Mobile Phone as a Tool for Reporting

Posted by PrabhasPokharel on May 12, 2010

At the recent Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile, I facilitated as session on "Mobile Phone as a Tool for Reporting."  We started off the discussion with the question of whether SMS is useful for reporters.

David Sasaki of Global Voices expressed skepticism about SMS as a reporting tool. Sasaki noted that Rising Voices, a Global Voices project that provides small funds to budding citizen media projects, had tried to find an SMS or mobile-based reporting project to fund, but hasn't been able to. Instead, David saw projects using technologies like Twitter for reporting. The 160 characters of SMS messages is simply not enough, David proposed, and pointed out that similar technologies like Twitter are more useful because they are able to transcend the character limitations as they can include links to much lengthier content.

I agree that SMS is a decidely imperfect technology, but it can increase access to information. Those who have access to twitter and SMS are different populations. When the same popoulation has access to Twitter and SMS, Twitter may be preferable as a medium that is cheaper and can include more information such as links. However, there are many more who have access to SMS but not Twitter. SMS can be a powerful tool by itself for these people. For example, the Namibian enables readers to share commentary on a national level by just writing SMSs. As we wrote, the Namibians "SMSes page" allows more Namibians to express themselves in public. Namibians also have taken advantage of chat language and shortened characters to push the limits of the mere 160 characters of SMS.

Global Voices Caucusus editor and photojournalist Onnik Krikorian echoed this when he pointed out that technologies like SMS and Twitter increase the number and kinds of people that can comment in the public sphere.

SMS can be particularly useful when combined with other media. Word about the short code in Haiti were spread through community radio stations. Many community radio stations have used SMS to effectively provide a feedback mechanism from the general population, much like the Namibian did as a newspaper. Broadcast media already allow many people to receive information. Partnering such media with SMS allows readers to have a way to provide information and commentary.

SMS as a Content Delivery Mechanism

Next, we explore whether SMS can be used effectively as a information delivery mechanism. Can rural farmers receive weather, price, and farming information, for example?

The answer, of course, is yes. Reuters Lite provides exactly that service in India, and IFFCO provides similar services through phone calls, also in India. An Indonesian participant pointed out that SMS alerts are relevant to more than just rural farmers.  News services in Indonesia offer alerts about sports scores, weather and much more. Newspapers and media companies such as CNN in the US offer similar services. similarly, outfits like Malaysia Kini send alerts of important news to users over SMS.

Multimedia Reporting

We also discussed some of the things that bloggers and reporters with smartphones and robust data connections can do. 

Krikorian described how he uses live video streaming services like Qik. Such services have made it very easy for journalists and citizen journalists to provide live coverage of events--all you really need is a data connection. No longer do journalists or citizens wanting to provide live coverage need complicated and costly equipment. Krikorian also covered protests in Armenia using his mobile phone as his only camera. He pointed out that using the mobile phone as a camera allowed him to blend into the crowd and not be noticed as a journalist. His phone was good enough to act as his only camera--one photo he had taken on a Nokia N83 N82 was published in the UN World Food Programme's magazine. 

There is much opportunity for reporters and citizen journalists to use mobile phones as multimedia devices. Citizen reporters used mobiles to capture the protests in the aftermath of the Iranian election last year: one iconic video even won a prestigious Journalism award this year. Journalism students used mobile phone software to capture videos, edit them, and upload reports about the 2010 Olympics just from their phones. Today's camera phones are quite sophisticated and can take up to 8 megapixel photos. Innovative tools like picPosterous can help reporters by uploading photos the instant they are taken (as long as there is a data connection) to the web, so they will still be accessible even if the cameraphone is confiscated.

In all, mobile phones provide three distinctive advantages over traditional multimedia capturing devices: (1) they are always in our pockets and therefore always accessible (2) when there is a data connection, they allow instant uploading and even live coverage and (3) they allow reporters to capture multimedia in more environments by being lighter to transport and more innocuous.

Putting it All Together

Of course, we need to be careful in our discussions and not lump together increased information access via SMS and voice-based technologies with live video reporting (modern handsets and speedy data connections) that are only accessible to the technological elite.

Bbu, that said, mobile phones provide a set of technologies that offer advantages at different levels. The simplest of technologies, SMS and voice, are limited but powerful because they are widely accessible and can often reach populations that are hard to reach otherwise.

With modern handsets and data connections, mobile phones also provide reporters and citizen journalists with capabilities they have not had before. Citizen journalists and reporters can cover events and news live using video, photos, or Twitter, and pass innocuously as part of a crowd when taking footage at sensitive events.

(Onnik Krikorian's notes from the session are available here).

Prabhas Pokharel is Project Lead on the Mobile Media Toolkit at He tweets at @prabhasp.

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