As world events like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Japanese tsunami disaster have shown, YouTube and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have the capacity to turn just about anyone into a journalist.
It's a trend that leaves some traditional media outlets skeptical, or even downright disgruntled. But when media has the chance to spread out to include more voices, particularly in regions where it's a challenge to get the news out, citizen journalists can offer news and insight on critical events that would otherwise go under-reported.
That's why Ashoka Changemakers came up with a competition that seeks the most innovative projects in citizen media. The Google-supported contest, called "Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition," was launched in July and drew a hefty 426 entries from 75 countries. Ashoka just announced 11 finalists who were selected for their ability to bolster media access and citizen participation when information is limited.
Mobile was a major theme running through many of the finalists -- most likely because in developing nations, mobile phone use is often more widespread than Internet connectivity, so many people depend on their cell phones as a way to receive crucial information. Open-source software was the platform of choice for many entries. For more on that, Knight-Mozilla's Dan Sinker has written quite a bit on the intersection of open-source culture and journalism. Security, too, loomed large among entries. Anyone who followed the Arab Spring probably saw examples of how anonymity and security are necessary for real-time reporting of conflicts.
These are real-world issues that are changing the face of journalism as we know it. Mainstream media should take heed -- and find out how similar innovations could benefit traditional journalism.
On the forefront of citizen media
Here are some details about the finalists:
CGNet Swara -- It's no secret that rural regions with limited Internet access often depend on mobile phones as a way to report stories during times of crisis. CGNet Swara is a free voice-based reporting service that lets people report and listen to stories of local interest. The organization says the stories are moderated by trained journalists, and are available both online and over the phone.
CrowdVoice.org -- CrowdVoice is the brainchild of Mideast Youth, a network that aims to eliminate extremist ideologies and ignorance in the Middle East. CrowdVoice offers a way to view, share, moderate and organize information about human rights movements and demonstrations.
Demotix -- Demotix is a citizen journalism site and photo agency that helps freelance journalists and citizens share and license their content. The organization says it aims to "engage all potential citizen journalists, and distribute their news into the local grids of mainstream news editors -- all over the world." It made a name for itself partly from its coverage of the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict and the G20 protests in London.
Meedan -- This Arabic-English social technology service is working on how to get stories from citizen journalists on the ground during times of crisis. To that end, it's created a digital newsroom where "journalists and citizens in the Arab world can work together," according to the organization. Meeden aims to connect journalists at mainstream media outlets with citizen reporters using collaborative, cross-language curation technology.
InSTEDD iLab América Latina -- This Argentinian organization is interested in a crowdsourcing model in which everyone plays a role in creating and extending a news story. "As far as we know there is no way right now to evolve a picture of the truth made of bites of information contributed and validated by a distributed group of citizens and journalists," InSTEDD explains.
5th Pillar -- This grass-roots coalition aims to empower citizens to seek transparency and accountability in governance and to bolster civic participation. Its "anti-corruption" tools work to help citizens crusade against corruption.
FreedomBox -- This startup has been operating for less than a year and is touting private, anonymous and secure communication in a box. The company plans to integrate privacy protection on a cheap plug server so you can have privacy without worrying about your data being mined.
FrontlineSMS -- Open-source software FrontlineSMS is a 2011 Knight News Challenge winner. You can read more about the software here. FrontlineSMS can turn a low-end computer connected to a mobile phone or GSM modem into an SMS hub, allowing for two-way communication with large groups of people. As FrontlineSMS's Sean McDonald explained, SMS messages can be sent from any handset, and can quickly move small packets of data in places where nothing else works. Because FrontlineSMS works anywhere there's a basic mobile signal, and doesn't require the Internet, it's primarily used to reach those who don't have other communications tools available to them.
MobileActive.org -- MobileActive is a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner. You can read more about the organization and its Mobile Media Toolkit here on Idea Lab. MobileActive's "Journalist on an SD Card" entry takes the Mobile Media Toolkit a step further. "It literally puts mobile media into the hands of journalists, via SD cars that are used on a journalists own mobile device," MobileActive says. Eight apps will be available in both low-connectivity and wired/connected environments and will be tested in the field with a team of reporters from Al Jazeera English.
Serval Project -- Serval is open-source software that allows cell phones to work without a telecommunications infrastructure during a crisis by using the Wi-Fi radio in cell phones to create a P2P telephony and data service. It acts like a regular cellular network and uses existing phone numbers, but without relying on an external infrastructure.
Sourcefabric -- This non-profit organization provides open-source tools and services for journalists including Airtime for radio automation and Newscoop CMS for newspapers. Its Superdesk tool aims to offer new ways for journalists to source, manage, verify and present the facts behind a story.
The finalists will be whittled down to four winners in a public, online vote. Each winner will receive a $5,000 prize and will be considered for an Ashoka fellowship that provides a three-year living stipend. Do you have an opinion on which of the finalists should win? You have until Nov. 23 to vote on it here.