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Madagascar: an SMS away from the news

12 May


Foko Ushahidi screenshot

Foko Ushahidi screenshot

The growing community of bloggers in Madagascar is using the Kenyan web interface Ushahidi to report from the ground about the current Malagasy power struggle. Using SMS text messaging and online mapping tool Google Maps, bloggers are capturing witness accounts of social unrest, giving the global blogosphere an insight into life on the island, that is not all the Disney movie makes out.

Bloggers who started the Foko Blog Club (several bloggers around the country have been trained) are behind the new Foko alert system, which aims to empower ordinary Malagasy people who are increasingly growing to distrust the mainstream media. These citizens can now upload reports of unrest around the country and have them added immediately to an online map.

But what does this easily accessible new media technology mean for journalism?

Kenyan elections

The alert system is powered by Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’- in Swahili), which was used to map in real-time results of the Kenyan presidential election. It allowed for a bottom-up citizen spotlight on riots and violence that could be done easily from a mobile phone especially when cyber cafes were under surveillance.

It meant Kenyans did not have to rely on the foreign media for their own news and information could be disseminated in the many unofficial dialects spoken in Kenya. Blogging was intended to ease tension and promote peaceful resolutions in the election aftermath and content was not motivated by the need to supply sensational stories to an editor.

Potentially dangerous

However, this highly accessible form of citizen journalism also showed its sinister side. Text messages were used to threaten and intimidate journalists. Inboxes were infiltrated with messages that fanned ethic hatred and violence between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes that echoed dissemination in Rwanda that was ultimately a catalyst for the genocide.

Citizen journalism

Ushahidi has provided a fantastic participatory media tool, but the events in Kenya are a warning sign of the undermining possibilities.

Does the title ‘citizen journalism’ actually deserve the latter word? The use of online media opens the back door to unethical and unprofessional content. How does the Malagasy system propose to moderate alerts?

Working behind the scenes is blogger Tahina Rak told Global Voices Online that Ushahidi is “a kind of platform where everybody is invited to submit reports. The main objective is to find real facts, and to distinguish rumours from truth.”

The hub through which the SMS messages pass is monitored. A team of bloggers check reports for accuracy, but only after they have been posted. In the case of an influx of a high frequency messages, say when a major event occurs, some reports could run the risk of going unchecked. Is there a proper code set out for moderation? Moderation and amendments at one’s own discretion could simply be classed as censoring. This new media is also at risk of being hijacked with ‘planned’ messages all at once.

Tahina said:

[W]e have bloggers on the ground and will be counting on them. But we will also use all media – newspapers, television and radio to help verify. We also have Twitter now, where we can compare and contrast information. We won’t verify reports unless we are sure of them.

Technical challenges

Foko Ushahidi has faced technical challenges.

  • Phones that are compatible with Ushahidi’s Front Line SMS software are not easy to find in Madagascar. SMS is important because it does not require internet connection.
  • Many mobile phone stores were closed during the unrest.
  • Slow internet connections mean it can take up to 15 minutes to reach the Udahishi platform.

I feel we must be wary of the role these technologies play in journalism, especially when there is inter-conflict or government tension involved. They could become a tool to rock the political boat for people who want to legitimise their own causes. But then cyber-activism is another role altogether that has an important part to play in democratic governance.

Ushahidi is a great platform for an island like Madagascar where environmental disasters and cyclones are recurrences that would not see the light of day in the mainstream headlines because of their unsexy and frequent nature. There are also great possibilities when used alongside networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, providing there is appropriate moderation.

But then who monitors the moderators?


Twitter and malaria bednets

20 Apr

The online world is fast becoming a platform for cyber activism – but can you make a difference in just 140 characters?

My last post looked at NGOs using Twitter. During the last week, the social networking site became the latest tool to raise awareness for malaria, when American actor, Ashton Kutcher, challenged the CNN network to a race to be the first to get a million followers, where the winner would donate mosquito bednets in awareness of the near approaching World Malaria Day on 25th April.

Kutcher had been posting about malaria on his Twitter feed in the run up to the race which he narrowly won.

“I just think its amazing that 1 voice can now be as powerful at an entire media network. thank you twitter!” (7:06 PM Apr 13th from web)

But this is the guy also Tweets about his wife’s behind.

The point Kutcher was trying to make, was that the power of social networking like Twitter can potentially make you as influencial as an entire media network…if you’re a high profile celebrity that is.

What was actually achieved? It wasn’t each follower that paid for the bednets, and how many of his followers actually clicked on any of the preachy malaria website links he Tweeted?

The Malaria Policy Centre thanked his efforts, but one blogger accused Kutcher for using Twitter to massage his ego.

“What you did succeed in doing is placing the focus on the wrong aspect of Twitter. Now every celeb would think ‘hey I’m more popular than Ashton, I could totally go beyond 1M.’ You’ll be lying if you say you’ll be reading each and every post from your 1M followers — just not physically possible.

Twitter’s value to me has always been the information shared from each contact. What you did succeed in doing is putting old media Hollywood thinking into Twitter, ie the bigger the audience you have, the better.”

Sure, social networking is an important media tool for development that cannot be ignored  – but through the front of  a celebrity it makes it very difficult to measure its realistic impact.

What are NGOs tweeting on about?

17 Apr

Micro-blogging and development…

Oxfam using TwitterWe have seen the great potential of real-time micro-blogging – for example a student journalist who used the platform to get out of prison.

But now even NGOs and charities have flown into the ‘tweeting’ nest in a bid to share videos, stories and blogs – and as a way to keep their supporters up to date on the development work they do.

Some people are still wary and critical of this method of communication, with fears that it will totally replace a more conventional method of reporting.

‘Bits of tiny shorthand’

Anna Kramer of Oxfam America says:

And as a nonprofit communicator, I fear that Twitter undermines everything I try to do: Use words. Tell stories. Talk about people… I imagine Oxfam writers coming back from the field in the not too distant future.

To get the word out, we’d tweet about our experiences, crafting bits of tiny shorthand to share with followers. They’d then re-tweet, passing things on, sure, but not really connecting anyone to the heart of our story–the people and organizations we work with on the ground. With space for only 140 characters, I wonder: Where do those voices fit in?


I understand Kramer’s point. Twitter produces media that is devoid of the ‘human face’ factor and you cannot simplify a humantiarian crisis in 140-characters. But it does give NGOs a human voice that followers can engage and interact with – not forgetting applications like twitpic that can accompany tweets.

It can get over-personal however, as the tweeter’s personal views cannot cloud the NGO’s micro-blogging goal. It also gives them the real-time opportunity to be more transparent in the work they do. What they must not do is use it as a platform to advertise themselves per se.

New audience

Twitter gets the information across without emphasising the element of poverty voyeurism to which people have grown so accustomed, and gradually becoming immune.

NGOs can also open up to audiences always on the move whose concentration spans can only cope with 140-characters and it can help with the branding of an NGO who needs to get a real feel for their audience and who is missing from it. People choose to follow you on Twitter so it’s also not so passive.

If NGOs use the right techniques they can effectively utilise this cost-effective media tool to expand their donor base and maintain awareness over a longer period of time than you would get with a 2-minute television ad. And then there are celebrities, with whom Twitter is a big hit – if you get them retweeting your updates, you have the potential of a massive audience.

Take a look for yourself at at how these organisations are using Twitter:

You can also read an interesting report on global activism and new media here.

Sustainability in Katine

24 Mar

Sustainability is an important issue in international development journalism and one which has been the issue of sceptics of the Guardian’s Katine project. Freelance journalist Eliza Anyangwe questioned whether, despite, being exciting and able to make a difference, a short-term project like this £2.5m initiative is actually a good idea…

“That per capita investment would produce higher agricultural yields, better healthcare, more enrolments in school and better rural governance anywhere in the world. But what happens in the years after the project? Who will be able to afford the high-yield seeds and who will provide books for schools or train teachers? What becomes of the villagers of Katine then?

It makes me wonder if Katine is an example of recklessness or a good project that shares a universal characteristic with other development projects: they tend to leave a bitter aftertaste.”

She suggests “short-sightedness” in development means that issues, such as education and health, will not get the long-term attention they require. She also raised concerns that those trained by the project will move to the Uganda capital, Kampala.

One of my previous posts looked at some of the problems the Guardian faced, especially in working with NGO Amref. Based on that, anything more than three years would seem quite challenging. Project Katine must build foundations that won’t crumble once the project is over.

It depends whether you think you’re being negative when criticising the project. Once the three-years are over you can fear that the “positive results of these projects will soon erode” or can think that some changes are inevitable in a region like Katine, and the positive has not eroded – but is just evolving to suit the needs of that area. The end of the project doesn’t necessarily mean fail.

But Katine may have helped to change attitudes, but without the funding, Anyangwe does have a point.

Read the full piece in the Katine Chronicles Blog.

The Guardian on Katine: Can it start with a village?

28 Feb

The Guardian’s ‘it starts with a village’ project in Katine, a rural sub-county in Uganda with a 25,000 population is halfway through its three-year duration.

The Guardian describes it as more than fundraising and tracks every stage on the website and through blogs and multimedia – successes and failures included, they claim. It is the only project in mainstream media that offers this level of transparency.


It has been working in partnership with NGO Farm Africa, Amref, Panos and is sponsored by Barclays. It does however make you question if it is a vehicle for corporate interests of the institutions who sponsor it. In 2007, Barclays already had around 180,000 market traders in Ghana linked into a micro-banking programme based on a traditional saving scheme run by local collectors. 

Poroject Katine has also been scrutinised because it only last for three-years – would it be a case of Western organisations putting in their penny’s worth (£2.5m worth to be exact) and then just leaving a region like Katine holding the baby once they’ve got all their stories – how sustainable will it be?

Can media do development?

Last month POLIS held a seminar to discuss whether the media can actually do development. Following this, Charlie Beckett said “the brutal answer from our seminar was ‘no, but it was worth trying’”…

It was clear from the evidence given by the Amref and Guardian staff at the seminar that this was an exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately unsatisfactory experience. They have another 18 months to go and everyone has learned lessons, much has been achieved, – but there was no sense that either party want to or could repeat the project.

amref quoteThe Guardian’s keenness to introduce new media technologies and take a participative, bottom-up approach was inevitably going to face some barriers as AMREF director Grace Mukasa voiced: “There is an oral tradition in rural Africa. You have to remember that these people may not be literate and may not have seen a computer before so it is hard to expect them to blog.”

Amref also said that coping with the expectations of the Guardian and working under the media spotlight was challenging. They were accused of not opening up to the media in the early stages.

Journalists Sarah Bosely and John Vidal also admitted that they had censored themselves, which is an ethical dilemma that many development journalists face. How well can you balance your duty as a journalist to report the truth without undermining a good project?

These ethical issues and pressures to support the project were also faced by Weekly Observer journalist Richard Kavuma, employed by the Guardian to cover Katine.

He said many Ugandan journalists saw it as “the poor of the North giving to the rich of the South” that would only benefit elites, but that other Ugandan media are increasingly reporting human realities that are often “unsexy” issues, giving people on the ground more of a voice.

And with the Guardian’s resources so heavily on Katine, does it compromise their coverage of other development stories? You can however take the view that covering one country intensely and in detail is much more effective than skimming over a number of them.

Archives of material

The Guardian has benefited from more traffic on the website, but of course any media organisation seeks this when covering development. But Katine is not just covering the development – it is executing the development with Amref. The Guardian admitted that they wanted to test to potential of their website and its ability to ‘crowd-source’ public knowledge around an issue.

The effort put in is evidently not for just online traffic however – Katine is an ambitious venture because it does not provide news grabbing headlines. It is ‘slow’ moving documenting everyday lives of a village which differs to sexier stories involving war, famine, AIDS or through the prism of a rock star celebrity – so it is unlikely to evoke revolutionary change. But it does provide a ‘human face’ rather than masses of statistics.

It has recorded a mass of useful information, video, blog and images and has made great attempts at development on a participatory level. It is an interesting experiment for the media and someone had to make the first dalliance..

New Media

See the Guardian’s use of new media technologies in development communication in this short video.

Independent moderator Rick Davies is monitoring the project and you can view his August 2008 report from his second visit here and Amref’s response here.