Endless Possibilities of the New Media

Jul 102010

Editors Note: Ghana's Sylvia Vollenhoven attends Knight Foundations/MIT COnference on the Future of News and Civic Media 2010.

My career started on the media timeline with yellow copy paper in triplicate and an Olivetti typewriter. In my son’s book this era followed shortly after the Gutenberg Bible. I am now at a place where the possibilities stretch into infinity and I’m not sure my head can hold it all or that we’re still talking linear progress here.

Working in Ghana has made me feel we’ve moved far too slowly since the German printer produced his fine vellum Good Book. This is a media environment that is vigorous but defined by monochromatic party squabbles. The people are talented but held back by leadership that far too often lacks vision. Stop-start development strategies and chaotic communication means on any one day the journalists are just pretending when they claim to know where things are headed in Ghana.

And so when I arrived at the recent Knight Foundation/MIT Conference on the Future of News and Civic Media 2010 I felt as if I had left the planet on which I usually work. The crazy angles of the Stata Center did nothing to ease the feeling that I’d slipped into a wormhole.

But soon the discussions and debates sucked me in and I went the other way. Now I wanted to pack people and projects into my suitcase and transport everything to Accra, so we could get on with the business of changing the world one story at a time.

The conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was like a smorgasbord of infinite possibilities – a prophetic finger pointing towards a very bright media future. Everywhere I looked people were devising innovative ways of making media more democratic and dynamic. There were so many groundbreaking ideas and innovations but the projects and sessions that proved potentially  valuable for Ghana and by implication Africa in general, were the following:

  • MIT’s Department of Play - This is a working group of researchers, students, and community practitioners at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. In Ghana we could work with three of their projects mainly Kid Approved, What’s Up and VOIP Drupal to help communities share knowledge. This work will be relevant in a low-tech country where communications are poor. Since VOIP Drupal combines web and phone technologies it is ideal for Ghana’s rural areas where we plan to build networks of stringers and citizen journalists. Rural voices are almost completely absent from the mainstream media in Ghana

  • India’s Video Volunteers – A Knight News Challenge 2008 winner who are empowering local communities to generate their own news and information. They work in collaboration with NGO’s, training ‘citizen producers’ in remote villages and slums where mainstream media are thin in the ground. In Ghana we have been working mainly with radio but our proposed rural network could easily be designed as a multimedia venture, using the VV blueprint and experience for producing video as well

  • Stroome - An open source collaborative video editing community, one of the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners. You can upload videos, share clips, edit it online and distribute the stories. Suddenly as I listed to these innovators talk I realised how much easier it has become to build networks of CJ’s that can be completely independent, highly effective and commercially viable, using this kind of open source technology

  • Bubbly - An idea to consider for Ghana’s proposed network is a new service in India called Bubbly… described as “Twitter with voice”. A way for communities to share audio When I spoke with Leo Burd of MIT’s Centre for Future Civic Media and Stalin K of Video Volunteers they were keen to develop a relationship. Leo said that synergies already existed because their students are doing internships in Ghana and other African countries.

I flew back to Ghana with visions of videos being screened in remote villages and the Accra media never being quite the same again.

And the Olivetti was a very dim memory as I leaped forward on that timeline.