Nokia texting mobile phone
Credit: Image by kiwanja on Flickr. Some rights reserved

On Saturday Sierra Leone went to the polls. The story of the elections was covered by a group of newly-trained citizen journalists posting updates by SMS, most using basic 'green screen' Nokia mobile phones.

Those text reports, giving details such as the number of people waiting at a polling station, quotes from voters, and colour such as "no electricity at Femi Turner station Godrich as it is an unfinished building, NEC agents using lamps to count", were sent for the price of a local text and received to a Gmail account in London, from where they were verified, curated and manually posted to Twitter.

Through journalism training and using cheap-to-use technology, the enthusiastic reporters, many of whom were in areas of Sierra Leone with no electricity or access to computers, were able to share reports with those online.

One citizen journalist, who had both arms cut off at the elbow during the civil war, was able to use the pincer mechanism built on the end of his arm by doctors, to text and therefore to report.

More people have a mobile phone in Sierra Leone than have access to electricityLibby Powell
This was the first project by Radar, which trains citizen reporters and encourages offline communities to connect with the online world.

Libby Powell, a freelance journalist with a background in development who came up with the idea for Radar, said: "Our model is that we are giving people the skills to send micro-reports by SMS that will then be uploaded onto Twitter, Tumblr and news blogs, on their behalf."

Powell has just returned from a month in Sierra Leone where she led three days training in three different locations: the capital Freetown, the second city of Bo, and Kabala in the northern district of Koinadugu, which she said "is off the electric grid and has no public internet access points and is the poorest district in Sierra Leone".

In Kabala 90 per cent of the trainees had never used a computer or seen or used any internet, Powell told, "so it was really quite exciting that on election day we had their messages up on Twitter because that is something that just wouldn't have been thought of or feasible maybe a month ago".

"More people have a mobile phone in Sierra Leone than have access to electricity," Powell said.

Election day

Crowdmap Sierra Leone elections

On Saturday (17 November) Powell was woken up at 5am by a phone call from one of the media coordinators who was "full of beans and excitement and in the dark streets of Freetown where there were thousands of people already waiting outside a polling station".

Powell logged into her Gmail account where the text messages were being received. Radar was using technology from a Google Labs project that allowed the reporters to text a local number in Sierra Leone, with them being accessed in the UK by Gmail. The system also allows for texts from Gmail to mobiles in Sierra Leone free of charge.

"It's ideal because it makes it even cheaper and more affordable for them to communicate with us back in the UK," Powell added.

"And it means that it's ideal for working online because all of the texts can be copied and pasted directly online or onto Twitter."

The Radar team in the UK, namely Powell, Alice Klein, and programme officer Kiran Flynn, curated the reports, posting most of them to the @On_Our_Radar Twitter account.

"Sixteen hours we were still reporting. I was just stunned by what the journalists achieved having had just three days of training," Powell said.

During the course of the day Radar had received 150 SMS reports culminating in 135 tweets and 120 reports on a Crowdmap. They also created an audiovisual feed on Tumblr.

Radar Twitter

"These reports were fascinating, they were verified, they were impartial and they really, really gave a sense of what was happening in Freetown, in Kabala and in Bo, very different communities in Sierra Leone.

"I felt like I was there, it was amazing."

Powell said it was one of the "most active Twitter feeds on the elections", with the SMS reports gathering attention and retweets from journalists and the EU observer teams on the ground.

And for those wondering how people charge their phones in areas that are off the national grid, they use generator-powered tele-charging centres.

"They are on every street," Powell explained. "These places are crazy places, they are chock-full of wires and phones and they provide a bit of a social hub while you sit and wait for your phone to charge."

How it all began

Radar's model of giving offline citizens a reporting tool came about due to Powell's experience as a freelance journalist pitching to foreign newsdesks.

Before training as a journalist she had worked in development and used her experience to make this her niche. But she soon found editors wanting reports from those in the different communities rather than from "a white, middle-class female journalist".

"I found it really hard when I first qualified because – quite rightly, and I agree with this – editors were rejecting my stories because they wanted to hear from those who were genuinely affected by that story.

It's hard when you are watching those stories end up in the bin because they are not being covered, and that is usually because there is no capacity to report or no skills training to report in those placesLibby Powell
"I agree with it but it's hard when you are watching those stories end up in the bin because they are not being covered, and that is usually because there is no capacity to report or no skills training to report in those places."

Powell had an idea which would see her use her experience as a journalist, connections with editors and knowledge of development to create a training programme around mobile reporting.

"I felt sure that if we could build a project which gave people the capacity to at least send story ideas or media alerts and basic reporting, then we would be doing a service for the foreign editors here who are desperate for those stories, and we would be, as young journalists, engaged in something that perhaps is more exciting than our own byline and would allow us to be part of something which I think is the future for foreign reporting. And it's so simple."

Before the idea was fully formed, Powell ran the model by a businessman contact. By the end of the conversation he had pledged the £15,000 she estimated it would cost to set up.

A story in Sierra Leone

Powell decided that Sierra Leone would be the location of the first citizen journalism programme due to the elections and "in the wake of the cholera outbreak which affected the communities there".

"We felt very strongly that it was a good time to bring very basic training in to an active civil society," she said.

Radar worked with a local partner, Leonard Cheshire Disability, to find people with an interest in the media who would welcome training, but who were not journalists, published bloggers or those with communications backgrounds.

Instead Radar was keen to "attract people who had an interest in the media, who had an interest in being vocal in society, and who were well-placed within their communities to report on stories where Western journalists probably wouldn't get a look in".

Powell, with the help of a local fixer, trained men and women aged 16 to 60, 60 per cent of whom have a disability, with one trainee making a 16-hour journey from Koindu, close to the border with Guinea and Liberia, to Bo to participate.

These was the third elections since the civil war and "there was a huge amount of tension and excitement," Powell said.

The training

Radar was keen to impart principles of journalism and stress the importance of unbiased reporting.

What we saw during election day was some superb reporting from the journalists and you would never have been able to tell who they were voting forLibby Powell
"We said right at the beginning of the training that 'we know you are all coming to this with the hope that your party is going to get in'," Powell explained.

"What we saw during election day was some superb reporting from the journalists and you would never have been able to tell who they were voting for."

Independent reporters

Powell was keen to create an online presence for Radar that signals its backing of independent citizen journalists rather than creating a "bureau of reporters".

"We felt very much that we were a facilitator and a trainer and, if anything, a support service. We can say 'here are some journalists that we notice and are promoting and pushing, but they don't belong to us, they are independent'."

Inspiring stories

One of those independent reporters is Patrick Lahai, who lives in Bo in the south of the country.

Lahai told Powell that as a young boy he had both his arms amputated by the rebels during the civil war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross operated on Lahai and "in an amazing operation, split the end of his stump on one of his arms which allowed him to have a mobile pincer at the end".

"That means he can do so many things for himself; he rides a bike, he can hold a pen, but he can also use a mobile phone," Powell said.

"It was amazing to watch him in the training session sending, quite rapidly, SMS updates to us. It just shows the huge capacity that people have to move on and to adapt."

Patrick Lahai
Patrick Lahai. Image courtesy of Radar

On Saturday Lahai was one of Radar's most active texters.

Powell sent an SMS to Lahai "asking him how he felt having suffered so much violence at the hands of the RUF", with the rebels having formed a political party running in the elections.

He replied with "a very poignant text", which read:

"I feel good abt RUF having a political party. It's total democracy bcos they too are citizens" Patrick Lahai dble amputee.

"I just felt like it was such a wonderful way to close the SMS reports from the day and knowing it had come from him meant that I felt the project had been a huge success," Powell said.

A first commission

And that was not the only success for Radar's first project.

One reporter, a young disability activist called Seray Bangura, received a paid commission from the Guardian.
"He was at a meeting of disability groups when he heard that a braille system of voting was going to be scrapped.

"There was horror at this as it was taking away something that had been hugely invested in and it was seen as a big step backwards for the rights of blind and visually impaired voters who would then have to rely on somebody to vote for them.

"He sent an SMS with that fact before it broke on any of the African newspapers, and we were able to send that over to the Guardian and it got picked up by their development desk."

Powell worked with Bangura on creating a full story. That was published on the Guardian Development Blog on Friday morning (16 November).

"Saray has never ever had anything in the media before, it was hugely exciting for him. It means he has his first paid commission and I think it was a hugely important and crucial story to break."

According to Powell, Bangura received £87 from the Guardian.

Radar passed 100 per cent of each commission to the citizen journalist, something it will continue to do going forward, raising money for projects through funding rather than building a business model where it takes a cut.

"£87 goes along way in Sierra Leone and it's a great motivator for the other trainees to have seen that Seray's story got picked up," Powell said.

The organisation, which plans to apply for charitable status, also commissions story ideas.

"We knew that it would be hard to encourage reporters to invest time and money if they are getting nothing back, and not everyone will be a Seray and get picked up and have a paid commission.

"We have a process of trying to stimulate story ideas because we know the Western audience and as young journalists ourselves we know what kind of stories might be picked up."

Radar pays its reporters $15 per story idea. "That doesn't seem very much but our aim is to generate that story and then sell it to the press on behalf of the trainees".

The $15 "is a nod to their time and effort, it covers their phone credit and transport and is a bit of a motivator and gives them a bit of credibility in that they are paid journalists and they are being respected as such".

Polling day is now over and the election results are expected next week. In the 10 days between polling and the results, the journalists may find election-related stories to cover.

Radar can "turn to crisis reporting", if necessary, she added. The stream of information "doesn't sleep".

What is next for Radar?

Powell hopes that Radar will not only train citizen journalists but will also support and offer new mobile journalism training for poorly-paid and under-resourced local journalists "to help them get their voices beyond their borders and stories picked up on digital news sites".

Mobiles are everywhere, they are in everybody's pockets, even in crisisLibby Powell
Her plan is to take the Radar citizen journalism training to the country where she first saw the value in mobile phone reports: Sri Lanka.

During a visit to the country earlier this year she "realised quite how integral mobile phone footage had been during the civil war, and the role that very grainy but crucial footage would play as and when there is a tribunal".

The majority of the Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, which reports on atrocities during the civil war, was shot on mobile phones.

"Mobiles are everywhere, they are in everybody's pockets, even in crisis," Powell said.

If Radar secures funding, Powell will go there to train in spring 2013. Radar wants to bring together the Tamil and Sinhalese communities and train them "as a network of citizen journalists so that they can report not just on conflict but on natural resources, on the use of land, on development, on culture.

"We don't tell people what to report, it's a skill that we are giving people and I think mobile phone-based journalism is ideal for Sri Lanka, I hope it will go very far."

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