Hiber Labs event Jordan

7iberLabs meet-up in Jordan in January

Credit: Hiber Labs

Hacks/Hackers chapters and other meet-up groups that bring journalists and developers together are springing up across the Arab world.

Hacks/Hackers, which started in New York in 2009, have now spread to scores of cities across five continents. However, the Middle East groups are choosing not to use the term Hacks/Hackers as the groups' organisers feel "hackers" is a loaded term.

"The public have come to understand 'hackers' as having negative connotations," Ayman Salah, a Knight International Journalism Fellow, who set up the Tunis and Amman chapters told me.

Instead the groups refer to themselves as the "Media Innovation Initiative" within the countries.

Along with others in Hacks/Hackers Amman and Hacks/Hackers Tunis, Salah is also involved in plans to spread Swara, an audio reporting tool developed in India by a Knight International Journalism Fellow, across five countries: Jordan, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.

CGNet Swara is a messaging system for voice recordings to be made and retrieved using a phone. The International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) said that audio is what makes it powerful

"Rural people, who are very often illiterate, now have a two-way news source," Ben Colmery, deputy director, Knight International Journalism Fellowships, told me by email.

One of the huge benefits of Swara is that it can be used by anyone with access to a phone and does not rely on smartphone technology. And mobiles are popular across the region.

"For example, landlines were introduced in Egypt in 1920 and there are only 11 million nearly 100 years on and that number is decreasing," Salah said.

"Mobile phones were introduced commercially in Egypt in 1997 and there are now 74 million, in a country with a population of around 84 million."

And in Jordan the number of phones is now greater than the number of people: there are 6.2 million mobiles to a population of 6 million, he added.

Hacks/Hackers Amman

Hacks/Hackers Amman was set up in December and is working on an Android app for citizens to be able to send text, pic and video reports directly to news media. AmmanNet will moderate and publish these reports on their website, in a page similar to CNN’s iReport.

Salah also helped launch and attended an event which took place in February that was funded by Internews (you can see a Storify of the event here). He led sessions at the innovation event and was one of the judges selecting the ideas that for seed funding.

Those who took part in the event came up with a number of ideas, one which relies on mobile, another based on a crowdsourced map.

Banadora: A mobile solution to a problem of too many tomatoes

Banadora is a play on Pandora's box and Banadora, the name given to tomatoes in Jordan.

It was born out of a farming dilemma in the north of Jordan.

"Farmers who harvest tomatoes to sell to Amman or other cities are often forced to sell them at a price which is below the cost of production as supply outweighs demand," Salah said. "They throw them away as they don't have tomato processing factories to turn them into tomato paste."

The group came up with a way to let farmers communicate to work out whether they should harvest their tomatoes.

They are solving the costly problem with the help of SMS and Swara, which allows people to record news using a voicemail message system.

Haratna: A traffic light map connecting communities

Another project being developed by the Jordanian group is Haratna, the name given to small alleys or streets.

The concept is based on the fact that "people who live in the same streets have the same interests", Salah said.

Haratna will be a "platform between the people and the government", Salah said.

"If we have a problem with the sewers we can bring someone from the government into the platform to discuss and tell us what is happening."

The platform, which takes inspiration from micro volunteering site Sparked, will use SMS messaging and Ushahidi, an open source mapping tool which received much attention when it was used following the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

When a report is red it signals a problem has been flagged, when the authorities have been notified the report it turns yellow to denote it is under investigation and the map notification changes to green once fixed.

It will also integrate Twitter and Facebook to add a social dimension.

"It can be used to sell used clothes to neighbours, offer services, and if you play backgammon well and you need a competitor you can find it in Haratna," Salah said.

Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper has agreed to be a partner for Haratna, hosting the map and providing marketing.

Salah hopes it will encourage transparency. "If you can put this information into a newspaper it will show whether or not the government is working."

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