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January 5, 2009

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Ushahidi and the War on Gaza

During this most recent flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al Jazeera has done something interesting: they're tracking incidents and attacks both from their own reporting and from incident reports (via SMS/Twitter) by people in the Gaza area. To power the page, found here, they're using a combination of Microsoft mapping and Ushahidi, the conflict-tracking system developed for reporting in Kenya and used across Africa since that time.

Ushahidi's blog has a bit more info about it here. In comments, one of the AJ team members behind the project also has some interesting notes on why it does not have a lot of reader input at this time:

we havent seen much coming in from gaza/israel- i'm assuming thats for a number of reasons:
1) with such a huge amount of activity going on people dont have the time to send out texts- those who are sending out information are sending video/images (if they get a connection) to show the aftermath of a missile strike etc.
2) the networks are going crazy and are very busy, also with the power outage in the area getting hold of people in the conflict zone is difficult- so i'm guessing sending information out is just as difficult

These are, of course, known problems with using new media for conflict situations: even if you can get your portal known widely enough for it to be a priority for those on the ground, you have to hope that the infrastructure is still intact--or, as in Burma, that the government/authorities don't cut access to prevent communication and coordination. I'm not yet aware of a decentralized solution for getting around those kinds of blocks or filtering, although the scattershot approach favored by Chinese dissent bloggers might provide some clues.

Oddly enough, Al Jazeera does not seem to be offering one of Ushahidi's more useful features: the ability to sign up for location-based updates via SMS, email, or RSS feed. They're also not yet offering a timeline for conflict reports, as Ushahidi has done for their Kenyan post-election data. Both of these are a natural fit for a news organization, and if I had to guess, I'd say they're probably in the works for Gaza as Al Jazeera gets the bugs (both technical and practical) worked out.

Technologies like this for grassroots journalism are interesting for two reasons. First, they open up the process of newsgathering to be faster and more widespread--this is the real face of "citizen journalism," not Jeff Jarvis and his cult of ex-media bloggers. Second, they cut out the middleman. Although there are editors and administrators running the system, Ushahidi and systems like it make it possible for people to report to each other on a local basis, while aggregating reporting from paid journalists into the feed. This is being done in the US already, via EveryBlock, which also integrates crime feeds as published by local police.

The degree to which this technology can instigate, supplement, or even replace acts of paid journalism is as of yet unclear. I don't think it's the end of the newspaper, if anyone's making that claim, but it clearly has value. I am surprised that it's not being used by more small-town papers yet, who have very small staffs and would probably like to be able to leverage them more effectively. Reporting tools like EveryBlock or Ushahidi aren't just useful for readers, after all: they're also valuable sources of information for reporters as a new take on the tipline.

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