Citizen journalism is broken and this startup has a plan to fix it – Wired.co.uk
For billions of people around the world, having their voice heard on the global stage is hard. But that’s starting to change. “We want to lower the barrier to entry,” says Paul Myles, editorial manager of On Our Radar, a London-based nonprofit which aims to connect the world’s more unconnected locations.
Co-founded by journalist Libby Powell in 2012, the firm has worked in Sierra Leone, Malaysia, India, Ghana and beyond to tell stories from countries that traditional journalism struggles to reach. “We’re using design to try and bridge those gaps,” Myles says.
The six-person team, based above a coffee shop near Exmouth Market, comprises two journalists, a systems architect, designer and heads of operations and finance. All of On Our Radar’s projects have a simple aim: to determine what barriers are preventing people from getting their voices heard – and then design around them.
Its first project was to create a reporting network to cover the 2012 general election in Sierra Leone. “These communities have little access to electricity, they aren’t online and they prefer to use an old Nokia that they can charge once a week,” Myles says. “They’re not citizen journalists who are sharing their story on Twitter already.”
To address this, On Our Radar trained local residents in key reporting skills and then created an SMS and voice hub. This allowed anyone in Sierra Leone to tell their story for the same price as sending a local text message or making a phone call. All the reports were stored on an online content-management system monitored by the London team.
When Ebola hit Sierra Leone two years later, the network sprang back to life, giving On Our Radar access to first-hand reports from a country ravaged by the deadly virus. “The Ebola crisis was a situation in which traditional journalists were struggling to get into the country,” Myles says. “We were getting reports from some of the most affected communities in some of the most remote areas. It’s raw, authentic storytelling.”
The system can also be used to ask questions in return, with journalists in London able to send out messages and request more information. Reports submitted to On Our Radar were edited to create a wealth of audio, text and video reports that were then pitched to respected news organisations including Al Jazeera, the BBC, Channel 4, El País and Le Parisien, reaching an audience of millions.
After Sierra Leone, the team realised the platform they had built wasn’t a perfect fit for all the stories they wanted to tell. Its next project was a big departure. Working with Comic Relief, the team 3D-printed 40 mobile phones to help people in the UK with dementia talk about their daily lives. The phones had just five buttons: power, report, answer, volume up and volume down. “It’s not intimidating to use and is designed to be as simple as possible,” Myles says. People involved in the project could use the phones to call an answer-machine service and leave a message, tell a story or just talk about what was on their mind. In 2016, these stories were turned into Dementia Diaries, a short film that was purchased by The Guardian.
Current projects range from reporting on Togo’s trokosi slavery, also known as ritual servitude, to following the lives of female garment workers in Bangladesh and conducting science research into the impact of gas flaring on the Niger Delta.
Closer to home, a project is underway to report on social isolation in Blackpool. For this, Myles and his colleagues are designing a phone box-like booth where people can share stories in a safe, private space. Having spent time in the area, Myles noticed that the people visiting community centres would do so to connect with other people. “People coming to that space would kind of drift in and out of it, but part of their reason to go there is to connect with people, band together and have a laugh. So we wanted to come up with a more playful and tactile way for people to share their stories,” he explains. Inside the booth, an interactive screen will pose different questions each day. A mood board will also ask people to rate how they are feeling.
As with all On Our Radar’s work, the Blackpool project is about giving a voice to people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Myles explains: “User-generated content currently consists of an online news team with no budget embedding a few tweets and Facebook posts. But it also implies that there are only some people who are going to share their stories.” In an era of echo chambers, he’s hopeful that some people will be eager for a broader outlook. “The communities we work with are less likely to have the confidence to feel it’s worth them sharing their story. They’re not used to being listened to.”