Without a # Tag. Somalia.

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. I was asked to join the Al Jazeera Director General on this trip in order to help create greater awareness about the situation through “new media” tools. Having read about the stories coming out of Somalia and looking through a ton of photo galleries and videos I thought that I had somewhat prepared myself for the trip.

I could not have been more wrong.

For the first time in my life, I now know what it means when people say “words cannot describe what I’ve seen.” It was tough. Very tough. The people who make it to Dadaab are the “lucky” ones – others have perished on the side of the road, on their way to Dadaab.

The stories that were told were… devastating. Parents having to decide which child to leave behind so that they could make sure the fittest would be able to make it to camp. Imagine having to leave your weakest child behind, on the side of the road, to die. That’s it. Left for the vultures. The lucky ones will die before and at least get a burial. Another told a story of how his baby had to breast feed of his dead wife so that they could have enough strength to go on with the journey.

I felt ashamed to call myself a human being.

There are countless more stories like this, they’ve been told over and over and over. The thing that has hit me most about this, is that it’s not new. Dadaab has been around for over 20 years. Famine and drought are known to occur in these places, yet year after year people are dying of starvation.  Why?

As I sat down on my comfy hotel bed back in Nairobi (only an hour flight away), realising the cruel irony of having a rain shower in the bathroom was a bit too much too handle. We are all living so close to this disaster. In 2011, with all our technology and knowledge, we’re not able to stop people from dying of starvation? That’s hard to believe. How have we as humanity failed these people? We have tons of donations*, but often our donations go without a sense of purpose and attachment to the story. Sending aid does not deal with the core issues that exist. People will get the aid today, what about tomorrow, next month, 5 years from now?  (*the aid that is going is far from enough)

We met people standing in queues to just get one meal for the day. People who are fighting for the right to live. For human dignity. For just a chance. That’s all they want. A chance at life.

Looking into the eyes of children you always get a sense of joy, a sense of optimism that can defeat anything. When I looked into the eyes of some of the children in the camps they looked defeated, worn out, life had taken its toll on them. I’m talking about children who are not older than 3 years old. They’re still the lucky ones. Seeing babies who are malnourished, children without the strength to even stand. The skeletal structure of a living human. This is Dadaab. This is our problem.

Yet, the story goes mostly unnoticed. Once in a while people will talk about it in the media, there will be hype for a bit, and then the search for a new story moves on. And we forget that the old story has not ended. In fact it’s grown to proportions beyond anyone’s imagination.

With the world of Social Media, everyone likes to talk about how technology can overthrow governments and change the world. How it can mobilise people around a cause almost instantaneously. How we always know what is happening, at any time, anywhere in the world.

Not this world.

When people have not eaten for weeks, have just enough cloth to cover a bit of their body, the last thing that is going to happen is for them to start a revolution with a # tag to get the world’s attention by telling their own story. They need us to do it for them. They need us to be the ones to show the world what’s happening.

As I type this, the trending topics on twitter look something like this:

I don’t actually think that I’ve ever seen Somalia trending on twitter. Ever. Will the world only pay attention when it makes it to the top of the trending topic list? When it gets it’s own special # tag? When it becomes “cool” to join a cause? Maybe if lady gaga was to visit Somalia it’ll trend? She could maybe take her meat dress with her and put it to good use?

What is happening in the world is real. The stories out of Somalia are not some movie. Visting Dadaab felt like I was going to a different planet. I still can not believe that a couple of hours away from me, someone is about to die because they do not have enough to eat. It’s just so real. A realness that’s disturbing, that’s uncomfortable. One that is easy to pass on as not our problem, because if we acknowledge it, the sheer weight that falls on our shoulders to make a difference becomes frighteningly unbearable.

I type this while I’m sitting at home, with my fridge stocked, countless food places to get food from and with the luxury of eating to enjoy the taste of the food. Where did it all go wrong? How can we, as humanity, sit back and let this continue? We have all seen the videos. We have seen the pictures. We’ve heard the stories. What are we going to do about it? At the very least let’s tell the world what’s going on. Be the # tag the people in Somalia need us to be, for the sake of our humanity. If we cannot even get #somalia to trend, then I’m scared for what the future holds for us as a human race.

If only we paid as much attention to the African Summers as we did to the Arab Spring.


Providing Context: The role of Social Media in Iran

This post is pretty late, but here is one of the interviews I had on Al Jazeera English discussing the role of social media in Iran.

One of the key points I bring up in my interview is the importance of placing the information in context. Towards the end of the mass protests, the number of twitter accounts that we were monitoring dropped from 60 to around 6 (accounts we able to verify). Whilst the information coming out was amazing to show the government clamp down on protests, it is an incredible stretch to say that the information was a reflection of sentiment for the entire population of Iran (over 65million people).

There are two important events that we need to look at.
1) The actual outcome of the election. Did Ahmadinejad win? Do the majority of Iranians feel the election results were incorrect? Its important to note that the protestors are not anti regime, they want reform, but reform within the current system.
2) The protests and the government clamp down on protestors. This is a focus on Mausavi supporters, who felt the results were incorrect. This what is generating the bulk of the discussions online.
Whilst these two events are related, the information that was coming out online is specific to the second event. Once the government started clamping down on the protestors, social media played a critical role in getting the information out.

It is important to understand who are the ones that are sending out the information, what are their backgrounds, where do they come from etc. Harvard provides an excellent analysis on the Persian Blogosphere – the reformists do have a much larger share of the online voice than the conservative voices. There is also a very big percentage of Iranians living outside of Iran who are online, blogging about situation. Ahmadinejad supporters are from the poorer, less connected section of Iran. As such a big percentage of them do not have any access to the internet at all. Their voices are not heard over social media, as such we are only getting one side of the story.

Where social media wins, is the ability to report on the what and when. As events unfold, the immediacy of new technologies allows people on the ground the opportunity to get their voices out. In the case of Iran, it was used very effectively to show the government clamp down on protestors.

Where social media fails, is its inability to provide context and answer the why behind each event. It also does not provide a true representation of the entire population, as the majority of the voices online reflect a minority of the population. The majority of the online population in Iran come from a wealthy, educated background and from the big cities such as Tehran (Mausavi supporters). This is contrasted with the poorer, not connected Ahmadinejad supporters, who are based in the smaller towns and rural areas. When we are dealing with developing countries, we often forget that the majority of the population have no access to simple communication tools, let alone social sites.

A colleague of mine, Mohamed Nanabhay, brought up an interesting point regarding the South African elections earlier in the year. If you were to look at the twittersphere or blogosphere prior to and on the actual election day, you would think no one had voted for the ANC. However the ANC holds popular support amongst the majority of South Africans, the majority of whom are not online.

All of this can be summed up in a tweet that I read recently, it was a quote from Ferial Haffajee on two South Africas: “You have one South Africa tweeting and the other South Africa not eating”

This is the reality of the world we live in. Not everyone is connected. There is a need for us to dig deeper if we truly want to understand the nature of events.

If you want to read up in more detail on the actual role of twitter in Iran, Gaurav Mishra provides a great analysis on the role of twitter. His post also has an extensive list of links to other blogs who have discussed the same issue.

Al Jazeera New Media….

Following on from my last post- I was asked to go on air again to talk about our new interactive map (second appearence on AlJazeera)… Incase you’ve missed it, our new services are proving to be a fantastic tool in covering the war on Gaza. If you don’t believe me check out what WIRED and NPR had to say….

Getting tweets from the war zone is so 2008. The latest social media advance combines tools like Twitter, text messaging, and online mapping to gather up first-hand reports, straight from Gaza.

Oh and the CEO of twitter, EV,  sent out a message referring to our Gaza Twitter Stream….


Getting reviews online is always comforting- however the circumstances under which we rolled out these services aren’t. Lets hope and pray that the killing comes to an end and crisis reporting will no longer be needed…

Here is my interview on AJ:

Al Jazeera – Mapping out the Gaza conflict

After a few late nights at the office we have finally launched our interactive map for the situation in Gaza. The folks over at Ushahidi have been fantastic in allowing us to use their crowd sourcing platform for this project…. Our SMS system was set up and is powered by the guys at souktel (thanks to @Katrinskaya from MobileActive for putting us in touch with souktel)

The Ushahidi Engine is a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.

War on Gaza

As updates come in on the situation in Gaza, we update the map with the incident. People can have a look at the timeline and map to get a idea of how the entire event has played out from the beginning. The great thing about this platform is the “crowd sourcing” part… People in Gaza and around the world can submit reports through to the site in 4 ways:

1) Report an incident directly at: http://labs.aljazeera.net/warongaza

2) via SMS (text message) – If you’re in Palestine and on the Jawwal network, you can text in your report to the number: 37191

or if you’re anywhere else in the world you can send a text to: +45609910303

All messages need to start with the word GAZA so that we can track it… (eg: GAZA 5 aid trucks just arrived at the Rafa crossing)

3) If you’re on twitter*, you can submit a report by simply replying to our official AlJazeera account with your report @AJGaza (eg: @AJGaza airstrike just resumed in Khan Yunus)…

*If you still dont know what twitter is head over to CommonCraft and watch the great video that explains it

4) If you have images or video, you can email them through to us at yourviews@aljazeera.net or upload them here.

I do wish the war ends soon so we dont have to actually test the platform out…. With the way its currently looking the end is not in sight, so lets just hope we can provide a great resource of information for the war.

Big ups to the other guys in our New Media team who worked through the nights to get this up…. Its amazing what one tweet can do (got in touch with @whiteafrican via twitter for this)

You can read more about the deployment on the Ushahidi Blog

Global Lives… A video library of Human life Experience

The Global Lives Project is a collective effort of more than 150 volunteer film makers, artists, architects, programmers and everyday people from around the world to build and display a video library of human life experience.

The folks over at Global Lives are working on a very cool project… The idea is to give you an idea of what everyday life is like for various people around the world. The concept is to follow someone around with a camera for 24hours. They have quite diverse group of people from around the world that have been recorded so far (Brazil, USA, Japan & Malawi).

Our goal is to record 24 hours in the lives of ten people that roughly represent the diversity of our planets population. These ten lives will come together in an innovative video installation and form the basis of a collaborative online video encyclopedia of human life experiences.

If you’ve got pretty good language skills why dont pop over to the dotSub site and help translate some of the videos to your mother tongue….