Newspapers everywhere are being forced to rethink their role as simply providers of the news of the day. There is (and always has been) an appetite for immediate information and news you can use that is hyperlocal and also more detailed and granular, to use an increasingly popular word for the kind of gritty features implied.
Take crime for example: a newspaper might learn of a dozen small incidents taking place in their town, but only cover a few that are deemed newsworthy according a set of gate keeping decisions that differs by paper. Sometimes only bigger crimes get reported or, in South Africa, crime where there is actual violence. Cell phone snatching or clothes being pilfered off someone's clothesline is not likely to earn any column inches in even the smallest papers.
And yet it might well not be the size of the crime, nor its nature, nor the levels of violence that are interesting and newsworthy. Rather, it might have everything to do with proximity. You may already know if your immediate neighbor's laundry got pinched off the line, but you might not know that such deeds are happening two or three blocks away. A veritable small-scale clothesline crime wave may be happening (and may be coming your way!) without you knowing.
Of course it's very hard to cover all crime comprehensively using the print medium. But doing it online, and using various forms of visualization like crime incident maps -- elements of which can easily be reproduced in the print edition -- is an approach that holds a great deal of promise for small newspapers eager to reinvent their role in local communities.
There are lots of organizations, including the Knight Foundation and its grantees, that are looking hard at making this kind of hyperlocal information available. EveryBlock is the most famous and has done pioneering work. (It was recently bought by MSNBC.com.) David Sasaki, also a Knight News Challenge winner, wrote a very useful overview earlier this year about how maps can create social change and community involvement.
Inspired by these pioneers, what we have in mind in South Africa is to pursue a focus on the visual presentation of material, with map overlays and mouse-overs that reveal an incident and link it to further reports, context etc.
Mapping out a strategy
We are focused on launching at least four kinds of maps this year, and we know there are a lot of issues. Knight grantee Leslie Rule, in a thoughtful post about hyperlocal mapping, talks about being at a conference where an audience member argued that hyperlocal crime mapping websites can "reinforce stereotypes about where crime occurs, and more importantly, who commits it.... And don't necessarily inform the community, offer insight into issues, or shed light on potential solution"
David Sasaki also made the point that "2009 I believe will be the year of developing map-based interfaces which enable neighbors to share information with one another, leading to direct action and increased community involvement." (This is as opposed to, I suppose, just receving the information.)
We want to inspire people to take action, find community solutions, and pressure police to do their job well (arriving to help when called to do so is a big deal here in South Africa). We also want to help communities and the police see patterns of crime, For example, Grahamstown seems to be South Africa's leading city for laptop theft, with more than one pinched every day.
To do all of this well, we know we'll have to move beyond information provision and stimulate, encourage and possibly even facilitate organized responses. Hopefully,this powerfully conveyed new information and accompanying investigative journalism will spur action by readers and users.
We are of course looking beyond crime as well.
At Grocott's Mail, and as part of our Knight funded Iindaba Ziyafika project, we're also looking at ways of combining citizen reporting and local sources of data such as daily police reports, property valuations and sales, information about government services (such as opening times of government health clinics and when specialists are on duty), as well as a range of information about entertainment, sporting events, and upcoming community events.
Challenges of data-driven information
There appear to be three challenges in providing these kinds of data driven, information-heavy services. The first is getting a regular supply of data so the information is up-to-date, useful, and has a 'news' quality to it. The second is selecting ways of displaying the information so that it is most useful to readers. Will maps do the trick, and how scalable and searchable do they need to be? What kind of filters can we provide? The third challenge is allowing for comments, feedback and their aggregation, which will transform some of raw data into trend analysis type stories.
With the example of crime information, much of the required information appears to be available from local police stations and emergency response agencies. Depending on the country and the police station, it is often free available. In the U.S., the information is available in digital form, which is the whole rationale behind the automated parts of EveryBlock.
In South Africa, both the format and the level of accessibility seem to differ. It looks like we might be able to get access to crime reports at the local police, but only in hand-written form! So there's some work to be done!
This type of approach does take time and effort. It's a very different kind of journalism. But whether it focuses on hyperlocal crime, hyperlocal pollution and health issues, local economies, or information about the provision of local services, this approach provides an essential, missing link between what citizens find useful to know, and information that can inspire them to help change things in their community.
Getting off the ground in South Africa
Four graduate students have received scholarships from the Iindaba Ziyafika project and are working to getting these projects off the ground. They are being supervised by Vin Crosbie, an international expert in new media (among other things). You can read about his recent experiences working with us on his blog.
By the end of 2009, our work will be available online at the Grocott's website and in truncated form in the print edition.
In a separate project, we're also looking at how Grocott's online can be a conduit for greater involvement in civic life. We hope to create an early warning system that can alert people when important local issues are coming up for debate or decision by the government. Too much reporting of civic events is done in the past tense; it is critical, we believe, to anticipate and frame information for people in a way that encourages participation. I'll blog about some of our thinking and plans for that in the near future.
Meanwhile, and to conclude, the big news from South Africa is that the first (as far as we know!) Citizen Journalism Newsroom is opening formally on September 8 in the Grocott's Mail office in downtown Grahamstown. We're already using the facility, providing training and getting ready. (We have computer terminals and other facilities available for people come in and use.)
We're also launching our citizen Journalist "Photo of the Week" competition with a small weekly cash prize, and our CJ "Story of the Week," which also carries a small cash prize. We'll see if the walk-in facility at the office and the incentives start increasing the already impressive flow of stories and photos already coming in.
Finally, we also launching the Drupal based NIKA Content Management System at Highway Africa with two half-day trainings for community newspapers from across the country and the continent. Not only is NIKA a great CMS, but it also facilitates the direct reception of SMS through a modem and some Kannel-based SMS gateway bridges.
NIKA will initially be served over the web, but the stand-alone fully installed LAMP system, with Drupal and NIKA configurations, will be rolled out as users move beyond the web-only offering later this year.
Keep watching this space in September for some links to our official launch and some training photos!