Radar has been using Google's Gmail SMS tool since its first project covering the 2012 elections in Sierra Leone – training local reporters to submit reports via SMS and then distributing the stories to news outlets. UK-based co-founder Libby Powell said she now feels the need to bring these capabilities in-house.
"We had about 45 reporters we were training in Sierra Leone for the election but we very quickly grew and now have over 250 reporters in four different country sites," Powell told Journalism.co.uk. "We outgrew that tool very quickly and it's been quite frustrating when we've been doing things like the Kenyan elections, where we trained 120 people, and had people giving their perspectives from East Africa on the Western African situation. It has became much more complicated."
As such, Radar wants to create its own platform, and is currently raising crowdfunding through Indiegogo, to act as a secure channel for reports submitted via SMS and as a mobile news hub that editors can access and manage on a smartphone.
The mobile editorial hub
"A key thing is that Gmail SMS only works on a desktop and I can't tell you how frustrating that is as a mobile news team," said Powell. "We're a very small team, we're very light on our feet and we all train reporters. [Co-founder] Alice [Klein] and I have three or four different countries that we'll be in between now and December and we need to be able to move and talk to each other."
The basis of the idea for Radar, explained Powell, was to create a global news team "partly fed by mobile reporters and partly fed by mobile editors". Having now realised that such a project would not be possible using third-party software, they have enlisted software developers Tobias Quinn and Oliver Bettany to build it from scratch.
"As much as possible of the process will be automated," Quinn told Journalism.co.uk. "So someone would send a report from, say, Sierra Leone. They text a report to the local number and that then gets picked up by whatever means we have for that specific area to receive the SMS and it gets pushed into our system."
The software then discerns which editor is managing the story and reporter, what stage the reporting is at, and sends a push notification to the editor's smartphone.
"Within a minute of the original message being sent it appears on someone's phone," said Quinn. "It can then be edited, or categorised, or integrated into another report, or sent out to one of our streams, like Twitter."
As Radar expands, Powell said the need for adequate technical infrastructure to support the project is vital. One of the organisation's founding tenets is in giving a voice to some of the most marginalised communities around the world. "In the slums, we live by SMS," begins a quote from Mohamed Camara, a reporter from Freetown in Sierra Leone, on the Indiegogo page – so making the whole process mobile was the next logical step.
"You can do this anywhere and it's the idea of a mobile news team," said Powell. "The mobile element is not just in the extraction but is in the management ... and everyone can take part in the news production on the move."
Improving security and control
Reporters' security has also been a concern and although reports will still go through mobile network providers, the team believe in "taking away the middle man".
"We're starting to encourage some of our more active reporters to report on some of the more hidden stories in their communities already," she said. "For example, we had a story Alice was managing coming from Mombasa on homophobic attacks and it was fraught with difficulties. [The reporter] had some footage and didn't know how to send it and she didn't know how to talk about it on text because it was so incriminating and it was a real challenge for us."
Other stories included reports on forced child labour in mines, or acid attacks in Dalit (untouchable) communities in India, or serious levels of corporate malpractice, all of which require a level of security and responsibility. Radar takes the security of its reporters seriously and makes sure that everyone is aware of the risks from the first day of training.
"The bedrock of what we can achieve is to say that everything you are sending is tracked and recorded somewhere," Powell said. And that's a very new concept to us even in digital east London [where she is based], let alone to groups that are only just accessing the internet. We see that as a key part of the training is to introduce digital security and mobile security from the start."
Quinn explained that the new platform will be built so the team can separate off reports coming from specific areas and monitor them more closely. "We just weren't able to achieve anything like that using say the Google system and other off the shelf ones."
Funding the project
The team are looking to raise £11,500 on Indiegogo – to be match-funded by the original funder which enabled Radar to launch – to turn the new platform from a prototype into a fully functioning, globally accessible app.
"It's integrating all of this together and testing it on different platforms," said Quinn, "ironing out the parts to do with number procurement. We're working with a lot of telecoms providers because there's not one that can actually provide everything that we need."
Quinn and Bettany are rolling out in an "iterative cycle" to integrate with different systems and services and to build on how the editorial side and workflow will function.
"We're doing a roll out in September and then each month we're covering more areas," he said. "So in terms of the technical side, it's placing information in the right places around the world and building relationships with data providers and server providers and the right legal frameworks."
Powell said that members of the Radar team were hoping to build relationships in creating this technology in the same way they have formed global relationships with reporters and publishers.
"We are very much looking to collaborate with projects and technology that are out there," Powell said. "If someone comes and they say that they've got this project that's started or this skill set or this tool and they really think there's a match then we'd really like to hear from them."