If You Build It, They Will Come: SeenReport and Mobile Citizen Journalism in Pakistan

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Sep 01, 2010
The devastating floods in Pakistan have been covered by trained reporters and mainstream media outlets around the world. Citizens, often on the front lines of the flood, have also been contributing thousands of reports through mobile phones, in part enabled by the citizen journalism serviceSeenReport.

SeenReport (from “see ‘n report”) is a citizen journalism service through which users can submit photos, videos, and text accounts of news as it is happening via SMS, MMS, or e-mail. SeenReport won a 2010 mBillionth award, a first-ever contest which recognizes mobile content in South Asia. A YouTube video explains more about the service.

The SeenReport platform is designed to augment stories on online news sites. The platform has been purchased and customized by other media organizations in Pakistan, which helps to both promote citizen journalism in the country and to create a revenue stream for SeenReport.

MobileActive.org talked with Sharjeel Qureshi, a founder of the service. Here is what we learned about SeenReport and citizen journalism in Pakistan.

How Does SeenReport Work?

A citizen reporter captures an event on a mobile phone and sends the content to SeenReport. There is no manual intervention at this stage – the content is automatically published on the SeenReport website to better ensure real-time reports which augment larger ongoing events. Further, citizen reporters can register personal information on the site after submitting material.

The system accepts content via SMS, MMS, and e-mail. If images or photos are sent, some basic text is required as far as description and location. The SeenReport platform is intelligent enough to detect this text and suggest related content and news stories. So, if several citizen reporters are submitting reports from the same event on their mobiles – the floods, for instance – the system will make a single thread from the incoming reports.

Some users create detailed online profiles. One freelance journalist, for example, includes his picture, email address, phone number, professional membership affiliation, and has established a subdomain on the SeenReport site with tabs for all of his uploaded content. Qureshi refers to it as a version of LinkedIn for freelance journalists. Others can post anonymously if they choose and are not required to create complete profiles.

The service has been integrated with social network sites so that when stories are published on the website, they are automatically posted on Twitter and Facebook for SeenReport. If a citizen journalist registers personal social media accounts, their reports will be automatically posted in those locations, too.

In general, mobile citizen reports open the door to spam, offensive content, and potentially non-newsworthy posts. SeenReport deals with this through a self-policing or “social censoring” system. Whenever content is posted, readers can comment on it, rate it, and flag it if they find it offensive. SeenReport administrators then remove the flagged content. This topic has been an ongoing discussion for the group behind SeenReport: the idea of how news stories are authenticated, how best to integrate citizen journalism into mainstream media, and what is good journalism.

A Strong Initial Boost

Qureshi and his team began working on the SeenReport platform in 2007, at a time when there was a media blackout in Pakistan. Heavy censorship was imposed on media organizations at the time. The Internet was the only free medium of information, Qureshi said. During this time, the mobile market in Pakistan had proliferated and “we thought it would be a great idea to empower people to report news right from the cell phone and broadcast to the world in real-time,” he said.

When the site was launched in April 2008, it came on the heels of Pakistan’s Long March, the social unrest following firings of the judiciary. During this time, media coverage was heavily censored. SeenReport, Qureshi said, provided an alternative medium to cover the scale of the event and enable citizens at home to witness the historical moment.

SeenReport allows every mobile user in the crowd to become a reporter. In terms of the Long March, SMS reports provided minute-by-minute and mile-by-mile updates from eyewitnesses. Therole of SeenReport in the march was a boost to the fledgling service and was covered by many international news outlets, including Global Voices, the BBC, and CIO Pakistan.

SeenReport is More Than a Single “People Powered News” Site

The SeenReport software, a cloud-based, open-source technology, was created in-house by a small team of engineers. SeenReport also sells this software-as-a-service to other media organizations interested in developing their own citizen journalism initiatives.

This software provision helps to generate income: the monthly recurring license fee model for adopters is the most significant source of revenue for the “modestly funded start-up,” Qureshi said.

SeenReport was designed in such a way that it can be adapted and customized by other users. Several news and media sites have purchased the platform, including SamaaGeoDostAaj, andPlayTv. The first three use the technology for citizen journalism purposes while PlayTv, an entertainment and music channel for youth in Pakistan, uses it to engage young viewers through mobile interaction.

Because organizations have their own policies for driving citizen journalism, adopters can customize the functionality and tweak the editorial control. Some sites, for example, require a thorough review of content before it is published, unlike SeenReport’s system of instant posts and social censorship.

By providing the software to others, SeenReport contributes to citizen journalism in Pakistan. Across the spectrum of organizations using the platform, there have been over 10,000 news reports relating to the floods. GeoDost, for example, has established a unique section on the main page for natural disasters and an “initial flood portal“. More than 500,000 citizen reports have been submitted by all users  across all organizations, Qureshi said, which gives “an idea of how strong citizen journalism is in Pakistan.”

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