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.