Ben Curtis/AP
A supporter of main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, standing next to a poster of him,
films the event with her mobile phone.

Technological Innovations Propelling Citizen Journalism

June 21, 2009 10:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Iran's elections have demonstrated the journalistic power of the crowd, as innovative programs to help citizens connect and disseminate information via technology are being established around the world.

Strength in Numbers

When a crisis hits and simple technologies enable the masses to connect and share information, the results can be astounding. After the recent elections in Iran, when the government placed bans on certain media outlets and some journalists were detained or told not to report, the power of the crowd became overwhelmingly clear.

According to MIT's Technology Review, "despite the media crackdown" in Iran, news reports continued "via social networking, microblogging, and photo- and video-hosting websites" on a remarkable "scale and scope."

But questions remain as to whether technologies are actually empowering citizens to organize protests and uprisings, or simply enabling them to report events. Ethan Zuckerman, of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told the Technology Review that tried and true means, such as telephones and simple word of mouth, might be more responsible for connecting Iranian protesters.

In different parts of the world, however, groundbreaking programs are furthering this new realm of reporting and could have the potential to help citizens organize powerful social and political movements.

For instance, Nieman Journalism Lab reported on the grant recipients of the Knight News Challenge, which includes many platforms that "are aimed at helping citizens report and aggregate news content," often in developing countries and disenfranchised regions. Grant recipient Ory Okolloh has started a Web site called "Ushahidi" that gathers citizen news reports from various outlets, including cell phones and e-mail, and creates a map of the information "using a Google Maps mashup tool." The project's success in Kenya led to extensions in South Africa, the Congo and India.

Similarly, a site called Sharek961 was started to monitor Lebanon's elections earlier this month. The goal of the site is to encourage Lebanese citizens "to text, call, and email in incidences from polling stations, crowdsourcing the conduct of the critically important election there," according to "Reports can address anything election-related happening around the country, from political rallies and polling queues to vote-buying and violence," a Sharek961 press release is quoted as saying on

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Background: Crowdsourcing and Smart Mobs

What exactly is crowdsourcing? According to Jeff Howe, who coined the term and has written a book on the topic, crowdsourcing "is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call." Learn more and follow Howe's crowdsourcing-related news updates on the official site.

Smart Mobs is a concept based on the 2002 book by Howard Rheingold, which focuses on the use of innovative technologies for cooperation. "The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks," according to the Smart Mobs site.

The Smart Mobs blog culls stories from sources around the world related to the idea of cooperative reporting made possible by technology.

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