Ideas on SMS news from New Mexico!

I’ve just read a post on a blog called New Media in New Mexico comment on JNW, the SMS news service in Sri Lanka. It’s not the most obvious place to find some ideas that can gain traction here in Sri Lanka with SMS news services, but I guess the essential idea of news through SMS does have a global appeal and follows my own writing on the topic for a while. The post on New Media in New Media poses some interesting ideas:

While location isn’t always a factor in news relevance as Ive posted before, it can be, especially in a breaking news /alerts environment — so feeds by region may be a feature to add. Question is if there are enough journalists for adequate geographical coverage, which is where teaming up with an initiative like Groundviews could be fruitful.

Actually, Chamath was one of the first contributors to Groundviews and remains a close personal friend as well as a staunch champion of Citizen Journalism in Sri Lanka, also through JNW’s own work in this regard. I feature JNW’s mobile alerts on Groundviews and Chamath kindly reciprocates by featuring the articles he has contributed on his site (see the section on Public Articles here). We continue to float ideas around on how he and I can improve our services respective by collaboration, though as a entrepreneur with a business to maintain, Chamath’s flexibility to introduce and experiment with new features and services is by definition limited. He’s better placed to tell the story (someday!), but the challenges he’s faced in building up his idea to something commercially viable, which I would have thought would have been the easiest to do given the potential for SMS news and information services, is really something else.

Question for techno developers ( I am not one):Can GPS data be encoded in SMS? As cell phones become more and more capable, I can envision a service where if Im driving through the countryside or across regions i can be alerted to news or info relevant to whatever location Im in at the moment. I know this is possible via other web data, – i.e., you can set up a similar service on your Blackberry or on web access from your phone — but for phones or areas without mobile web – i.e., just SMS technology – can this be done?

All mobile phones can ascertain their location roughly. This is basic GSM technology and why it is also possible to use a method called cell broadcasts in some disaster early warning scenarios. The real issue is not technical, but access to technology. The service of the kind envisioned here, with geo-location based contextual SMS news and information delivered on-demand and also automatically, will only ever be possible if the telcos who own the networks themselves initiate this service. No third party has access to geo-location information – this only resides with the telcos. While it is possible to message mobiles en masse without going through the telcos, few look upon this kindly and there is also no way to determine where a mobile is actually physically located. With JNW now in service agreements with many of the leading mobile telcos in Sri Lanka this is certainly something that Chamath can pursue, if of course a subscription model is developed to support this extra level of information services.

JNW faces some competition from Ada Derana and Reuters arrangements with other mobile service operators as evidenced by reading through this thread , which to me opens up a whole new world of 2.0 journalism: what factors define quality in this mode? What makes good SMS journalism? what do people want to do with news received on their mobile?

Reuters SMS news no longer exists in Sri Lanka and though I no longer receive JNW on my mobile, I prefer it to Ada Derana that is tellingly selective in the news it reports.

SMS News Alerts in Sri Lanka – A short review of JNW’s new site and service

JNW

JNW was the first to introduce news and information through SMS in Sri Lanka. Writing about it around two years ago, I pointed out that their fundamental problem at the time was their subscription model, which they now seem to have overcome with deals with various mobile phone operators in the country.

JNW’s forays into media diversification also came at a cost – the news podcasts they experimented with through a micro-grants project (disclosure – I was part of the advisory board that approved the funding) turned out to be less than successful. On the other hands, most of the the points I raised in a detailed review of JNW with ideas for the expansion of their business a few months after it was launched seem to have taken root in JNW, and clearly to its benefit.

As the only comparative review of SMS news services to date, I was also pleased to note in a rough and ready study of reportage of an incident in Yala last year that JNW provided accurate and timely information before other SMS news services.

JNW’s revamped its site recently and I’m happy to note that it’s a significant improvement over the previous version, visually as well as in terms of content. JNW now offers updates through Mobitel, Tigo and Suntel and in English and Sinhala and I understand that Tamil alerts are coming soon. The website begins with the language options, of which today only English and Sinhala work. The Sinhala is UNICODE, which is great since it works on any browser on Windows XP, Vista or Linux. (Mac OS X is still incapable of displaying Sinhala UNICODE correctly). Running on WordPress, the website is generally appealing with sections clearly marked out.

However, there are a couple of points that need urgent improvement:

  • Visually, a couple of confusing points exist on the new site. One is the positioning of the section called Public Journalism. Clicking on “more” brings up a list of JNW content, that at first can be confusing to someone who wants to read the content submitted by mobile subscribers to JNW. I would argue that this section makes far more sense at the top of the third column (upper right) with more recent official JNW news updates displayed in the second / middle column.
  • Further, it’s still terribly confusing as to how the Public SMS blog, Public articles and Public Journalism sections / services on the website differ from each other and are in turn different to JNW’s own news. Confusingly, the Public SMS blog ultimately links to this page, which is JNW news.
  • If the idea is to provide two services on this website – one, by JNW with news that is verified and in line with the ethical guidelines of the site (commendably the only mobile news service in Sri Lanka to have such open and detailed guidelines) and the other a place to collect public opinion through SMS’s sent to JNW, it would be useful to simplify the access to these two broad sets of information. They are complementary, but as SMS Public Blog avers correctly, messages sent in my general subscribers can’t be verified for authenticity and accuracy by JNW, though some sensible moderation rules will still apply.
  • It’s not evident what a section such as Close Watch exists for – why is it different to the news stream by JNW on the home page? The Terms and Conditions for JNW notes:

13. Generally 50-90 text messages will be sent per month for Key Alerts and 60-110 messages for Close Watch, however, due to the nature of breaking news there may be more or less alerts sent in any given month.

The distinction between Key Alerts and Close Watch isn’t at all clear, on the mobile or on the website.

  • The section called Lanka Imagery has some banal photos of no real news value. It’s a collection of random images with no real purpose or fathomable logic in the selection of subject matter. When I brought this up with Chamath, who runs JNW, in the earlier avatar of the website, it was clear that there was some nostalgic value associated with the content herein, but I honestly can’t see what it is. I would also argue that pages with make no sense such as this, or can be done much better, vitiate the appeal of JNW on the web.
  • Likewise with the section called Updates. The last update in this section is from over a year ago. It seems to me that JNW’s website continues to feature stubs that are failed micro-experiments to categorise content.

I also have a problem with JNW’s Terms and Conditions of service, in which it is noted that:

Jasmine Newswires (Pvt) Ltd text news cannot be forwarded to third parties and is grounds for termination of your service without liability to Jasmine Newswires.

Technically, this is impossible to implement – JNW can’t stop anyone who receives an alert from JNW forwarding it to as many as they please. There is no way JNW can keep tabs on what they send out. It is unreasonable expect subscribers, who receive vital news, to not forward them to loved ones, colleagues and friends if for example the information is an alert of a bomb threat or an early warning of an impending natural disaster. And frankly, it is a bit silly of them from a marketing perspective. I’ve forwarded many JNW alerts to people who have subsequently shown great interest in registering for the service (since few of us would actually edit the SMS to take away the JNW branding at the end of the message).

I can to an extent understand why JNW would like to have someway to ensure that their content is locked to the phones of subscribers, but given the impossibility of doing so, this clause is just plain silly.

There’s a very interesting discussion that on-going over the subscription model of JNW, that’s well worth reading for insights into how JNW’s business model evolved over time. Chamath’s laudable diligence in keeping to his editorial guidelines can also be seen in the (admittedly hilarious) comments on Mervyn Silva’s actions here.

Kudos to Chamath for sticking to his guns and making JNW to what it is today.

That said, my impression is that JNW’s website is still a low priority, with design and content that is ill-thought of, badly laid out and serving no real purpose. Very early on, I pointed JNW to the likes of Rasasa, with features that I felt could vastly augment JNW’s present offerings (esp. to the diaspora). There are a range of services on the web that JNW can avail itself of to make its content more accessible to a wider range of people through its website, yet I suspect that exploration of these means is hostage to the difficult and untested business model and negotiations with mobile operators JNW has had to contend with.

This is why I think a simpler website works better – cutting down on redundant sections, making the content more easily accessible, providing users with automated email updates based on the RSS feeds of their choice (using RSSFwd for example as Groundviews does) and generally highlighting far more on their website JNW’s key selling point in Sri Lanka – a provider of trusted, timely and reliable news and information on issues and incidents of vital interest to citizens, residents and those with an interest in developments in Sri Lanka.

Also read:

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

The telling lack of timely SMS news alerts on the arrest and detention of Tamils

Writing on the arrest and detention of hundreds of Tamils in the South of Sri Lanka, Ange in an article published on Groundviews had a very interesting observation on SMS based news services in Sri Lanka at a time such as this:

I wonder at the comfortable ignorance the majority of us enjoy being in. We don’t want to be perceived as “not in the in” so we have cable TV, maybe an internet connection or maybe even a subscription to receive news alerts so that we have access to news from all over the world. But we don’t seem too perturbed by the fact that maybe something is happening right under our noses. We don’t mind that we may be the last ones to know. Some of us even don’t mind never knowing at all.

After my news alerts facility became a paid one, I thought I’d not think too much about the cost (in addition to all the other levies etc on my phone bill) and keep it as it would be useful to be in the loop. But as a paying customer I feel slightly let down that I was not informed and instead was made to look like a fool when my friend asked me if I had not heard [about the detentions]. I’m seriously considering unsubscribing and I’m miffed that I didn’t save the details of how one should go about doing so.

I wrote an SMS to JNW (Sri Lanka’s first SMS news service and in my opinion, though struggling to compete with new services on Mobitel and Dialog, still the most useful) just before I wrote this post:

Good morning! Have not received any news of the on going arrests of Tamils. Did you send an alert? It is supposed to be over 1500 according to one web news report I read this morning. Did you send one I missed? This is news! 

JNW’s reponse was that they were working on a story and would have it out soon. I’ll bet that once JNW comes out with it, Ada Derana and Lankapuwath on Mobitel may follow with similar SMS alerts of their own, but will never be the first to run with this story.