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June 19, 2009, 9 a.m.

Knight News Challenge: Building a better toolkit for producing and sharing media on cell phones

Mobile was one of the big themes of this year’s Knight News Challenge; yesterday, we talked about the Kenyan mobile-crowdsourcing grantee Ushahidi. But it wasn’t the only cell-themed winner that promises to make spreading information in the developing world easier.

Katrin Verclas and her group MobileActive won a $200,000 grant to build new and better toolkits for the production and spread of media on cell phones. There are lots of tools already available, of course, but they’re spread haphazardly across phone types and cellular technologies — not to mention difficult to track down for a typical cell phone user, whatever her place in the world. With the Knight grant, they’ll assemble a database of what’s available and figure out what gaps need to be filled — for which phones, in which formats.

I talked with Katrin about her project, about the incredible pace of change in the mobile industry, and about how the current situation in Iran points to the potential of using diverse mobile technologies to create and share information.

Plus: augmented reality, Frank Gehry, and Indian Androids! Full transcript below.

Katrin Verclas: The grant is going towards what we right now call the Mobile Media Toolkit — it may get a catchier title than that. The idea is that there are all of these projects and tools out in the world of how people are using mobiles for media production, media dissemination. And there’s lots of products — both commercial, non-profit, open-source, closed-source, some only for particular phones, some more widely available, lots of different ways, using SMS for media platforms for that, et cetera — that are really hard to find. So if you are a journalist, a citizen, a media development organization, if you are somebody — a citizen journalist who would like to use your phone, you will have to painstakingly go out and try to find something that is appropriate for you. And since you may not know what’s available, it may be hard to do research.

So the idea is to aggregate tools and resources on how to use these tools in particular in one place, in an easily searchable database where we are featuring certain tools, where there’s lots of information on how to use them, case studies, possibly other users of those applications to (a) aggregate what’s there, what exists already, and where and how you can use it, and then (b) understand where are the gaps.

So, for example, in Iran right now, it’s pretty obvious in Iran with the SMS network down for the last five days — SMS being a really critical means to communicate — we really ought to look at: Are there more effective peer-to-peer kinds of tools that we can have on our mobiles that go beyond Bluetooth? Are there peer-to-peer platforms that, even if networks go down in crisis situations, for example — or just heavy usage, right, I mean? You know, on the mall at the Obama inauguration.

Joshua Benton: Right — even when there isn’t a government interfering.

Katrin: So, where are there gaps? Right? Where are there tools that we currently don’t have that need to be developed because they would aid and help in media dissemination, media development, citizen journalism, et cetera. So: one-stop resource, lots of easily findable tools, and that kind of meta-analysis of what are we missing at this point — where are there gaps?

Josh: Obviously it’s difficult to characterize what an average cell phone is like in the developing world because there are endless variety of different types of phones and capabilities. But think for the example that you just gave — if SMS is down — you know, what kinds of tools would be available on different phones that someone on the streets of Tehran might find useful? I mean, obviously it depends on the phone, it depends on the kinds of things you’re compiling — but can you give an example of the kinds of things that might be out there?

Katrin: Well, I mean if you’re, first of all, there’s a — even though we’re still talking about simple phones in many parts of the world, the proliferation of smartphones is pretty astonishing. I mean, HTC’s just introducing Android to the Indian market. In India for example, many phones have AM or FM radio. So, if you have AM/FM radio capabilities on your phone, you can use a whole new set of opportunities for media — community media, community radio, et cetera, combined with SMS in a normal situation. Lots of different ideas that we will gather.

The first step that we will do is go out to various communities, initially in the Knight network and then extend into other media organizations, to look at: Okay, what are you doing and what would you want to see? What do you need? What are your goals, and what are the kinds of strategies and tools that you’d need to accomplish the kind of reporting that you’d like to do? To then build a set of use cases and see what are the tools that actually exist, to augment what organizations want to do or what citizen reporters want to do.

In the case of Iran, as you just asked, I think you see the use video — but we are not seeing very much audio at all. So could there be better audio recording tools that actually then transmit — you know like we have here Utterli that lets just dial into a number and record audio — really kind of a mobile audio blog, if you will, or a podcast. What are the opportunities there — even in a situation where the network is down, where the SMS network is down but we can still make calls on occasion from a cell phone. Cell phones work, then they don’t work again.

But are there tools for example that would sync with a network when there is availability? Right? That actually caches information that you’d like to transmit, and then transmit it when the network is up.

Josh: Slipping in that small…

Katrin: Automatically. Exactly. Are there ways in which to distribute content in small packets that then can be reassembled somewhere else?

Josh: The IP model, right.

Katrin: Exactly. So you know — these are all sorts of ideas that we have right now, that are — some of them are half-baked and probably thrown out in the end. So the first step is really to do this kind of landscape analysis and aggregate everything that is already there and look at a variety of different areas, not just media. Sort of: What do we have available?

You know, as one example — brand new company actually called Layar, just came out yesterday I think. It is an Android application. It’s sort of an augmented reality tool. You look through your phone and you see — you have to have data access — but it grabs data on a particular…so let’s, for example here, we’re in a G— — in a Frank…

Josh: Frank Gehry.

Katrin: Frank Gehry! Thank you. Thank you. Frank Gehry building, right. So I would put my phone up and I would see this Frank Gehry building and I would get a little information about — okay, when was it built? Who the heck is Frank Gehry? What else did he do? That is a really interesting tool for media, for activism — you know, if you start to appropriate this. It’s not — it doesn’t necessarily immediately come to mind. You know, it’s this cool augmented reality tool — you know, very futuristic. But can we can appropriate that for the purposes of media development, for the purposes of activism?

So we’re just starting out — this is kind of a broad first look. And we’ll narrow in on specific things as we do, you know, our due diligence, our homework, and our research, to figure out what does it actually look like on the ground.

Josh: You said that you’ve been in this space for a few years now. I’m curious — that’s, in mobile terms, huge changes in terms of the penetration of devices, the abilities of devices. What has surprised you most about the way that you’ve seen this mass experimentation of — you know, hundreds of millions and billions of people who have cell phones who are using them in new ways. What surprised you most in the way that this has evolved?

Katrin: God, I’m not sure that I have answer to that. I don’t know — I’m like a sponge, I just soak it all in. I’m not sure that I…I can’t think of anything that has really startled me. I think the one thing maybe is that the speed of change, and the — coming out of the web world, it seems almost — and then we thought it was fast! — it seems almost, you know at snail’s pace…

Josh: It’s leisurely!

Katrin: …in comparison to this crazy mobile space. I mean, it is crazy. It’s more fragmented. It’s more complicated, in some ways. It’s more rapidly changing than I had originally thought — which it makes it all more challenging, but also way more interesting.

I’m a person who gets bored with things and I move on. I haven’t been bored since 2005, which is — I cannot say ever in my life! It hasn’t with — a work sort of focus. I just haven’t gotten bored. And there’s always so much more that is happening or that could happen, making this a really fascinating field. So I’m not sure that I would call it a surprise. It’s this great challenge and this great fun, really.

Josh: So the money that you’ve gotten from the Knight Foundation — at what point would we expect to see a product, you know, this accumulation of resources. Is there a timetable in mind?

Katrin: Oh yeah. So the grant is for, I believe, 18 months — we’re still in the process of negotiating the exact term. I am hoping that in the first six months, we have a good landscape analysis — an initial database of available tools. The second six months will be a lot more aggregation of and development of how-to resources, as well as translation of some of these. So there’ll be some localization happening.

I’m hoping to wrap this up in a year just because it is a very fast changing field. The way that we’re conceiving this also is to seed a lot of information. But we’re actually just launching a new site which will be entirely — it’ll bve very easy for users to input their tools, their case studies, their resources, their case studies. So we’re seeding it, but it’s very much going to depend on developing a really wide community who’s willing to share these kinds of tools, resources, case studies, research, etc.

So the way we set up the database now is infinitely expandable — the MobileActive database — it’s infinitely expandable around specific issue areas, whether that’s media or health, whatever it may be. You can find those kind of tools, you find the deployments on a map. You can search by functionality. You can search by all sorts of dimensions to be able to find lists, pull the data from a fairly substantial database to get what you need.

And there’s very easy ways to input data online. It’s a little onerous. We ask for a lot of information. We’ll solicit a lot, we’ll prod, we’ll nag, we’ll do whatever. We’ll be knocking at every Knight grantee’s door who has anything to do with mobile. It’s a little bit of a sleuthing game going all around the world: finding the interesting kinds of deployments, the interesting kinds of tools, and looking in unexpected places. I think in the commercial sector there’s actually quite a bit that we could adapt and adopt. And I think there’s opportunities to then either to develop similar open-source solutions or convince some companies to open source their products. That’s a long answer to your short question.

Josh: Terrific. Thank you very much and congratulations.

Katrin: Thank you very much.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     June 19, 2009, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2009
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