Armed with a few Kodak Zi8 cameras, six HTC Wildfire mobile phones and expertise in training citizen journalists, Small World News is working to share stories from embattled Libya with the larger world.
Small World News is on the ground in Benghazi training Libyans to capture and tell video stories of events in this volatile region. Along the way, the team has also captured footage that no other mainstream media outlet has been able to get, such as this video of opposition forces heading out to the front lines:
MobileActive.org chatted late Wednesday night with Brian Conley, founder of Small World News, to hear how things were going. What we learned is that capturing and sharing stories from Libya is as much about technology as it is about establishing trust and connections with the journalists on the ground.
Staying Alive In Libya
Small World News is a documentary and new media company that provides tools to journalists and citizens around the world to tell stories about their lives. We wrote about Small World News last when it helped an independent Afghan news agency integrate mobile phones and SMS into news reporting.
As part of its work in Libya, Small World News captures audio reports from individuals on the ground to broadcast to a larger, international audience. It does this via Speak2Tweet, a collaborative project from Google, Twitter, and SayNow, which allows a user to tweet by calling a phone number and leaving a voicemail.
Conley and his team recognized the power of Speak2Tweet in circumventing downed Internet access, and knew it could be improved by translating the content to English, which would allow it to reach a wider audience. Right now in Libya, anyone can tweet by leaving a voicemail on an international phone number (+16504194196, +390662207294, and +442033184514) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtags #libya and #feb17.
Conley and his partner are also training people in Benghazi on how to create content that will be posted on Alive in Libya. Small World News has established many other Alive.in sites, including Alive in Egypt, Alive in Bahrain, and Alive in Iraq.
What Small World Is Doing in Libya
Small World News is now in Benghazi to "build and train a team of local, young Libyans who want to produce video about what's going on, and speak to the world," says Conley.
Originally, Conley and his team were just translating calls as they came in via Speak2Tweet, as well as trying to pull in relevant videos from the Internet to translate and subtitle, as needed. But the organization was able to secure funding for a trip to Libya and is now in Benghazi training individual citizen reporters.
"We were invited by the Libyans to train locals to shoot video and produce their own news content," Conley said.
Small World News arrived last Friday with the cameras and smartphones. Finding Libyans who wanted to learn how to produce and share content was not a problem.
"We had personal contacts, and built it from there," Conley said.
In fact, they eventually found themselves with too many interested people.
"We went from just scraping by and trying to figure out who we were going to train to suddenly almost having too many people to train," Conley said. "We don't have enough equipment for everyone."
In once instance, a group of trainees came together almost by accident. Conley was working at the media center the team had set up there, and -- faced with a logistical problem -- called a personal contact (whose name he withheld given the dangerous situation in Libya). But this contact turned out to be a different individual with the same name. Conley introduced himself and explained his purpose in Benghazi.
"We got to talking, and this person actually said that he and his friends wanted to do some video documentation about what is going on in Libya," Conley said. "This was a real win, because it was a group of people who already knew each other, wanted to do this kind of work, and were looking for direction. It was a magical thing."
Small World News now has a team of about a dozen men and women ranging in age from 16 to 30 years old learning how to create video content.
Bringing Benghazi The World
The goal, Conley said, is to build an effective and sustainable conduit for content produced by citizens about daily life in Libya to reach a wider audience. Eventually, Small World News hopes to establish a local site, but for now, the content on Alive in Libya is "aimed directly at the international community and, by and large, the Western audience," he said.
"Basically," Conley said, "it's a place to give Libyans a way to speak directly to the world."
Small World News is also using Alive in Libya to pull in social media sources and share local content. In the future, it will consider how individuals can submit their own footage: either via a specific hashtag or by uploading to a public dropbox.
"Once the Internet comes back, I think a lot more people will be posting their own content," Conley predicted.
So how is Small World News able to push content out with such unreliable Internet and mobile connectivity in the area?
"You just need to know who to talk to," Conley said. "We were able to get on this connection by talking to somebody who knew somebody's cousin." Small World News also has a backup satellite option, which it hasn't had to resort to yet, he added.
Front-line footage no one else has
Aside from training Libyans how to create video reports, Small World News has had an opportunity to capture unique footage from the eastern gate of Ajdabiyah.
"Right now, we're reaching out to media networks because we're just now getting footage that we're fairly certain nobody else has," Conley said.
The reason is that a lot of professional journalists are being prevented from getting to the front lines, Conley said. Locals are often able to get closer and capture raw footage.
"A lot of media have left, and many more are on their way out right now," Conley said. "We're hearing that people will leave primarily because they can't get any access and they are spending huge amounts of money to be there."
In addition to hastily shot footage of rebel forces preparing for battle, Alive in Libya features interviews with people who've returned from the front lines. Take, for example, the video below of a wounded rebel soldier who describes sustaining eight days of air strikes and mortar attacks from "Gaddafi's dogs," as he calls the loyalist forces.
Challenges for Small World News
All this, of course, begs the question of safety.
Of his travels into Benghazi last Friday, Conley said "it was totally safe." He had no issues getting through and it was calm the entire time.
But, he added, "the biggest issue is that there is a lot of confusion about who can be approved press. People are scared when they see Libyans shooting video because there is a lot of paranoia related to the possibility of pro-Gaddafi loyalists and infiltrators," Conley said. "It's certainly well-warranted, especially after the killing of an Al Jazeera journalist recently."
Obviously, trust and stress have also been issues.
"Making sure that everyone feels comfortable, and figuring out how to make sure the opposition recognize that we are here to help and also that we have been invited" is a challenge, Conley said. "It's just a very fluid situation. While it's more or less physically safe, there is a lot of tension in the air, a lot of stress," he notes.
There have been technical issues, too. For one, the account for the team's satellite equipment had not been activated, and Conley found out that credit had never been applied to it. It took a few days to get it running, but when we chatted with him, the situation had been tested and was working.
Worldwide cooperation, worldwide success
Despite the inherent challenges in working from Libya, there have been significant successes for Small World News. Chiefly, it has posted a lot of video on Alive in Libya -- almost half a gigabyte.
"We've been able to get 20 or 30 clips up," Conley said, and some content is still being translated. The team relies on the same translators that helped with efforts in Egypt. Subtitles are being done using Universal Subtitles for now, especially as the Internet remains slow. For example, the soldier interview above was translated by DC-based journalist Dana Zureikat Daoud.
For communication purposes, mobiles "have not turned out to be particularly useful at this point," Conley said. He and his partner originally brought six HTC Wildfire phones, but were not able to set up three of them. Text messaging is "totally disconnected" in the area, the networks have been "up and down," and there is no GPRS service, he said.
Recently, Conley reported that all mobile networks were down. Previously, they had a signal, but calls would not go through. Now, there is no signal at all. But people, especially journalists, have been using Nokia E72 and similar phones to capture footage.
Conley notes the important role mobile phones play in collecting and sharing video, especially over Bluetooth.
"That's a prime way that we have been viewing videos from locals," he said. "There is a big role for mobiles in media production and distribution, just not in terms of communication right now."
For now, on-the-ground communication seems best conducted person-to-person and via individual training.