Sunday, September 14, 2008

Give Globally This Season

It's hard to believe that it's already September, which means that the time is fast approaching for "giving season." The holidays always contribute to a rise in donations to charities and non-profits between November and December. With that said, there's a great Web site that makes donating a whole lot easier.

I myself have been wanting to contribute to different causes but often find it overwhelming to narrow down what social issues I want to help with. Then I came across GlobalGiving, an online marketplace that connects people to causes they are interested in while also providing progress updates so you can monitor your impact.

For me, that's the biggest selling point. As a recent college grad in an entry level position, I'm not making the big bucks, but I still want to play my part in giving back somehow. GlobalGiving breaks each donation for each charity down to emphasize that every little bit counts. For instance, the site tells you that giving $15 can help feed one elderly person for one month in Guatemala; $180 will feed one elderly person for a year and $200 will buy a maize crusher to make tortillas. I can afford $15 and know that such a small contribution can actually have an impact on someone's life.

With so many different charities out there, it's hard to know where to start. GlobalGiving aggregates all different types with helpful information about what they're trying to achieve. You can search for causes by country, by topic, by newest projects and by which projects are closest to reaching their donation goals.

The other major plus is that GlobalGiving works with legitimate organizations that must go through a due diligence review to ensure that your money is going where it should be going. The site, which is also a registered 501(c)3 organization, takes a 10 percent fee to cover operating costs while 85 to 90 percent of your donation goes straight to the charity you chose.

Not to mention, your donation is tax-deductible as well.

So as the holiday season is right around the corner, hopefully this will help make each individual experience that much easier and maybe even spur people to contribute year round.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Positive Mobility

I know I've neglected posting throughout most of this month as I've been incredibly busy. I'm hoping things will pick up again here as the summer dies down.

In the meantime, I came across an interesting article by Jack Ewing that ran in BusinessWeek discussing recent data supporting the benefits of mobile phones in poor countries. Considering the projects discussed here throughout the months, especially those focusing on SMS technology, it's nice to see a report with actual evidence that this technology has had a positive effect throughout the world.

The data, issued by the GSM Association, reported the impact mobile phones have had on small businesses, the status of women and on farmers and fisherman among others.

You can read the BusinessWeek article here.

Ewing also provided an in-depth look at mobile phone technology in Africa last year. Although he provides the link in his article about the GSM Association report, I'll link to it here because it's really worth looking at.

Here's the report:

GSMA Development Fund Top 20

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Feeling the Vibe

While perusing through the latest non-profit news at work, I noticed a lot of buzz around a new social media platform known as SocialVibe. The idea behind this site is to allow users to select a cause, choose a sponsor and then post your badge to different networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or your personal blog. The more active you are on SocialVibe and on social networking sites in general, the more points you can earn, which translates into monetary donations for your cause. Money is collected from the brand sponsors and everything from uploading pictures to your SocialVibe profile to inviting friends to join can help you earn points.

The concept builds on other sites such as Free Rice or the Hunger Site where the simple act of clicking a mouse can earn money or food to be donated to those in need. Just like SocialVibe these sites also depend on sponsors for their money, making it a win-win situation for all sides. Charities get more donations and further their impact, companies get their name attached to a good cause and people can become involved in an easy and inter-connected manner.

SocialVibe recently reached a milestone by raising $100,000 in donations for charity within six months of its public launch this past February. I'd say that's not too shabby and another testament to how non-profits can be strengthened through the use of social media.

My cause for now is Peace & Human Rights, as you'll be able to see from the widget posted on my sidebar. Perhaps I'll change it at some point to gain exposure for another cause, which leads me to one complaint about SocialVibe. You can only have one cause at a time. I'd like to earn points/money for a couple of different causes. This wasn't addressed in the site's FAQ but you can have up to two sponsors.

I guess I can't complain too much since, in the end, I'm trying to do my part.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The New Yorker: Way Over Americans' Heads

I know I'm a bit late on covering the topic of the New Yorker's controversial cartoon cover of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, but given my journalism background, I felt the need to comment.

I first heard of the controversy on the morning news and as the image of the picture in question appeared on my television, I couldn't help but put my head in my hands and groan.

Not because I was offended. Not because I really think Obama is a Muslim terrorist and his wife is an aggressive militant. But because I know that there are Americans out there that do have these misconceptions about African Americans and Muslims. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to make that distinction between satire and reality.

Jon Friedman from MarketWatch was exactly on point when he wrote in his Media Web blog:

The magazine is sticking its finger in the eye of every bigot who hates the Obamas because they're African-Americans, every racist who seeks to polarize the electorate and every ignoramus who mistrusts the senator from Illinois without examining his record and background.

The New Yorker was indeed satirizing the ignorance of Americans who are quick to make generalizations and stereotypes without examining the underlying issues. But, as I suspected, there are many out there who will look at this magazine cover and say, "Look, Obama really is a Muslim terrorist!" It didn't take long for me to find videos on YouTube supporting this but I refuse to draw attention to specific ones because regardless of my political views, there is no need for such bigotry, hatred and stereotypes based on religion and skin color. If you so desire to seek such commentary, it'll be easy enough to come across.

Now the issue at hand is the New Yorker's role in publishing such a controversial cartoon. Journalism provides commentary on society, and a liberal publication such as the New Yorker is known to do that through its cartoons. But, given the sensitive nature of the cartoon and the inability for some to make the connection that it is satirical, should the New Yorker have expressed more caution? Where is the line of responsibility drawn?

I can't really say I have any solid answers for that and I'm pretty sure no one really does. The magazine cover has the potential to reinforce these negative stereotypes but as journalism, it is a great piece of social commentary. It's not the New Yorker's fault that some people can't get past their own biases and Obama unfortunately has to go on damage control over issues that are irrelevant to his presidency. In addition, Muslims have to fight off the stereotypes they've been battling since 9/11.

Then again, this controversy in itself proves the New Yorker's point in the first place.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bashir's Indictment Brings Mixed Views

Following up on the indictment of Sudan's president Bashir, a more in-depth look into reactions around the world is necessary and it looks as though the majority are leaning against the ICC's decision.

The Economist published a great piece that captured the teeter-tottering question of whether this will actually help Sudan or indeed hurt it even more:

"Will things get bloodier if the indictment goes ahead? It is not clear either way. Last year the court indicted the minister for humanitarian affairs in the Sudanese government, together with a janjaweed leader. There was certainly no reduction in the violence then, but nor did it get worse. Nor is it clear how the UN Security Council will react. Justice must give way to peace, pragmatists cry. But there can be no lasting peace without justice, idealists reply."

Reactions from bloggers in Sudan, the rest of Africa and other regions offer a sobering view on the genocide charges with fear looming about what will become of the already unstable nation. Global Voices Online compiled this extensive look into the blog world. I'm not even going to try and summarize because they provided such an in-depth collection of the overall opinion floating around that it's best if you take a look for yourself.

But I will draw attention to some who have come to the defense of the indictment to provide a more balanced debate. Support of the decision has surfaced in Kenya with this article reporting that Kenyans believe Bashir should appear to the ICC to state his role in the genocide. An editorial that ran in Kenya's Daily Nation called the move "the single most important development in the long struggle to end the mass slaughter in the Darfur region," because it will send an important message to leaders across the world--including the U.S.:

"American forces in Iraq have been accused of activities verging on war crimes. There will be some who think President Bush should also be in the dock."

Other supporters have included human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Refugees International who issued this statement on Reuters, citing the decision as "correct and necessary." HRW issued a press release also voicing support.

The general argument on the human rights front is that this indictment will send a forceful message along with becoming a catalyst to end the atrocities that are occurring.

I'm teeter-tottering on this myself.

This is the first indictment on the Hague's behalf and the concept of ownership can be extremely powerful--as discussed in my posts about satellite imagery making a compelling argument for human rights abuses. Being held responsible for acts of genocide is just another facet to that ownership.

But it's necessary to take into consideration the dire consequences this could have, which bloggers throughout Africa, including the Sudanese, are rightfully expressing concern for. Not only may this result in backlash from the Janjaweed against civilians but also the UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aides.

It's too early to determine whether the indictment will have any positive effect on the crisis in Darfur but all situations need to be carefully weighed as the ICC moves forward.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sudan President Faces Charges of Genocide

According to the Washington Post today, President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan could be charged with acts of genocide by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. It would be the first time the Hague has charged a sitting head of state with war crimes.

Evidence of genocide will be issued by ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo on Monday, leaving open the possibility of an arrest warrant for Bashir.

This is a major step in the Sudan crisis but there is apprehension from UN officials who fear that this may cripple peace efforts with the country and endanger peacekeepers. The other issue to examine is that Bashir has continually resisted peacekeeping efforts and has failed to live up to agreements with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

It's a bit of a hairy situation given the vulnerable condition of the country and the political situation. African Loft offers an interesting analysis of the situation noting that along with the safety of UN peacekeepers the role of China and Russia in the crisis is crucial. China is a large supplier of guns and ammunition to Africa while Russia, who has shown support for several tyrannical African leaders may be influential in working against the ICC's charges.

The story should be interesting as new developments unfold. In the end, all politics aside, there is a need for some type of action to be taken.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Anonymous Texts Helping To Fight Crime

I've often written about how text messaging or SMS can be utilized for human rights, as it has been in projects like Ushahidi in Kenya and Sokwanele and Kubatana in Zimbabwe. Apparently, a trend in using SMS to fight crime has been emerging right here in the United States.

Just over a year ago Boston became the first city in the nation to allow citizens to send in tips to its anonymous hotline, Crime Stoppers, via text messaging.

More cities are starting to implement similar systems, according to the Associate Press which reports that Tampa, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Detroit have all jumped on the bandwagon.

The texts are virtually impossible to track since they pass through a server that encrypts cell phone numbers before they get to police. This, along with the ease and popularity of sending text messages, makes it an ideal way for police to receive tips, especially with younger citizens who rely on texting just as much as they do speaking to communicate.

With successful human rights campaigns using SMS internationally, it only seems logical that a system like this could be used to report crime on a national level.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Armenian Genocide Monument in Boston

I thought I'd take a moment to digress from my usual ramblings and discuss a bit of local news. Today, the Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) approved the Armenian Heritage Foundation's request to build a monument paying homage to the 1.5 million Armenians killed during the first genocide of the 20th century. But of course, it hasn't been without debate and controversy.

The monument, which is set to be constructed on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, was proposed eight years ago with Mayor Thomas M. Menino opposing it, noting that it would open a floodgate of other requests for monuments on the Greenway.

Pish Posh!

The Bostonist was kind enough to point out in a 2006 article that there are plenty of monuments throughout Boston (such as the Holocaust memorial in Faneuil Hall) yet the request for monuments seems to be under control. And what about the Soldiers and Sailors monument on Flagstaff Hill in the Commons or the Leif Erikson monument on Comm Ave?

The article drew a valid and unfortunate conclusion:
"...the Armenian Genocide, like the Holocaust, has its naysayers, foremost among whom is the government of Turkey. Perhaps because the Armenian Genocide took place from 1915 to 1922, its deniers have had more success than those who would deny the Holocaust - the matter is a hot enough topic that the Wikipedia page on the event is closed to comments. Nevertheless, the consensus among historians seems to be that the Ottoman Empire really did kill as many as a million Armenians just because they were Armenians. That hasn't stopped a local teacher, with the aide of a Turkish-American organization, from suing the Massachusetts Department of Education to require the teaching of the Turkish version of events (i.e., no massacre, just lots of inadvertent death, and the Armenians aren't nice anyway) alongside the more historically accepted version."
President Bush's refusal to recognize the mass killings as genocide last October is bound to cause some political tensions when raising the topic of a monument commemorating a genocide. But regardless, all political jargon aside, it is what it is. One and a half million people murdered over the fact that they were Armenian is no different than the murder of six million Jews during WWII. If we recognize one, we need to recognize the other.

The sad thing is, this isn't a matter of recognition. It happened. Perhaps it's time we faced the facts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Just A Personal Update

As I've mentioned in some previous posts, I've been on an intense search for a job now that I've graduated college. But, my search has come to an end. I've found a job within the PR field working with non-profit clients (which was exactly the line of work I wanted to get involved in).

Hopefully, as time goes on and I get further into the non-profit world, I'll be able to incorporate some of the lessons I learn at work with some of my insights here.

So stay tuned.

Getting Active the DigiActive Way

My attention was recently drawn to a new site (well, it launched in February so I'm a little behind, but better late than never) known as DigiActive. The site's co-founder, Amine, described it to me as an organization that "seeks to promote and explain the digital tools of social change so activists can use them effectively."

What I really like about it is the different types of information it provides. DigiActive combines a substantial helping of human rights campaigns and issues along with guides, tools and examples on how social media is being used for human rights. So a bit of education with a bit of "can-do" attitude makes it a great resource for people interested in getting involved in social change or those who are already knee-deep in it.

It even has an introduction video to digital activism which includes commentary from some of the major sites involved in human rights including Global Voices Online, Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. It's not the most thrilling of videos but does give some good advice on how to get started with Daudi Were (blogger for and Ushahidi) noting that it really comes down to basic journalism: grabbing a notepad and a pen and writing what you see.

Check it out:

The feature that stands out the most to me is its Activist Map which makes finding different campaigns easy, interactive and fun. With about a dozen different campaigns, the map gives a snapshot of information about the issues each one covers. Hopefully, as the site expands, it will include even more campaigns.

The other great aspect is that DigiActive is extremely eager for user participation (which makes sense given that social media depends on it) and encourages people in a variety of ways including an email list, writing for the site or adding their cause to the Activist Map among others.

So, whether you're interested in just trying to learn a little more about what's going on in the world or whether you want to take the extra step in getting involved, DigiActive is a good way to get going.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ogaden: The Darfur of Ethiopia?

Darfur, the tormented region of Sudan, has played a pivotal role in demonstrating the power of satellite imagery for human rights ( as I discussed here) but a new region has come to light. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released information on June 12 that satellite imagery has been used to uncover evidence of brutality in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

Lars Bromley, project director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program was behind the project and also handled obtaining the satellite imagery for the Crisis in Darfur map. The "before" and "after" images that were gathered displayed tangible proof that the Ethiopian military has attacked civilians and burned down villages within the region.

In addition, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the same day as AAAS about the surge in violence and extent of the abuse to which civilians have been subjected, including executions, torture and rape at the hands of the Ethiopian military.

Although the conflict has been brewing for years between the Ethiopian government and an Ethiopian Somali rebel movement, it came to a peak in mid-2007 with ethnic Somali civilians as the main victims.

The New York Times' Dot Earth Blog, covered AAAS' use of satellite imagery and considering the Ethiopian government has had a tight grip on who is allowed within the Ogaden region, more exposure is bound to result from something as concrete as these documented images.

While satellite imagery wasn't used for Darfur until years after the conflict had erupted, it has still paved the way for exactly the purpose it was meant for: to bring light to human rights issues at the beginning of the conflict. Yes, these images of Ethiopia are coming forth a year after the height of violence, but one year versus four years down the line (as in the case of Darfur) can make a dramatic difference. It demonstrates the evolution of the use of this technology and can hopefully be even more instrumental in uncovering humanitarian issues as they happen or even before they happen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Getting Back on Track

After three weeks in Europe (which I was sick with bronchitis through most of) I've finally returned to Boston and I'm attempting to get my blog rolling again. Unfortunately, a little thing known as unemployment and my recent college graduate status has forced me to spend a lot of time looking for a job upon my return but I'll be doing my best.

With my focus on human rights, I figured I'd share some of my experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. My friend and I stayed right near the market square in Krakow (an amazing city) and took a tour to see the camps which was extremely humbling.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed with the actual tour of the camp because it focused so heavily on the history of the Holocaust in general. While I understand that there are many out there that have not studied the major details of what happened in those camps, I am familiar with them and wanted to learn more about the inner workings of the camps. Certain parts of Auschwitz were revamped into more of a museum feel but we were shown where prisoners assembled for role call as well as one of the crematoriums and prisoner cells where people were starved and tortured.

Above is a picture of the entrance to Auschwitz with the infamous sign that read "Work will free you." I couldn't get a clear shot given all of the people and the fact that I'm only five feet tall.

This is just another view of the camp. The barbed wire and watch towers are still in tact and it's such an eerie and desolate place even after over 60 years.

I found Birkenau to be a bit more unsettling simply because it is exactly as it was left after liberation, unlike Auschwitz, which I mentioned was revamped a bit.

These are views of the rows and rows of prisoner barracks in Birkenau. The top picture shows the ones that are still in tact while the bottom one shows the remaining chimneys of the ones that were destroyed by the Germans as they evacuated the camps. Looking out from the watchtower that we were able to climb up, it was easy to see the massive amounts of people the camp held given the countless barracks that disappeared into the horizon. It was quite disturbing.

These images are of the "bathrooms" the prisoners used and the barracks they slept in in Birkenau. I can't emphasize enough how unsettling it is to see this in person but it really is something I'm glad to have gotten the chance to do.

It would take me forever to describe all of the amazing things I saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau so I'll spare you the details. If you ever do get the chance to visit them, I highly recommend it. It may be depressing when you're there but it is so worthwhile to see.

I'm hoping to start posting again on a regular basis and dedicate more time to this so stay tuned.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Few and Far Between

My lack in posts has partly been due to a crazy week after graduating college, spending time at home with my family in Rhode Island and preparing for my three week trip to Europe.

With that said, I leave for Europe on Sunday and will unfortunately not be able to give much attention to my blog for the time being.

It's my first time abroad so I'm very excited and will be sure to share a little of my experiences here.

I'll be back in June.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mapping Genocide: Google Earth and Darfur

*Final Paper

Chances are you’ve never heard of Furawiya—a village of 13,000 in northern Sudan primarily made of farmers. The people who lived in this thriving community depended on livestock as disposable income and had shops and open markets. Now, it is described by John Heffernan from Physicians for Human Rights as a “virtual ghost town” in the online video Lives Destroyed: A Refugee's Story.

The village was demolished in January 2004 by the Janjaweed militia in a conflict that has raged since 2003 and continues today. Furawiya is one of the many villages that have been victim to the violence and destruction plaguing the Darfur region. Now between 8,000 and 10,000 people from Furawiya are living in refugee camps along the border of neighboring Chad.

Furawiya’s story can be found on the PHR Web site, but it is also part of a bigger project exploring how new media can play an active role in spreading education and awareness about
human rights issues.

While the conflict in Sudan seems worlds away for most Americans, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and Google Earth have collaborated on an innovative project to place these human rights violations in front of everyone’s eyes.

In April 2007, the two launched the Crisis in Darfur Map on Google Earth—a virtual map of the Earth that uses high-resolution satellite imagery to view different parts of the world. Layered with data and multimedia, the map includes testimonies, videos such as the story of Furawiya and images of the different damaged and destroyed villages as well as images of refugees and internally displaced people, providing an interactive experience for others to learn about the crisis.

The project is the brainchild of Michael Graham who was an intern at the USHMM when he proposed it. He had wondered how mapping technology could be used to shed light on issues such as Darfur even before Google Earth’s launch in 2005. Now, as coordinator of the museum’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, he has seen his idea come to fruition.

“I had been having ideas along that before Google Earth,” he said. “Then Google Earth came out officially while I was at the Museum and it was sort of an ‘A-ha!’ moment.”

It was then that a team of volunteers known as Bright Earth was established and explored different mapping tools while collecting data on Darfur from destroyed villages to humanitarian access and refugee camps. The team worked with United Nations agencies, the U.S. Department of State and numerous non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International, a human rights organization that provided testimonies of the atrocities in Darfur. However, the team lacked the high-resolution imagery to present the data and thus the collaboration with Google Earth began, with Google agreeing to make obtaining the necessary imagery a top priority.

“We prioritized the acquisition of high-resolution imagery which is important in being able to see what is going on in the region,” said Kate Hurowitz, a spokeswoman for Google. “The ability to provide that was a big contribution to the effort.”

Combining the mass of data collected with the high-resolution imagery created a whole new use of multimedia for human rights. In addition, Google also agreed to make the Darfur layer on Google Earth as default content, making outreach even easier.

“[Darfur] was so important and we felt strongly that people needed to see what the Museum was offering,” said Hurowitz.

Since Google Earth’s launch in 2005, there have been 350 million unique downloads, according to Hurowitz, clearly making it a powerful tool with the potential to make an impact.

The use of multimedia has greatly affected the way people obtain information around the world, particularly in news coverage. As Graham noted that newspapers give the general big picture with text and photos, people have become desensitized to issues such as Darfur. The point of the museum’s Mapping Initiative is to “re-sensitize” people to it.

“Visual media can be much more effective,” he said. “For me, Google Earth is perfect as a presentation tool to see with your own eyes what is happening and showing people what that looks like. An 80 page report may be well researched and comprehensive but it’s easier to dismiss.”

Tribal clashes between “non-Arab black African” Muslims and “Arab black African” Muslims—known as the Janjaweed—peaked in 2003 after decades of drought, oppression and small scale conflicts in Darfur, according to the Save Darfur Coalition. In order to oppress the rebel groups formed by the “non-Arabs,” president Omar al-Bashir responded by increasing arms and support for the Janjaweed who have wiped out entire villages, destroyed food and water supplies and systematically murdered, tortured and raped hundreds of thousands of Darfuris.

After nearly five years of genocide in Darfur, more than 90,000 people are believed to have been killed by the conflict, about 200,000 are believed to have died from conflict-related causes and 2.3 million have been internally displaced, according to a 2008 report issued by Amnesty International.

In February, violent attacks resurfaced leaving thousands to flee to Chad and many others dead. As the crisis continues, it has grown more important for people to become aware and motivated to take action.

Some of the stories are horrifying,” said Selena Brewer, a Darfur researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW). Brewer was in Darfur in 2004 working for another organization, noting that the last couple of months before her departure in 2005, there was massive violence. As the years have gone by, people have turned a deaf ear to the situation. “People are treating it as business as usual and it’s really not,” she said.

What have left an impression on Brewer are the people of Darfur. Along with smiling faces, she commented on their charm and sense of humor despite the atrocities they have witnessed. But one incident has made a big impact on her.

Right before Christmas in 2004, there was a series of attacks leaving 30,000 displaced. Children had seen their families killed in front of them, women were raped. Brewer, accustomed to seeing children laughing and playing in the camps, was shocked by the stark contrast of the newly arrived displaced villagers.

“They had completely hollowed eyes and were desecrated from exhaustion,” she said. “These groups were silent. To see a whole community in that state is hard to describe.”

Online mapping tools such as Google Earth have made it possible for people to bear witness to stories like these and have shown the importance of satellite imagery. Mainly used by the government, geospatial technology is relatively new in the public realm.

“Behind [Google Earth] is the underpinning of geospatial information systems (GIS),” said Frank Taylor, an entrepreneur who writes the Google Earth Blog, which is not affiliated with the company. “It’s been around for a long time and is well established. It’s been used by the government but not well known by the general public.”

Geospatial technology refers to the different tools such as GIS, satellite images and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that are used to map and analyze specific locations of the earth. The federal government has used it for everything from managing forests to determining voting districts, according to the Geospatial Information & Technology Association.

Google Earth has combined satellite imagery with GIS, which is any system used for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data for mapping and has opened this type of technology to the general public.

It has evolved for public use from mapping services such as MapQuest to more complex visualizations like Google Earth. While people are able to direct themselves from point A to point B or hone in on their house using satellite imagery, geospatial information can make a far more compelling argument when it comes to human rights violations.

“Google Maps really shook up online mapping because it was interactive,” said Taylor. “Google Earth had a profound influence on how important it is to zoom in with satellites.”

Other factors making Google Earth a powerful tool is its ease of use. Along with satellite images, all of the information is found in one area and the user is able to customize the layer as they see fit. The interactivity creates a whole new level of learning, providing a different experience from reading an article in the mainstream media.

Beyond raising awareness, the bigger challenge is motivating people to take action. While there is no way to monitor how many people have been influenced by the map to join an advocacy group, lobby congress or donate money, a case study report on the project noted that “more than 100,000 have visited the “What Can I Do?” page on the museum’s site to find out how they can help.” The page provides a variety of ways to take a stand including contacting the media to tell them there is a lack of coverage on the issue and communicating with decision-makers such as the U.S. government and the United Nations about the need for humanitarian assistance.

While crediting the Crisis in Darfur Map as a great awareness tool, Joshua Goldstein, a graduate research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School noted that the obvious pushback to a project like this is that “at the end of the day you’re not saving lives.” Although awareness about Darfur is critical, Goldstein makes the point that awareness that leads to activism is even more crucial.

Despite declaring the conflict in Sudan as genocide in 2005, President Bush has been criticized for being too lax in his peacekeeping efforts. Motivating the American people is the key to getting the U.S. to act, said Goldstein.

“For America to play a role, the public needs to be motivated. Maybe we have these incredibly fancy tools,” he said, referring to Google Earth, “but maybe there’s a limit to what people can feel. How do you motivate someone from looking at a map to contribute to change?”

The potential of Web mapping lies in developing better ways for people to communicate. Ushahidi, a site using mapping technology to report acts of violence during the post-election times in Kenya, is a great example of what mapping can do, said Goldstein. The site relies on citizens to report what they see as it is happening using SMS, or text messaging, and e-mail reports. He suggested that the real difference will be when the technology can be used for emergency and early warning alerts.

“We’re at a really interesting point where we can see all of these experiments,” he said. “It’s a pretty fascinating space but there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Rallying for change is a necessity for human rights violations such as Darfur, but raising awareness is also a critical factor in the United States. According to Be a Witness, a campaign of the American Progress Action Fund and the Genocide Intervention Fund examining media coverage of the crisis in Darfur, the mainstream media are not doing their job. In analyzing broadcast news coverage in 2004, Be a Witness found “the ABC, CBS, and NBC network nightly newscasts aired a total of only 26 minutes on genocide and fighting in Sudan. ABC devoted 18 minutes to Darfur coverage, NBC five and CBS only three. By contrast, Martha Stewart's woes received 130 minutes of nightly news coverage. Stated differently, only about 1 in every 950 minutes of news coverage in 2004 covered the genocide in Sudan.

In 2005, news coverage revolved around the Michael Jackson scandal, the infamous Runaway Bride and the relationship between Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Although Brewer acknowledges that coverage has been sparse given the intensity of the issue, she is at the same time surprised that Darfur has remained a topic in the news for so long.

“It has stayed to some extent in the news for five years,” she said, noting that the crisis in the Congo has barely managed to get coverage. For her that is a testament to why the visual aspects of mapping projects like the museum’s is so important. The use of high-resolution satellite imagery has provided a window into parts of the world that people had little access to before, thus motivating people to take action.

“It gives many more people ownership of Darfur,” said Brewer. “There are stories of so many groups working on Darfur, putting their heart and soul into activism and they haven’t even been to Darfur. But they feel it as personally as I do. That ownership is incredible.”

Another project that intends to spark people into action using satellite imagery is Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur Web site. Like the Crisis in Darfur Map, Eyes on Darfur incorporates mapping technology and multimedia, including videos, testimonies and pictures, to create a compelling presentation.

The site launched in June 2007, shortly after the Crisis in Darfur project and along with exposing the genocide, it also helps monitor villages at risk. Information on monitored villages is provided on the site where people can then email, print or fax a letter to President Bashir.

Inspired by Amnesty International’s previous use of mapping technology to expose the Zimbabwean government’s forced eviction campaign, the success in Zimbabwe led to the realization that this type of technology could be applied to Darfur.

"Darfur was always something we aspired to use this technology for,” said Blätter.

To make the project a success, Amnesty International teamed up with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which helped collect the satellite imagery, a tedious and time consuming task, according to Lars Bromley, a project director at AAAS who worked on Eyes on Darfur. Bromley also served on the advisory board for the USHMM’s Google Earth project.

Because the Sudan region has so many remote villages, it was hard for Bromley and his team to match coordinates to images especially to villages that had been destroyed.

“The challenge of finding the coordinates of a town is significant,” said Bromley. “You come up with coordinates for an actual town and then see what images are available for those coordinates but it’s generally a different process without a pre-existing image of what a village looked like beforehand. It’s a meticulous process of identifying two images and changes.”

Despite the challenge, the site has made an important impact. Blätter noted it has gone viral with 85,000 viewers per day averaging six and a half minutes per visit, which is a big deal in what she refers to as the “techie-world.”

The outreach ability of satellite imagery has also greatly affected the Sudanese tactics in Darfur. Blätter said that until the recent bombings in February, scorched earth attacks, which were common in the beginning of the conflict, have been rare due to the powerful evidence these images have provided.

They recognize we intend to make it harder for violence to take place,” she said.

Together, both Eyes on Darfur and the Crisis in Darfur Map have been instrumental in raising awareness and in motivating people to take action. The USHMM has also realized the use of this technology to spread awareness about the genocide of World War II, using Google Earth to create another layer known as Mapping the Holocaust. Along with mapping key sites of the Holocaust, the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia provides historical content to further educate people in an interactive way.

Although the Genocide Mapping Initiative has been successful, some at the museum needed a little convincing that Google Earth was a good endeavor for the Museum.

“Some disagreed about whether it was worth pursuing,” said David Klevan, education manager for Technology and Distance Learning Initiatives at the museum. “Was it the best way to use the museum’s resources? Eventually, the project got support with the understanding that it would draw a much larger audience to the museum.”

That’s exactly what happened once the layer launched in Google Earth. The museum’s Web site has experienced a significant spike in web traffic. The case study referenced earlier also reported, “Two months after the launch, the museum's Web site is still receiving 50 percent more traffic than before. The project has significantly expanded the global reach of the site -- the percentage of the visitors from outside the U.S has jumped from 25 percent to 46 percent over the past year. The number of hits from Sudan alone increased more than tenfold.”

This is good news for Klevan,who has been an influential part in integrating multimedia on the museum’s Web site to make it more interactive. The site now features online exhibitions of a lot of the displays guests will find in the actual museum alongside exclusive online presentations. Visitors to the site will find a plethora of pictures, documents, videos of survivor testimony and informative animated maps.

“The biggest challenge is how to make the site a place where people come and do things and engage in activity,” said Klevan, who acknowledged that the explosion of multimedia is still new for everyone.

Despite the new territory, the museum is embracing multimedia to the fullest extent by launching its newest project on April 4 with Google Earth known as World Is Witness, a “geoblog” that documents and maps genocide and related crimes against humanity. Blog posts found on the World Is Witness site appear in a layer on Google Earth while images of Google Earth are available on the site, providing multiple platforms for people to explore.

The innovation behind these projects has the potential to be instrumental in preventing future human rights violations through early warning systems. The world was slow in reacting to the extermination of six million Jews during World War II and the massacre of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in only 100 days in 1994.

As thousands of Darfuris continue to live in refugee camps fearing for their lives, Brewer, who continues to raise advocacy about the crisis in Darfur at Human Rights Watch, has seen the meager conditions they live in. With little food and water, it is unsafe for the men to leave the camp, as they will be killed by the Janjaweed militia. Instead, women and children are sent to retrieve what they can, often facing the threat of rape and abuse.

Brewer notes that the biggest factor to contributing to change is staying informed.

“[Genocide] is so hard for people to believe,” she said. “Even I hear stories from Darfur and I’m staggered.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

World is Witness

The delay in my posting has been due to finals and projects...but I'm proud to say, I'm officially done with college! I'm attempting to keep this blog up and running but we'll see how that goes once I find a job and get sucked into the world of being a full-time adult.

For the time being, I'd love to point your attention to a new site, or "geoblog" as its being called, by the United States Holocaust Museum. World is Witness launched on April 4, so I'm a little late (the whole finishing college thing got in the way) and it is the second major collaboration with Google Earth to document crimes agaist humanity.

The first was its Crisis in Darfur Map, (I'll be posting my final paper from my Reinventing the News class which focused on the topic, on this blog) which solely focused on the genocide in Darfur.

It's a great awareness tool and it paved the way for World is Witness, which more broadly focuses on numerous human rights issues around the world. It's called a "geoblog" because of the combination of blogging and Google Earth--while you can view the blog posts on a layer of Google Earth, you can also view the mapping aspects of Google Earth on the blog. So, there's multiple platforms to access the site through.

The first posts are from recents visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and provide a glimpse into the 1994 genocide. It also, like Crisis in Darfur, provides multimedia including pictures, testimonies and videos for an interactive learning experience.

Monday, April 14, 2008

iConflict: A Growing Concept

Using social media has helped pave the way for citizen journalists to report news to the rest of the world and shed light on human rights issues. That's why I was happy to see a site like iConflict, which enables users to connect, discuss and share news on international conflicts and crises.

Launched in March, it relies on citizen journalists to upload news stories from the mainstream media as well as their own stories, including their own images, videos and experiences. The site divides conflicts into areas, known as "hot spots," and includes Sudan, Zimbabwe, Israel and Afghanistan among others. There is also a blog reporting on different issues around the world.

What is appealing about iConflict, is the combination of journalism--specifically citizen journalism--and the focus on international crises. It's a great way to spread awareness and get a diaglogue rolling on important issues that are occurring around the world.

iConflict has a great concept but has a long way to go in making this an effective awareness tool. As of now, there are only about three or four active members posting stories, and they appear to be from the mainstream media instead of a combination of both mainstream and citizen journalism. A "thumbs-up/thumbs down" icon appears next to each story but it is unclear what the criteria is for rating stories or how other members are rating them. The site would also benefit from categorizing the "hot spots" by conflict along with by region.

But iConflict is still in its infancy given that it was launched less than a month ago and has the potential to fix all of these kinks. In a blog post about the site's launch, other features are promised in the future:

Originally produced video newscasts from our offices in New York and Washington, DC that will be syndicated on itunes and youtube, online discussion and commentary on user submitted news stories, interactive data mashups on countries in conflict, applications on external social networking sites, and other innovations

Should iConflict implement these features, it really does have the potential to become a great site for people to come together and discuss the issues in the world. What would be exciting to see is it expand on a global level with people contributing their experiences from all over. Think about the current election turmoil in both Kenya and Zimbabwe. Although news stories on these issues are uploaded onto the site, it would be much more enriching to hear reporting from citizens who are actually experiencing the events as they happen.

Even with the long way it has to go, iConflict is a great concept that if done correctly will be an asset to both journalism and human rights.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

FrontlineSMS for Coffee and Democracy

A few months back, I discussed how SMS, or text messaging, is a tool being used for social change and I ran across an interesting service being used in a couple of projects earlier in the week and thought it was worth noting. It's called FrontlineSMS and is described as "the first text messaging system to be conceived, designed and written firmly with the needs of the non-profit sector in mind."

Currently, it's being used for two projects, one in Uganda and one in Zimbabwe and the different spectrum that FrontlineSMS is being used for really speaks to the importance of this type of technology.

In Uganda, it is being used to bring together coffee farmers and dealers in a positive way by distributing prices from five large buyers to 150 farmers via SMS. What this does is open up markets for the dealers by providing more access to larger quantities of coffee beans along with better quality beans. Once a week, the prices are collected through phones, entered into FrontlineSMS and then distributed through text messages to the farmers.

In Zimbabwe, FrontlineSMS is playing a critical role in the election process which is teetering on the border of turmoil after the country's incumbent president, Robert Mugabe was charged with rigging the March 29 election. Currently the election committee is refusing to release the results between Mugabe and his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe was supposed to appear at a regional on April 12 summit to discuss the election but did not show.

, an online community of Zimbabwean activists, is implementing FrontlineSMS in its eletronic activism campaign which keeps citizens up to date with the latest election news. In addition, the site encourages people to respond to the text messages in its "What Would You Like A Free Zimbabwe To Look Like" campaign:

We send out notifications of public events, inspiring quotations, selected comments from current and past articles and statements and we convert some of our web site content into thought provoking tasty 160 character messages.

What we really value is getting to know what you think, and to facilitate this you can respond to any SMS we send out. Democracy is a two way thang!

Kubanta recognizes the vulnerability that the current election is bringing to Zimbabwe, noting:

"Zimbabwe is on a knife's edge between democracy and chaos. Results still have not been released from the 29 March elections--and fears are rising that Mugabe will resort to violence and fraud to hold on to power."
The New York Times reported violence spreading throughout the country as tensions increase for Mugabe to release the results.

FrontlineSMS is another great example of the tools out there that are used to communicate, inform and motivate social change. Hopefully, Zimbabwe can steer clear of the chaos that Kenya has been experiencing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Kenyan Leaders Finally Reach A Deal

As an update to my post on Ushahidi, Reuters reported today that both Kibaki and Odinga have reached an agreement over a power-sharing cabinet.

This is some good news after a tumultuous start to 2008 for Kenya.

Friday, April 11, 2008


As promised in my previous post, I want to take a look at the site Ushahidi, which allows citizens in Kenya to report acts of violence during the post-election times.

First, an apology for the lack of posts. The end of the semester always results in an overload of assignments so I have been busy tending to tests, papers and projects. I have many more posts in mind, but have had little time to write them!

As many are aware, Kenya has been experiencing a bit of turmoil since their presidential elections in December 2007. The dispute began after charges that the election had been rigged by the current president, Mwai Kibaki. After learning that Kibaki won the election, riots, resulting in the death of more than 1,000 Kenyans, erupted.

In response to the violence, Ushahidi was established and it is unique in the sense that it relies on citizens to shed light on the chaos via email and SMS reports. What I like about this site is how in-depth it is. Along with the map on the main page, which allows users to sort through the different categories such as looting, rape, deaths, riots, etc. there is an interactive timeline of events. It really gives the viewer a clear sense of how the conflict panned out. It's evident that the bulk of violence occured in the first couple of months directly after the election, but there still is tension in the country with the latest report on the timeline stating, "Anxiety Increases in IDP Camps As Supplies Dwindle" on April 7. Each incident is researched for verification by local Kenyan NGOs. The site's blog also offers thorough coverage of the conflict along with the numerous efforts by people and organizations to help.

Another interesting aspect is how quickly the site was created. Within two-weeks of the rioting, Ushahidi came into existence, which has allowed the site to be so in-depth so early on in the conflict. Other maps chronicling violence usually post information after the fact, such as Google Earth's Crisis in Darfur map.

Although Kibaki and his contender, Raila Odinga agreed to share power in February, there has been a power-struggle for both parties in establishing a coalition cabinet. Odinga suspended talks with Kibaki this past Tuesday, calling for a cabinet equally sharing posts among the two parties and thus leaving Kenya without a clear end to the dispute.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Still Feeling the Chill of the Cold War In a New Media World

Given the recent focus on human rights in such areas as Tibet and Kenya, I thought I'd share this excerpt from an article in Oxford Analytica, which was posted on Forbes' Web site. Unfortunately, to see the entire report, you have to register and pay but regardless, the short excerpt gets the main point across: ethnic conflict is an increasing problem.

The article then provides a brief summary of the three most recent ethnic conflicts--Tibet, Kenya and Kosovo.

It's something that I never gave too much thought to simply because in my lifetime it's always been around. But as I read that ethnic conflict has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War when previously it was social class that played a major role in dividing citizens, it made me think a little more.

I looked into the history of the matter and came across this report analyzing conflict in Africa. It's not a quick read so I can't say that I read into it completely but I skimmed and got the gist of it:

The notorious genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and to some extent Burundi, civil wars in Liberia Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Coˆ te d’Ivoire and Somalia, minority uprisings in Nigeria, and separatist agitation in Cameroon and Senegal, represent reference points of the turbulence in the African continent. In addition, conflicts of varying magnitudes, mostly local but no less state-threatening have ravaged many other countries including Ghana, Zambia and Benin which were regarded for a long time as peaceful and less prone to deadly conflicts. Although the conflicts generally have deep historical roots that date back to the colonial and even pre-colonial periods, they became more prevalent and destructive in the post-Cold War period.

I was also able to dig up this article form the New York Times in 1993 examining the increase of refugees around the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Considering the 15-year difference between the articles its clear that the situation is lacking in improvement.

But what is interesting and extremely encouraging is the role that new media is playing to help citizens spring into action--especially the conflict in Kenya. The country, which has suffered turmoil after its recent presidential election in December 2007, has made a big scene within the African blogosphere which was recently covered by MediaShift.

An online community worthy of noting is Ushahidi which allows citizens to share acts of violence they witness via SMS or e-mail reports as it is happening. The fascinating part to this is how quickly the site was established considering the unrest in Kenya began at the end of December 2007. It was up and running by Jan 9. More on Ushahidi will be touched upon in another upcoming post.

Ushahidi is not the only site that was able to come together in such a short period of time. MediaShift notes other sites like Mashada and Kenyan Pundit had created methods such as hotlines and Google mashups, respectively, to document the violence.

While Kenya was one of the first African countries to create an online community, other countries have been jumping on the bandwagon:

I remember when I started blogging in June 2004 the number of African bloggers was quite small and most were in the Diaspora. There was also a substantial number of Westerners blogging on Africa. I used to have Darfur and DRC categories because there was hardly Africans writing on these at the time. Now I hardly write about either as there are so many Sudanese and Congolese bloggers who are far more knowledgeable than I am.

Interestingly it was around the time of the 2006 elections that I began to notice Congolese bloggers. There are now active blogging communities across languages — French, Portuguese, Arabic and Swahili — and across countries and regions. Nonetheless three countries dominate the blogosphere, South Africa* (see below), Kenya and Nigeria, and there is a tendency for bloggers to remain within their linguistic and geographical communities.

As online communities such as the ones in Kenya continue to spring up and rely on citizens to uncover conflict as it happens, it will hopefully be easier to combat violence. Perhaps it can even lead to action before unrest unfolds.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

In News We Trust

On Easter weekend, I had a brief conversation with my family about the state of the media and how blogs have been an intricate part of keeping it in check. When I commented that a lot of people don't trust the media, my brother-in-law chimed right in stating that he is always skeptical of what the media reports.

This conversation is a tiny drop in the bucket of how many feel about the journalism in this country so it is interesting to see how new media is playing a role in combating it. NewsTrust is a non-profit, non-partisan project that provides a "trust network to help citizens make informed decisions about democracy."

Along with submitting stories to be reviewed, people can review stories and even the reviewers themselves are "reviewed" in a sense with a "transparency rating." The more members reveal about themselves and the more experience they have on the site, the more trustworthy their reviews become.

The idea is to help guide people to understand good journalism from not so good journalism and I do find it a valuable way to share ideas and perspectives on different stories. While there could be potential for a site like this to become a breeding ground of political insults and low blows, most of the reviews I've rummaged through are well thought-out, educated comments that really provide a foundation for discussion.

What I also like about the site is the variety of sources it has. Everything from your traditional print outlets to blogs to broadcast are covered and helps provide a good roundup of media coverage. And the other interesting part to this is that it's the users that determine the top sources. In the FAQ section of the site it's noted:

Our highest rated sources are featured more prominently on our site, based on ratings from our members. (Note that all source ratings on our site are still PRELIMINARY, as stated in our disclaimer below.) We also feature noteworthy sources in the "Featured Source" section of our home page. In order to be listed, a source has to receive at least 6 story reviews, or 10 trust ratings (these preliminary settings are periodically adjusted, based on average number of reviews per source).

So if anyone thinks a particular news source should be included, all they have to do is start submitting stories and rating stories from that source.

Another good site is Politifact, an effort by the St. Petersburg Times and the Congressional Quarterly to examine the truth behind the campaign claims in this year's election.

With projects like these hopefully the media will be able to restore its trust with the public.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Leave Your Egos At the Door

A couple of weekends ago, while indulging in my vice of entertainment television, I cringed as I watched two broadcast journalists make complete--for better lack of terms--asses of themselves. It's never good when you hear Joel McHale from E!'s the Soup mention a broadcast gone awry.

I'm not sure when it took place but the person who posted it on YouTube originally uploaded it last summer and noted it was from a few years back. Regardless, it was dug up by the Soup and aired again.

Let's just say both the anchor and the reporter took a few low jabs at each It's best if you take a look for yourself:

If there's one thing that annoys me in broadcast journalism it's the cheeky banter between anchors but this video takes it to another level and is a sad display of journalism. I can't lie and say I didn't laugh when I saw it but the initial reaction was my jaw dropping in disbelief.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Be Kind and Help a Reporter

Working in both public relations and print journalism, I understand both sides to the media. Clients want to get coverage and journalists want interesting stories and sources to support those stories. PR gets a lot of flack from the journalism side but the way I see it is journalists need PR just as much as PR needs journalists. It's a symbiotic relationship. Not that I'm saying reporters don't and can't come up with great stories on their own--that's so far from true. But the PR world can sometimes help nudge some new ideas into journalists' heads.

Why not support that symbiotic relationship with a site like Peter Shankman's Help a Reporter Web site? What started out as a Facebook group turned into a full Web site for the publicist who charges nothing for the service and wittingly noted that "the good Karma is immeasurable."

Okay, so some are going to be a little skeptical and question whether this will turn into a ploy for media-hungry publicists to go wild but Shankman is doing his best to ensure that this is a serious way for reporters to get the appropriate sources through the appropriate people.

On the site he states:

This is really the only thing I ask: By joining this list, just promise me and yourself that you'll ask yourself before you send a response: Is this response really on target? Is this response really going to help the journalist, or is this just a BS way for me to get my client in front of the reporter? If you have to think for more than three seconds, chances are, you shouldn't send the response.

This doesn't mean that there isn't potential for things to go awry as pointed out in this blog post from the New York Times' Small Business Blog, Shifting Careers. But with all projects, there's a risk of being taken advantage of.

Profnet has been a major player in linking together journalists and experts but the catch is PR professionals have to pay. Help a Reporter may bring some hefty competition given its no-cost stance.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Google Does Good

In tandem with my mid-term paper which examines how non-profits use a variety of different new media tools, I've been meaning to post about Google's launch of it's site for non-profits, simply called Google For Non-Profits.

Google announced the launch on March 18 on it's official Google blog so I'm a little late in posting but better late than never.

The self-dubbed "one-stop shop for tools to help advance your organization's mission in a smart, cost-efficient way" covers everything from grant writing with Google Docs to spreading an organization's message with Blogger. Other tools include YouTube's non-profit program, a checkout program for donations and Google Gadget Center where you can create your own gadget (it sounds like virtual arts & crafts for adults). Then, of course, there's the simple tools like using gmail.

The "Checkout" feature allows users to process online donations for free until 2009 and has no monthly, gateway or setup fees which is definitely a plus for non-profits.

They even have a feature for non-profits to share their stories about how Google has helped their non-profit grow.

One feature that I personally find interesting is the use of Google Maps and Google Earth to put an organization and its mission on the map (literally and figuratively). Using these maps can help demonstrate the scope of a problem. Take for instance, Google Earth's Crisis in Darfur Map (my topic for my final paper). It maps out the issue in an interactive way that really shows people the urgency of the genocide in Darfur. While this example is on a much larger scale, this type of technology can also be used on a more local level such as mapping out the amount of homeless children throughout the state of Massachusetts. This can further promote and educate people about a cause in a whole new way.

Google also provides helpful tutorials for each feature to make the process as easy as possible.

Hopefully this will be a useful tool for non-profits to make that leap into using technology to their advantage.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tackling Technology the Non-Profit Way

*Mid-term Paper

In Nigeria, teenagers are learning about sex through cell phones--and it could be saving lives.

"Can the early signs of HIV show within a week of infection?” is one of the tens of thousands of anonymous SMS, or text, messages that have been sent in to the Learning about Living program, which is designed to spread education about sexuality and HIV/AIDS prevention. By providing answers to the questions teenagers would normally feel embarrassed or shy about through mobile phones, e-mail and a toll-free phone number, all at no cost, this program aims to educate teenagers through this mobile connection.

Projects such as this are becoming more prevalent around the world, as the use of mobile phones has jumped from 1 billion in 2005 to 3.5 billion currently. In 2005, Katrin Verclas saw an opportunity within the surge of mobile connectivity and helped create a hub of information to further connect non-profit and non-governmental organizations.

Mobile Active, a global community for people who are using mobile technology for social change. As co-founder and coordinator, Verclas runs the Web site, manages its blog and helps plan conferences about the use of cell phones for social change. Learning about Living is one of the site’s featured programs.

“Mobile Active decreases the learning curve to inspire, to think creatively, provide resources and how-tos and break down those disciplinary fields,” she said.

Verclas, who is from Amherst, Mass. has been in the non-profit technology field for ten years and has a variety of different experience. Along with Mobile Active, she serves on the board of directors of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), a membership organization of non-profit technology professionals focused on connecting non-profits with each other and educating them on the use of technology. She has a background in IT management, IT in social change organizations and in philanthropy and has led several non-profit organizations. Currently, she’s working on a publication exploring mobile use in civil society with the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Group. In addition, Verclas works as an independent consultant, working with non-profit organizations and foundations.

She has her hands full but has still managed to create this global community, depending on a variety of social media tools to keep it thriving. This is a feat that some non-profits have embraced wholeheartedly while others have struggled due to lack of resources.

Regardless, there is no denying that social media has played a major role in how nonprofits and social activists get their word out. According to a recent survey conducted by Eric Mattson and Nora Barnes at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, 75 percent of America’s largest charities were using some form of social media and 46 percent reported that social media is an important aspect to their fundraising strategy.

The study’s results were removed from the Internet as the link leading to the survey, which was posted on several Web sites, report that the file can not be found. However, numerous discussions about the results were found in Computerworld, a trade publication focusing on IT management for medium-to-large companies, Small Dots, a nonprofit technology blog by Beth Dunn and Global Neighbourhoods, a blog focused on how social media affects business and culture written by Shel Israel.

In an interview with Israel, Barnes noted the most popular form of social media for these charities is blogging. For Verclas, this is what keeps Mobile Active going as she looks for different advocacy campaigns using mobile phones while also depending on the site’s 3,000 registered users to pass along their own stories to be included in the blog. The site is starting to implement more types of social media tools including Google Video, YouTube, social networking sites such as Facebook and its own wiki.

“A volunteer network is hard to maintain,” she said comparing it to the art of plate spinning seen in the circus. “It feels like you have to keep spinning the more plates and channels you have. Partly because we’re not funded, it gets a little hard.

This is precisely the problem that smaller non-profits such as Mobile Active face. Small budgets and small staffs create a limited amount of resources as well as a disconnection with the technology.

“Most non-profit staffs aren’t as tech-advanced as the audiences they’re trying to reach are,” said Dunn, who is also director of communications for the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod. “There’s a resistance in the staff to use technology because they think their audience doesn’t use the technology.”

Despite being the largest hunger-relief agency in New England and one of the largest food banks in the country, the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) has found its outreach outside of traditional methods to be restricted. Although the organization launched its new Web site in January, it doesn’t have any form of interactivity for its viewers or any plans to make it more interactive

"Here in the non-profit world, we’re lacking in manpower to keep up with that,” said Heather Robb, the organization’s marketing manager.

The GBFB is attempting to take a different approach by using a new local social media Web service known as, which is free for non-profits. Set to launch in April in six markets including Boston, New York and San Francisco, good2gether serves as a platform for non-profits to link their volunteer opportunities and events as well as donation requests alongside related articles on newspaper Web sites. Organizations create their own profile and then it is distributed through good2gether’s Do Good Channels which can reach across Web sites for major media outlets, on corporate intranets, at social networks and on college and university Web sites.

The idea for good2gether came to Greg McHale, the company’s CEO, after Hurricane Katrina. As he was looking on for stories related to the storm, he noticed there were no direct links to non-profits that were helping victims. That’s when he figured that providing relevant information, such as volunteer opportunities to help victims of Katrina, right alongside articles talking about the topic could motivate more people to help while helping non-profits leverage free traffic, newspapers drive local content and ad revenue and sponsors deliver their message of commitment to social responsibility.

“It’s an incredible opportunity as you’re reading an article about Katrina, Darfur, cancer and in each one of those stories is an opportunity for you to get involved,” said McHale.

This is what the GBFB hopes good2gether will do for its cause as it is always in need of more volunteers as well as money and food donations. Robb noted that the organization alone doesn’t have the ability to reach out in that capacity but a platform like good2gether is a useful tool to implement.

Another interesting aspect is the effect it could have on newspapers which are trying to get more traffic to their Web sites.

"There’s not a single newspaper in the country that’s not looking to go local,” said McHale. “Newspapers are desperate for local content and this makes their news product more useful.”

Dunn, who recently wrote about good2gether in her blog, sees a lot of promise in a business model like McHale’s and said it is a win-win situation for non-profits.

It seems like it would be foolish not to get involved in it for a non-profit,” she said. “It is an interesting concept to be able to offer people the opportunity to take action right away.”

Just as McHale has found a way to use new media to help non-profits adapt, another non-profit organization has been steadily adjusting in its attempt to shed light on human rights issues. Long before streaming online video was even a twinkle in the eyes of tech-geeks everywhere, Peter Gabriel, singer for the now defunct band Genesis and now a solo musician, understood the power that video can have. In 1992, he launched Witness, an international human rights organization that uses video and online technologies to expose human rights violations.

Using a video advocacy model, Witness provides human rights groups with the technology, equipment and training to create successful video campaigns. It also helps human rights groups devise a strategy to reach out to its targeted audience usually consisting of policy and decision-makers within local governments.

Now, with online videos within everyone’s reach, it made sense for Witness to move its campaign videos online but the organization also saw an opportunity for expansion. Last November Witness, launched The Hub, a global platform for human rights where anyone can upload videos, audio or photos and find ways to connect people to resources, advocacy groups, campaigns and actions. Serving a much broader audience than Witness, the site had 5 million hits within the first two months of launching.

“It’s sort of an acknowledgment of a continuance of our video advocacy model,” said Matisse Bustos Hawkes, communications and outreach coordinator for Witness. “It’s not about being a YouTube model for human rights. It’s to create more open space.”

Bustos Hawkes, like Verclas, has a vast amount of experience in the non-profit field. Based in New York, she has seven years under her belt developing and implementing communications strategies specifically focusing on campaigns led by the use of visual media for social change.

While online video has been used for shallow, pointless causes such as Chris Crocker’s cry for people to leave disheveled pop-star Britney Spears alone, it has the potential to do much more, especially in terms for international coverage.

“When [online] video was up there at first, it was a big deal. The amount of international coverage has diminished since the 2,000s and even the late 90s. It’s opened a window to the world,” said Bustos Hawkes.

Whether an organization is trying to open a window to the world or just shine a little extra light in their corner of the world, blogs are the perfect place for non profits to get a hold on understanding how to use social media, said Dunn. More than a third of the charities in the UMass Dartmouth survey report using blogs and 62 percent of respondents say they are very familiar with it.

But before writing a blog, it’s necessary to start reading them first.

“It’s really important to be a listener first—to be a consumer first of the media,” said Dunn.

She also suggested starting out at Web sites such as the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).

Other considerations, she noted, is for non-profits to not invest in social media as a brand but rather as an individual. For example, people don’t want to see the American Red Cross with a Twitter account; said Dunn. They want to see a person affiliated with the American Red Cross. There’s a level of personal connection needed.

The intimidation of technology can easily overshadow the benefits of using social media tools, especially when a non-profit is pitching them to its board of directors. Dunn suggests focusing more on the objective and outcomes of using such tools instead of the tools themselves. By more clearly identifying how these online instruments can further the cause, it’s more likely that the board of directors will actually get on board with the organization.

Verclas is still busy spinning all of her “plates,” managing the blog and wiki, aggregating content and networking through social media sites such as Facebook, Orkut (a popular site in Brazil) and Twitter. Not to mention she’s currently planning a conference in South Africa.

Not everyone involved in the non-profit sector may have the technology experience Verclas has, but there are plenty of resources to help organizations choose which tools are right for them.

Verclas can be the first to testify that after figuring out what works best, it’s just a matter of balancing them all:

"You have to keep them spinning in order for them to be effective."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Walking the Tightrope

In print journalism's current state of "transitioning" or "adapting" or whatever anyone would like to call it, I sort of picture it wobbling up on a tightrope as everyone watches in silence, waiting for it to fall to its demise.

In the effort of keeping the physical paper alive, there's been a lot of discussion (especially right here from me) about focusing on local content. So, I found it interesting when I read this article from MediaShift questioning how far newspapers should go with local news. Should national and international news be left for other outlets? Some expert's assessments suggest that newspapers can go too far in their local coverage and readers still want that extended national and international coverage--even it is not in-depth.

I completely agree. It makes me think of those pesky little Boston Metro papers scattered all over the T because commuters are too lazy to dispose of them in the proper manner. There are many a times when I was able to get my daily dose of news--local, national and international--just by grabbing the Metro and reading a few headlines and small articles (and then throwing it in the recycling or trash bin!).

We need to have that connection to the rest of the country and the world. While in-depth coverage is a necessity, it's not always a possibility for every outlet, especially the smaller ones, but eliminating it completely is not the solution. Although many get their news coverage online not everyone does as the article makes a valid point about:

“The grand assumption behind this is that everyone’s reading their news on the Internet,” wrote Mike Ho. “Certainly MediaShift readers are. But not everyone is, and here’s where it gets hairy. The Internet-connected community, while getting larger, still excludes large swaths of the population based both on age and socio-economic status. If local papers skimp on national news because ‘everyone’s getting it online,’ they’re forgetting that not everyone is online, not even in the net-savvy San Francisco Bay Area, the readership for the example you cite.”

Basically the print industry just needs to find its balance--between local and non-local and print and new media. It's a wobbly time for the field of journalism but it seems to be holding its arms out at both sides keeping everyone in suspense.