Somalia Speaks: Sharing Stories from the Horn of Africa

In the Horn of Africa, Somalia makes headlines but often only because of drought, famine, crisis, and insecurity. Al Jazeera launched Somalia Speaks to help amplify stories from people and their everyday lives in the region — all via SMS.

Somalia Speaks is a collaboration between Souktel, a Palestinian-based organization providing SMS messaging services, Ushahidi, Al Jazeera, Crowdflower, and the African Diaspora Institute. Al Jazeera’s Soud Hyder said in an interview with us, “We wanted to find out the perspective of normal Somali citizens to tell us how the crisis has affected them and the Somali diaspora.”

“The notion was that when the food crisis erupted this summer, we wanted to get word out from the ground level as to what was going on in that region,” Souktel’s Jacob Korenblum said.

The goal of Somalia Speaks is to aggregate unheard voices from inside the region as well as from the Somalia diaspora by asking via text message: How has the Somalia Conflict affected your life? Responses are translated into English and plotted on a map (view it here). Since the launch, approximately 3000 SMS messages have been received. Here is just example:

I was born in the city of Wanlaweyn, and some of the people there are destroying things. I am poor now.

For Al Jazeera, Somalia Speaks is also a chance to pilot and test innovative mobile approaches to citizen media and news gathering.

Somalia Speaks

The campaign involves sending thousands of text messages to citizens in the Horn of Africa. With this specific campaign, a mobile approach works.

Souktel’s Korenblum said that in a five year period leading up to 2009, mobile phone penetration jumped 1600% in the Somali region; Souktel has been delivering service in the Horn of Africa since 2008 and has a member SMS subscriber list of over 50,000 people.

There has also been “massive growth” in the number of operators in the region, with new entrants almost every year. In some regions, there are as many as five mobile providers, Korenblum said. In terms of handset usage and mobile media, it’s overwhelmingly done via SMS. Reaching out to citizens via SMS, then, makes sense for this campaign.

SMS responses to the Al Jazeera question are sent to an Ushahidi and Crowdflower instance which enables filtering, translating, and sorting of the content. These responses are then posted to the Somalia Speaks map on Al Jazeera for a larger international audience.

This video explains more.

Here is an example of an SMS reply and corresponding mapped response.

My home town is Gaalkacyo. Life is very good, but there are problems with in the Somali community which have affected my thinking.

Longer responses come from individuals who are able to post reports online. An excerpt is reprinted here:

I’ll keep it short by just saying that destruction of Somalia has resulted the loss of generations of Somalis and continuous demoralisation of our people, young and old.

I personally lost some family members and have some in Dadaab area, as well as Kismayo. I’m personally affected by the trauma and tragedy that took place and still taking place in my country. 

Partnership is Key

Somalia Speaks stems from earlier cooperation between the various partners. Souktel has had a long-standing relationship with both Ushahidi and Al Jazeera. The groups have worked together in the past on a campaign focused on events and citizen reporting from the Gaza Strip. “We all three found it was very successful in terms of giving ordinary citizens the ability to really have their voices heard, in a process which is usually reported on by news outlets and not much more than that,” Korenblum said. “It was a good way of democratizing the flow of information.”

And they are back at it again in the Horn of Africa, where Souktel has for years operated large-scale mobile information services. Because of this, they have outreach and solid relationships with the mobile network operators in the three primary regions in the Horn of Africa. “Coming together on this campaign was a very natural thing for us to do,” Korenblum said.

Each partner brings unique expertise and fulfills a specific role.

For its part, Souktel facilitates the creation of the free local short-code for users across the different regions and mobile network operators. It also lleveraged its 50,000-plus member SMS subscriber list to send the initial SMS messages.

Ushahidi and Crowdflower work together to translate, categorize, and geo-locate the incoming responses, which can be viewed here.

Al Jazeera’s Hyder describes the Ushahidi role as crisis mapping with a twist. “We are not mapping out a crisis but information that could provide more insight,” he said.

“I think this a model for a good partnership between a media outlet, a mobile service provider, and mapping platforms,” Korenblum said. “I think it’s a decent use case for this sector on how different players in the social mobile landscape can come together to really help give a voice to communities.”

A Pilot for Citizen Newsgathering

Somalia Speaks is a pilot project. While the responses help amplify voices and stories of everyday life from an under reported region, the project also provides editorial insight as to where Al Jazeera should focus in going forward with citizen reporting mechanisms.

“We are also looking at how to streamline news gathering workflows to get news directly from the people, Hyder said. “It’s like taking citizen journalism to the next level.”

Al Jazeera has received story tips and leads from Somalia Speaks participants. “We found out, for instance, there was a fire a week ago, and this was under reported by all mainstream media, Hyder said. “This gives us an easier way for sourcing and finding information.”

Somalia Speaks is helping to create a more optimal model for sources of information in the region. With the fire report, for example, an editorial team investigates and can follow-up by utilizing stringers or calling local telephone numbers in the area of the fire. Cynara Vetch, also with Al Jazeera, added that another positive thing about mapping and SMS is that volume can help with corroboration. “So many people submitted similar reports, unprompted,” she said. “This volume itself helps verify incidents.”

The Somalian diaspora is getting involved, too. Hyder said that originally, the project was only going to focus on citizens within the region. “But there is a lot of input from the diaspora,” Hyder said. Meaning that Somalians in the diaspora have valid arguments and points to add to the discussion. “Editorialy, we had to open up the scope and see how the story grew,” Hyder said.

There is an international number for anyone to send in a report (+45609910303) and people can also submit comments online in a section called “Diaspora Voices,” including video links, photo uploads, and text descriptions.

Challenges and the Question of So What?

One of the biggest challenges with Somalia Speaks is translating messages into English, Hyder said. Another challenge was making sure all systems and workflows were successfully integrated. The team had to optimize the translation work-flow after the first week, due to bottle necks and technical problems, Hyder said. “We were able to get two volunteers from Kenya and Egypt who worked with the Doha team to build a workaround, within 7 days,” he said.

Crowdflower assists with translation and geolocation of the messages, through a customized plugin that works in conjunction with the Ushahidi platform. You can view a screenshot of the customization on this blog post.

There is also a so what? question as to the value of mapping such SMS responses. What is the value of depicting comments like these as end in of itself, over time, and not necessarily being fed directly to aid and community agencies to react, Korenblum asks.

Korenblum believes that the general public needs further education on some of the issues affecting the region. “We live in a world of social media, but still, where we work the bulk of average citizens do not use Twitter or Facebook on a regular basis,” he said. “Helping to educate people can create a virtuous feedback loop, where someone can click on a map and is spurred to action to get involved in the region.”

An excerpt from a blog post by Patrick Meier of Ushahidi resonates this idea:

In sum, the purpose of this project is to catalyze global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then this project  invites Somalis speak to the world themselves. The project highlights  these voices on a live, public map for the world to bear witness and engage in a global conversation with people of Somalia, a conversation in which Somalis and the Diaspora are themselves at the centerfold. It is my sincere hope that advocacy and lobby group will be able to leverage the content generated by this project to redouble their efforts in response to the escalating crisis in Somalia.

Al Jazeera will review results from Somalia Speaks this year.

Photos and screenshots courtesy of Somalia Speaks. 

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