of ICT for Development (ICT4D) saw this coming. Fewer in peacebuilding and conflict transformation saw the potential for mobiles even a few years ago. My Masters thesis and other academic writing at the time, based on my work in Sri Lanka using ICTs and mobiles to transform violent conflict, is still flagged as some of the first forays into what has today become a praxis and theory far more studied, yet perhaps still as misunderstood.

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.

South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts

South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts is finally out. Edited by Shakuntala Banaji, the book features a chapter written by me titled Expanding the Art of the Possible: Leveraging Citizen Journalism and User Generated Content (USG) for Peace in Sri Lanka. It is one of two essays in the tome dealing with media in Sri Lanka, with other focussing on teledramas by Dr. Neluka Silva, Head of the Dept of English, University of Colombo.

As I note at the end of my chapter,

This discussion on the potential of new media, the web and the Internet to transform policies and practices of illiberal democracy isn’t, as yet, one that has traction amongst many people in Sri Lanka. Millions of people live without any awareness of the Internet or its potential for social change. There are arguably more pressing social issues in some regions than the digital divide – including the ravages of terrorism. However, the terrains of violence and conflict also hold within them the possibilities of democratic dialogue mediated through the Internet and mobile phones in particular… Animating the potential of new media and the Internet is the promise of a vibrant democracy. A vibrant democracy in turn is nourished by a culture of open discussion on core issues of governance and as they are felt by citizens in all regions of a country. This symbiosis between democracy and dialogue, between new media and its influence on progressive social policy, between the promise of the Internet to empower communities and the appropriation of ICT by communities to strengthen their engagement with justice and peace, is a qualitative and quantitative measurement of the health of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Learning from failure: FAILfare

Katrin Verclas from Mobileactive.org writes on what I have for years strongly advocated in Sri Lanka – openly discussing failures so that we may learn from them. As the email promoting the event, called FAILfare, notes,

While we often focus on highlighting successes and gains in our industry, it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work – some aren’t scalable, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. But a failure is no reason to be ashamed! Instead, FAILfaire looks to bring together a collection of failures so that we can learn from what hasn’t worked in the past in order to make our future projects stronger and better.

It’s not easy to talk about failure. Whenever I mention the groundbreaking technology adaptation behind the OneText initiative I helped design in Sri Lanka to support the peace process, I also noted that the peace process was a dismal failure and resulted in even more brutal war. Going into the reasons why ICTs didn’t change the dynamics of inter-party negotiations, and how partisan politics overwhelmed the best virtual interactions is a lesson in how ICTs can be leveraged for similar, fragile and vexed processes in the future.

Katrin’s FAILsafe initiative is anchored to the use of mobiles in development. But failure is an integral part of ultimate success in other ICT fields as well, including citizen journalism. I have already written about the failure of the first citizen journalism initiative I was involved in, Moju, leading to what is today the success of Groundviews. This is echoed by Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller in an interview recently published on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s blog. Her submission is worth quoting at length,

I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

It’s not easy to talk about failure because doing so risks future support for initiatives outside a model strictly entrepreneurial or philanthropical. Donors and funders, with their log frames and results based management frameworks, rarely demonstrate patience with projects that fail, blacklisting those individuals and organisations that do against future funding. This creates a vicious cycle, where openness about failures is subsumed by manufactured success, leading to an essential dishonesty that is bad for everyone. There could of course be managerial, organisational, financial or other valid reason for donors to chastise project failure. There could also be contextual, processual challenges that only came about after the project and the introduction of ICTs into the mix. Sometimes innovation takes years to be recognised as bringing in value to a process, set of actors or particular context. On other occasions, unintended consequences of a project can outweigh the benefits initially planned for and expected. In sum, thinking robustly about the reasons for failure, and openly sharing lessons learnt can be a valuable exercise. Framed in a supportive, non-judgemental environment and facilitated well, FAILsafe’s findings and case studies can buck the trend of publishing only that which is successful.

I have always found failure instructive. It is good to see others recognise this. For as Oscar Wilde noted, experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.