i-c4f678dc998880d296df3acb8b9f41e7-Erik Sundelof of Stanford.jpg
Perhaps some day in the not so distant future, every person on the planet who has a cell phone camera will be able to snap a photo of a newsworthy event happening in front of them and easily send it to a web clearinghouse of such news images. That’s the dream of Erik Sundelof (pictured at left), a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, a program that aims to develop technology to advance humanitarian goals in underserved communities.

While there are plenty of big news outlets such as the BBC that accept photo and video submissions from their audience, and phone services that let you send photos to moblogs or mobile blogs, the idea of one global service for submissions from every type of cell phone hasn’t caught on yet.

Sundelof has spent much of the past school year at Stanford developing a prototype of such a service, currently mocked up at InTheFieldOnline.net. I met him for lunch and he showed me how simple the system was. Take a photo or video with your camera phone. Send a text message with attachment to an email address, and voila! it’s posted to the site after just a brief delay. He’s tested it in rural villages in India, and with his parents in Sweden, where he grew up.

At the moment, he’s working on a “cooler version” of the service in the hopes of attracting Silicon Valley funding, or perhaps paying customers who run newspaper sites or other media outlets. His hope is to build an open source software platform — with programming code that can be improved and modified by anyone — to enable people to send in photos or video to central sites or to their blogs or websites of their choice. The simpler, the better.

I was impressed with Sundelof’s knowledge of citizen journalism and his hopes for its future, envisioning a time when more people could help tell the stories around them, and traditional media might merge with the best citizen contributions to tell a more complete truth. Even though he has more of a background in technology than in media, Sundelof has an interesting philosophy about citizen journalism and takes an outsider’s perspective on hot-button issues such as moderating forums (he likes them more open) and personalized news (he doesn’t think people should be able to filter out bad news).

The following is an edited transcript of our wide-ranging discussion on his project and the shifting media landscape.

What first got you interested in citizen journalism?

Erik Sundelof: Before I came here to Stanford [in September 2005], I’d never worked with citizen media. And I came here because the Reuters Foundation wants to help their organization to develop open source media software. When I came here I thought, what can we do for them that is something new? The problem with open source software is that they tend to copycat. Like OpenOffice is just a copy of Microsoft Office. They’re not doing anything new. They’re not trying to compete by doing anything new, they’re just trying to beat the price.

I started to think about what would be my first thought after a car bomb went off. Certainly not to run to an Internet cafe. That’s probably the last thing I would think about. But I might call my friends with my cell phone to tell them I’m all right. Then you have your phone out, so now the possibility is that you could also record that, shoot it and send it to Reuters, the BBC or wherever. That would be a great tool to really create a vehicle and channel for those people to get their frustration out, that would help the democracy part.

I have been dealing with blogs but never put a category of citizen media on it. I don’t see the need for putting a label on it as ‘citizen media’ — why not just call it media. Because everything else is just called news and it depends on how you present it, how you package it and mash it up.

When I was at the We Media conference at Reuters in London, I learned that Reuters is thinking a lot about this subject of citizen journalism, but they also have all these professional journalists out in the field, so they are trying to figure out how to make it work.

Sundelof: I think the right combination is to have the [reported] article and then a small box with a way to give users to tell their side of the story, their contribution.

How do you moderate that? How do you filter it?

Sundelof: I think it becomes easier when you’re using cell phone technology, when the user needs their identification. You need to make sure the news is all accurate and that the news is coming from the location where it happened, which is easier if you have a computer but with a cell phone you have to do triangulation. If you’re not Google, you don’t have the money to do that. So without money, you have to make a deal with a cell phone service.

They have to have a global positioning system (GPS) to know where you are?

Sundelof: You can still use triangulation to find out which cell tower the call is coming from. Then you need to map that, which takes time and resources, and you end up needing Google, because they can get the attention of cell phone providers. [Cell phone companies] won’t listen to smaller organizations, I think that’s the main problem.

During the flooding in New Orleans after Katrina, people who were stranded in homes were sending text messages from their cell phones to friends to tell them where they were. Those messages were posted to a blog at the Times-Picayune newspaper’s website, which then was read by emergency crews who went out and saved the people.

Sundelof: There were similar things after the Pakistan earthquake, because the only thing people could rely on was text messages. The volume of calls becomes so high that you can’t get through by voice but you can get through with text messages because it uses less data. What is lacking is the way to organize the material when it comes in. There’s so many people sending in material, that it’s difficult to authenticate everything quickly. You need to have permission from the network provider. They have to be able to give you that information, and there are a whole lot of legal issues there.

There are many different aspects to this, and the cell phone is a perfect complement to news contributed to the web. You can get it online easily. There were similar things going on after the London bombings, but the media collected that and then put it up on the web. It would have been better if you could just upload it immediately.

There are numerous examples of similar stuff going on but the big news organizations don’t get it at all. They get stuck in details and legal issues that they really shouldn’t care about. I can understand that the lawyers [worry about unfiltered material] but there are always ways around it.

It’s a control issue, not wanting to give up control. There’s a fear that if there are citizen journalists, then what’s the role of the professional journalists? Someone encroaching on their turf and not being paid anything or being paid very little. So the professionals are afraid their whole purpose is disappearing but I don’t think it’s really true.

Sundelof: They have a clearer purpose because they can actually focus on bigger events and present more well thought out articles…Events like Rodney King and similar events, it’s really interesting to have cell phones as part of the scene. Because it’s much harder to get away with that if you have 40 people with cell phones sending it in. You can’t say, ‘No, it was not police brutality.’ Well we have 40 different people saying they saw it — with proof.

I really see an opening here for citizen contributions. The key here is that the media organizations need to realize they are losing control. They can’t really control [the news] now because people are posting this stuff to other blogs. I think it would be better to merge traditional reporting with citizen media rather than have a [totally] new media. To take the best of the old fashioned news organizations and bring in the power of the bloggers, because you have so many people investigating. Mix them and you have an extremely good organization and you’ll have content that’s really important in finding out the truth.

I guess it’s the idea of Yahoo News or Google News where they are trying to aggregate the different types of media on the same page.

Sundelof: I’m actually against Google News, the way it is now, because I don’t believe you should customize the news. You shouldn’t present to the person only what he wants to see. Then we’re creating narrow-minded people. They only see what they want to see, and when they hear something else, they say, ‘That didn’t happen.’ Well it did, but you chose to go to Google News and only see what you wanted to see all the time.

I think it’s really dangerous, because I don’t feel that news should be in the hands of such a big corporation such as Google. There’s already a problem here in the States over the ownership structure of news companies. I don’t think the solution is to go to one big company instead and say that Google News should solve it all. I think users like it because then they don’t get so upset. They get exposed to just the things they want to get exposed to.

I know that people here use their cell phones differently than they do in Europe or Japan. And in Africa, the landlines are so bad that cell phones have taken over as means for communication. It’s much more important in developing nations.

Sundelof: It’s much cheaper to build the infrastructure for cell phones, and Africa is the most perfect place for launching any cell phone service because it’s so flat you don’t have trouble with the base stations, you don’t need that many. You can still get decent coverage, of course you do have the problem with dictators which you can’t really solve.

But in Asia you don’t need to get that much money for each transaction because you have so many people. If you add up the people in China and India, you have one fourth of the population of the world. If they send one message each, and you say they pay $1 each per year, that’s $2 billion. There’s no way that your cost for setting up the system will match that $2 billion. It’s not even close. That’s where you have the big markets, because you don’t have to charge them much at all.

We’re running a number of test cases. We have been running this in India and have tried it out in most parts of the world. It’s worked well in the rural parts of India. We tried it out with an organization called Video Volunteers. They are bringing in solutions for people to do their own documentaries in villages in India. They go over there, hand over the video equipment, teach them how to use the equipment and edit the video, and let them do what they want. They’re creating a dialogue without the Internet. Information technology is not always about the Internet.

I want to make sure even my parents in Sweden can do it. They just have to remember a number.

How does InTheFieldOnline.net differ from all the moblogging functions that cell phone companies offer, or sites such as moblogUK, which offers free blog space for camera phone pictures?

Sundelof: They are similar but to some extent they are lacking in simplicity. If you don’t do everything right, you are thrown out of the system. I say we just capture it all and do the best we can.

It’s more of an open system?

Sundelof: Yes, that’s right. They usually don’t support other cell phone services. They say you have to post it on a moblog, I say you can post it anywhere. So you can post to Flickr or Blogger or Drupal. The difference is we allow people to post on the media of their choice, rather than on my site, I don’t care.

*****

What do you think of such a service? Can citizen journalism via cell phones help enhance the news? Would you use this service? How? Share your thoughts in the comments below. I’ll be updating this blog post when Sundelof unveils the next version of his prototype in the next few weeks.