How do you design citizen media?

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How do you design citizen media?

To spark ideas for comments in this discussion thread, consider the following questions about the practice of using mobiles phones for citizen media:

  • When designing citizen media, who is your audience and how do you engage the audience?
  • What tools are used to collect, aggregate, verify, disseminate information?
  • How do you ensure the integrity of the information that you are collecting?
  • What kinds of educational activities are involved in successful citizen media?  How do you design the outreach and educational activities?

Share your thoughts, ideas and stories to this discussion thread by adding your comments below, or responding to existing comments. 

Ethics by Design for Citizen Media

When designing citizen media tactics, I believe that it is important to train and protect human rights practitioners in the field, aggregators of media, and any go-between parties. These actors are involved in the process of collecting information and verifying the legitimacy of the news or reports. All team members are at some type of risk, and therefore should be protected. I also think that when attempting to maintain the integrity of the information collection and dissemination processes, it is imperative that the editorial staff  and design team be diligent in confirming any claims of human rights violations before providing information to aggregators.

Successful citizen media campaigns are championed as a result of careful design and planning, as is any other successful initiative. In the process of designing the outreach and educational activities, developers have to include the players who will use the tactics. Global Press Institute (GPI) offers a distinguished array of specialty reporting seminars for citizen journalists. GPI was founded on the belief that all journalism should be rooted in traditional ethics.

The organization condones and promotes responsible reporting methods and focus strategies that prevent inaccurate reporting. GPI also provides certified ethical practitioner programs to prepare and guide the team ethically, while reducing libel. Citizen media designs should be accompanied by an organizational code of ethics to guide practitioners in the reporting and dissemination of information and news. Programs with training and implementation designs could very well be the educational tools that become the "outreach" of using mobile phones for citizen journalism and media. 

Read more about Global Press Institute here:
What are the mechanics of good civic media?


Fantastic introductory comment, I couldn't agree more about the importance of training, standards, validation processes, and internal process management.  I'd also be curious to explore the ways that people are actually designing citizen and civic media input networks?  Here, I don't mean the technological infrastructure (although I'd be fascinated to learn more about that, as well), so much as what the human and organizational processes and communication flows look like.

For example, are organizations accepting crowdsourced input, or are they training distributed of networks?  If so, how are they creating incentives for participation and funding outreach at scale? Is anyone using social gaming to create relationships with repeat contributors, whether internal or external to the outlets collecting input?

Are incoming reports more likely to be used as a tipline, a research resource, or actual story content?  In each case, what are the actual processes used to confirm the information received and what are the community's thoughts about publishing or publicizing those processes (making them more easily game-able)?  How are traditional media navigating the concept of intermediary liability for reporting information collected from citizen media?

FrontlineSMS recently won an award to develop tools that facilitate citizen media through audience engagement and improved mobile reporting, so any input about individual, organizational, or regional practices will help us design more appropriate tools that will hopefully contribute back to this community!

Training resources on how to use mobiles for citizen media

Providing training and education on the use of mobile phones is an important part of a successful citizen media strategy.  I found a few resources to train citizens on how to use mobile phones for citizen media.  I'm interested to know if you are using these resources in your own mobile phone citizen media trainings, and what other resources you have used. 

WITNESS resource: Filming with your mobile phone

This is a brief article with a few tips on security, settings, basic techniques, content and a 2-minute video on how to use your mobile for filming (specifically for citizen media).  It's a good place to start.  The article then recommends that you continue to their next article on safety considerations for your mobile device. resource: Case study on how SmallWorldNews is training citizen journalists in Libya

The goal of the Small World News project in Libya is to build an effective and sustainable conduit for content produced by citizens about daily life in Libya that reaches a wider audience.  Small World News is on the ground in Benghazi training Libyans to capture and tell video stories of events in this volatile region.  Small World News has a team of about a dozen men and women ranging in age from 16 to 30 years learning how to create video content.  The team used platforms like Speak2Tweet and Unviersal Subtitles and also tapped into existing networks of people on the ground.

The first step described in this case study was to find the training participants.  Who is interested in learning these skills?  What do they need to learn?

Other resources and guides:

What other training resources are out there?  Please share links to sites, guides, videos, etc here!


Thanks Kristin! Looking

Thanks Kristin! Looking forward to seeing what other training resources are out there.

A note on the Small World News story you mention. One of the interesting things about this example is how eager people in Libya were to learn how to create and share content on camera and mobile. Brian Conley, who was part of the team conducting the trainings, almost found himself with too many interested people and not enough equipment! During an interview, he told me that from the beginning he went from just scraping by to suddenly almost having too many people to train. 

I think this is evidence (and not surprising evidence, really) of how interested and eager people are to find new ways to share stories. I think it's especially important to make training and resources as accessible as possible.

Thanks for the dialogue, all! So interesting and helpful. 


Tactical Tech's film on turning information into action

Thanks for adding this perspective, Melissa, to that case study!  The strong desire for citizen media training is an important part of the story.

I wanted to add a few more possible training resources to my list above.  Tactical Tech developed a 50 min film titled 10 Tactics for Turning Information into Action.  The 10 tactics film has complete subtitle options: Albanian, Arabic, Azerbaijani, English, Belarusian, Burmese, Chinese (Traditional and Simplified), French, Georgian, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Macedonian, Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian-Montenegrin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Ukrainian and Urdu. Several more are in process.

I think the whole film would be a great resource for trainers to get participants thinking outside of the box, and recognizing all the different possible ways of collecting and using information.  A few chapters of the film that might be particularly useful include:

Tactic 2: Witness and Record

This tactic is good to use in info-activism to ensure that people have the power to capture rights abuses as they happen. Three stories show how this tactic has been used to turn information into action.

Tactic 6: Manage your Contacts

This tactic is good for understanding your connections and relationships so you can make the most of your networks. Two stories show how this tactic and different tools can be used to turn information into action. (features FrontlineSMS!)

Tactic 8: Using Collective Intelligence

This tactic is good for creating or gathering information, reporting on public events such as elections or protests and responding to disasters or outbreaks. This video includes two case studies that illustrate how you can draw upon peoples' collective intelligence to turn information into action.

Tactic 9: Let the People Ask the Questions

This video includes two case studies that illustrate how you can use technology to let people ask the questions. This tactic is good for getting vital information to people when popular information sources are incomplete or misleading, or when other direct forms of communication are difficult. (this tactic features Kipp and Kubatana's Trust's Freedom Fone tool!)

What is an SMS Hub and what are Short Codes?

I would love to learn more about a few of the terms shared in the dialogue so far.


What is an SMS hub (like Frontline SMS)? The Mobile-in-a-box toolkit has a guide on how to set up an SMS hub.  It defines an SMS hub as:

An SMS hub is a stand-alone system which allows you to send and receive large numbers of text messages via the mobile phone network, without needing to be connected to the internet or to any other computer network.

Why is this better than other options to collect and disseminate information?  (and what are the other options?)  How do you decide when to use an SMS hub?  How does it support citizen media?

Short Codes

What does it mean to use "short codes"?  Eddie mentioned in another post that Bolivian mobile carriers now support Twitter short codes.  It sounds like this helps practitioners to set up a more cost-effective citizen media strategy.  Is this true?  Can you explain how it works and share an example of how it is being used?  What resources are available for practitioners interested in using Twitter short codes?  Also, are there other short codes out there besides Twitter?  Is this connected to creating toll-free number for citizens to either dial into or send their SMS messages?

Thanks for clarifying these great tools!

response to kristin

Hi Kristin - I'll do my best to better define these two terms.

The simplest SMS hub would be a simple mobile phone-- a device that allows you to send and receive text messages. The great value-add of FrontlineSMS is that it's simple, free software that interfaces with a mobile phone to allow you to broadcast messages to large groups of people-- much more easily and efficiently. For Dimagi, I'm working on a new product (we're calling it TrialConnect) that's built on RapidSMS, a bit of open source software that, not unlike Frontline, manages two-way messaging between you and your database of end users. Whereas Frontline interfaces directly between a computer and a mobile phone, our software relies on an IP-based SMS portal. In other words, the message goes from our server, over the internet to the servers of another company that then sends the messages out over local mobile networks. Options like ours are better suited to somewhat higher-resource environments (i.e. it's not free to use a portal); for lower-resource environments, Frontline is a great option.

A short code is just a phone number like any other-- only shorter! (Usually they're in the neighborhood of 4-6 digits; their advantage being that they're easier to remember than a 10-digit number.) Typically, to get a shortcode, it's necessary to work with (and often pay) a mobile operator. In some countries, it's necessary to work with government regulatory agencies as well. Twitter has a short code that users can send messages to. As has been discussed elsewhere, many radio stations also have short codes, and last year after the Haiti earthquake, the Red Cross had a shortcode (90999) that people could text to donate $10. Sometimes they're reverse-billed (toll free), but it's not the default-- and I speak from experience when I say that reverse-billing can be a complicated thing to make happen.

Response to Sam/Kristin

Hi Sam and Kristin,

Great exploration of SMS hubs.  Sam is absolutely right that SMS hubs are essentially interfaces for managing interactions with others via SMS (and increasingly, MMS).  The operative distinctions between platforms, in my mind, includes a number of factors.  As Sam mentions, resources are a major part of this, whether it's the affordability of the scale of the messaging that you're attempting to do, or the technical know-how that you bring to adapting and customizing a platform.  As Sam mentions, RapidSMS is an excellent open-source SMS gateway that functions very well at scale and is very customizeable, as long as you know how to do it.  FrontlineSMS, by comparison, is designed for smaller interventions and to be as out-of-the-box as possible.

The largest distinction to me between SMS hubs, however, is not just implementation context (or even intended context), but the usability of the information that travels through the interface. As Sam points out, the simplest SMS interface is in fact already on your phone.  The issue is that phones typically save finite amounts of messages, that they aren't very easily transferred into different formats, and that they're only designed to operate at an individual's scale (per SMS's design). The improvement, or added value, that platforms like FrontlineSMS and RapidSMS bring is that they present a more sophisticated way to both manage interactions AND to manage the information that comes through those interactions.  This is, to some extent, a substance v. process issue.  Our next wave of software products, currently nearing completion from our FrontlineSMS:Learn, FrontlineSMS:Credit, and FrontlineSMS:Radio projects all increase the usability of the information transmitted through SMS by integrating them into actual activities, whether that's grading quizzes, processing payrolls, or hosting a radio show.  The value of an SMS hub, essentially, is the extent to which it enables a user to rely on SMS as a channel for information that facilitates or advances their communication and project goals.

The second, and last point, I'll make is to address scale, which is something that garners a lot of discussion in dialogue about mobile products.  While there are always questions of the physical capacity of a computer, server, network, or software to manage communications at scale, this is more often of a question of the usability of the interface.  As a point of comparison, a person's Gmail account is technically capable of receiving tens of thousands of messages a day, although trying to make use of that information in a way that contributes to what you do would be very, very difficult.  Managing SMS interactions is largely similar. At FrontlineSMS, our goal is not to create software that only enables people to send messages at scale, but that enables people to effectively communicate at scale.  This is largely a process of automating basic categorization, easy-to-use archiving and export functions, and channeling communications into work flows.

As we've gone forward with building Version 2 of the FrontlineSMS platform and the plug-ins associated with specific projects, designing for the usability of information gathered through SMS and the scalability of the interface have been primary considerations. 

Happy to talk more about this, even after the dialogue ends! 


Activism for Non-Activists

    At OpenWatch, it is our goal to make software to turn non-activists into activists without realizing it.

The rhetoric is this: use this tool as a way of protecting yourself. The tool also means that you report incidents, but that is a secondary feature of the tool. The primary use is to provide an ability to an individual user. This has upped the amount of noise in our submissions, but it has also given us a LOT of submissions from non-activists, and that's the real data that we want anyway.

In terms of design, we've kept it very, very simple. The name of the app says what it does (Cop Recorder. It's not CopRecrdr, or iCopRecordeeply, or anything 'Web2.0' - it just says what it is) and it only has one big button on it - Record Audio.


Yes, simplicity is key!

Hello OpenWatch. Thanks for the comment!

I think you hit on a very important note in terms of design, which is -- simplicity and ease of use is key.

Do others have very basic, very simple tools or platforms for citizen media submission?

Thanks for the great dialogue, all! Fascinating comments.


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