Libby Powell: giving the margins a voice with radar (Hacks/Hackers Brighton)

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Libby Powell

  • Warning: liveblogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling typos. Some of them will be mine, some of them auto-correct’s. But don’t say you weren’t warned…*

Libby Powell became a hack through entering a Guardian competition and writing an article about the overseas development work she was doing. She became a freelancer, but after a year began to feel like a bit of a fraud, writing about things she had no experience of. During a trip to Sierra Leone, she became aware of how much people’s inability to tell the story of what they’d suffered was damaging to them. Everyone had phones, and was recording this stuff – but it wasn’t getting published because it wasn’t sexy enough for the mainstream media.

The media is powerful. You’re telling people everything about people they’ve never met. Get it wrong, and you can do so much damage. People from the margins can improve quality and accountability more than those in the centre.

People kept telling her she was joining a sinking ship: journalism. She didn’t feel that – to her it was a rising body, but one that was shedding some old skin. Media is still an elite, production of media is elite. 2/3s of the world’s population is not yet online. As we switch to online, we shed those. That matters if you care about freedom, truth and exposure.

Rivers used to be the medium of communication and trade. Africa suffered because it lacked navigable rivers – and then road, and now connectivity. Those who are the last to connect, will be the last to tell their stories, or trade their goods. The most vulnerable are the ones least able to tell their stories.

**Give people in the margins a digital voice **

So, she formed radar. They’d use their currency as journalists to train the next generation to tell their own stories. They’d give people access to digital channels, via mobile to digital technology. They’d give people access to decision making, both editorial and political. Anyone who thinks that the whole world will be connected by 2020 is out of their mind. Social exclusion will control access to connectivity. Women will be prevented from accessing technology by social factors. People with disabilities are in the margins of society. So, they identify the people in the margins. They don’t set up local offices, but find the people they trust – and approach them.

They started training using recycled NCTJ material. They started micro – with stories told by SMS. How can you teach people how to tell stories in 140 characters? It’s easier to teach non-journalists that than people who have been trained to write lots of words. They teach the five “w”s. It centres people in a crisis. They are not technology-based, but human-based. They keep a human connection to people – and so they will never sclae to the Reuters level. They want to know the people they work with. The big platforms are getting so greedy for user content that they can’t realisticly verify it anymore. Knowing the person make s ahuge difference to them.

She doesn’t want this to be Doom Zone. Things are really ahrd for the reporters they work with. Some of that is unlearning steroetypes – you’re not just interesting ebcause you’ve lost a limb. A disabled person doesn’t have to report in disability all the time. It opens the floodgates once people understand that. They’ve had stories on Sollywood, Sierra Leone’s emerging film industry.

They started on Tumblr, and used a SMS to Gmail tool to get it to work. But it’s designed as a personal tool – so they ahd to work around the limitations. They run their digital hub from the UK. They don’t write the stories – they amplify them. They tweet them, and send them to journalists. They get the repoerters interview slots. They do everything from their reporters they would do for themselves.

Tumblr is “great, love it”. But they decided to invest in tech of their own – which was bold, because they weren’t paying themselves yet. They built a microsite around the idea that mapping is really exciting right now. The maps show the stories as they come in, allowing people to explore the stories geographically. In August, they hope to have an “Explore” tab on their site. They can’t talk much about it yet, but they’re talking to gamers and thinking about how to sue multimedia to really engage with stories. Too often stories from the margins are treated as add-ons. They want to build one of the best storytelling platforms in the world to support this.

International Efforts

They want to move rights beyond the “right to be told” to the “right to tell”. The idea of right to communicate is very stunted – we need to be very away of creating dialouge. They’re doing Kenya, India and Siarra Leone – and new the UK. The majority of Bradford’s population are middle-aged Muslim women, When do you see one of them as a reporter?

They’ve had coverage on the BBC and Al Jazeera. Their reporters “owned” Twitter during the Sierra Leone elections. Most of the groups they work with are off-grid and reply on SMS to communicate.

In Kenya, the women are almost invisble in the technology development and media. They targeted mothers and grandmothers, and mapped their work, reporting crimes and violence – but also “cool spots” where everything was OK. Stories are built SMS by SMS – often the base team text question back for more details.

In India, much of their work focuses on the untouchables. There have been seven acid attacks on girls in one district – and they triage by caste in the hospitals. One woman and her father wasn’t allowed into the police station because of their caste. They’re working with digital storytellers on ways of telling these stories more vividly. Stories need graphics and they need to move, if they’re to move you…

Google and The Guardian invited them to an event – Big Tent Activate – and they brought some of their reporter with them – and evey one of them was rejected by the hotel security staff. But they got them in, and they got to pitch their stories to the Guardian.

Her experiences as an aid worker and a journalist have horrified her, ebcasue of the ease in which she can come and go from these troubled parts of the world. Can she make herself a mule to bring people’s voices in and out? They need other people who feel this. They need editors, listeners, hackers… If you have a couple of hours to give, then let her know.

The SMS Gateway

They’re using standard SMS gateways, based on http. They’re putting teh data into a graph database to track relationships inherent in the stories. Each bit of data goes in, and the relationships get modelled. Intially they produce flat form stories, but as they develop the website, they’ll start to expose how the story came about and developed, from the point the first text came in.

The UK pilot will include multimedia attachments, as even the cheapest UK phone can take photos.


How do you give back to your reporters?

We let them know we got it. A Tweet of a submission is one credit, used in a blog post is two and external publication is five. Credits can be used for more training. If they ask for stories, they give them $10 – more than the average weekly wage. Texts are always local – and they’re looking at a free system, but there is a value in the cost as an editorial check. 5 to 6% of the stories have been published – and they get all of that money. One person in Sierra Leone has earned £250 for his stories – and has bought a new laptop and training with some of it. It’s hard to walk the line between news agancy and campaigning group. They’re linking with They lobby via Twitter, by directing articles at people.

How are you funded? How are you going to stay funded?

Having worked in development, she realises that the tools they have developed are valuable. Most of the third sector are woring off-grid, and they’re finding it hard to communicate, which means projects are fading. A visit every two years isn’t going to get real answers, because people are afraid you’ll take it away. So – they’re planning on pimping their tools. The training is lucrative, but adding the hubs and technology makes it far more so. They’re going to split radar into a charitable entity and a shark-like consultancy firm, that will bring in money to fund the groups who can’t pay.

How much knowledge transfer is going on from those you’ve trained? Can you create native language reporter networks?

The first few countries they worked with were primarily English speaking – but in India they weren’t – and many were deaf. So she was working both through a translator and a signer. Theire tool needs to be developed to work with non-Roman alphanumeric language systems.

How are you approaching getting editorial impact?

She loves that she was just linked with Wikileaks. Ideally they wouldn’t have gatekeepers – but they’ve always been a collaborative news agency. The editing gives people confidence to submit. They went without a website for a while – why move something from a closed community – a slum – to another – their website – when they can partner with people with traffic? They “shamed” The Guardian and the BBC into taking their coverage. They use Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter because they have traffic. And sometimes their reports are the only ones that come out of a country that month.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.