Journalism and new media technology collide at Knight Fellows meeting

Jul 222010

Kampala, Uganda – A spontaneous exchange today shows how important it has been to bring together our Knight Fellows working across Africa. Justin Arenstein is a digital media expert from South Africa who just completed a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University and is now going to help our Africa fellows incorporate new ideas in mobile technology and citizen journalism into their projects. Their work is improving coverage of health and poverty issues across the continent.

Justin gave a mesmerizing presentation today on where media is headed around the world and how African journalists can not only take advantage of the trends but actually lead them. Driven by necessity, Africans are far ahead of their more developed counterparts in mobile banking, the sharing of critical information on agriculture and health, and other uses of cell phones. He was full of ideas for how the fellows could make use of the latest trends to help their media partners – not only in doing better journalism but also in increasing revenue to sustain the better journalism. Mercedes Sayagues, who is working to improve health coverage in Mozambique, noted a story that has been undercovered in the media there. In one neighborhood near the capital, she said, widespread pollution from an unregulated plant is leading to increased asthma problems.

Knight Fellow Mercedes Sayagues shows other fellows stories that have been done by her trainees in Mozambique.

Justin told her about a device that can be attached to an ordinary cell phone to measure pollutants every day and then send air-quality readings by text message to someone who can track how the levels are changing. The cost: Less than $1,000. Geeks are working in labs all over the world to develop devices like this, Justin said, and they’re eager for opportunities to put them to use.

He told the group about another inexpensive device that can measure water contamination in different spots in a river every day. Women who get drinking water from the river could get a text message telling them which sections are cleanest that day and which to avoid. Justin is helping get this device into use in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, where he co-founded African Eye News Service to improve coverage of the country’s neglected rural areas.

But is this journalism? Justin sees a great role for traditional media to play in using these new technologies because they are trusted by people and they can analyze the information in ways that are useful for broad sectors of the population.

Mercedes was sure that some news organizations in Mozambique – and certainly some NGOs – would be interested in applying the technology that would measure air pollution in a neighborhood where people are increasingly suffering from asthma. The news organizations could then do stories that would hold government accountable for protecting the health of the neighborhood’s residents.

Happily, Justin’s home in Mpumalanga Province is just 200 kilometers from Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Mercedes asked whether he could come to Maputo one day and help her put this monitoring system into place. Of course, he said.

And an important new element to Mercedes’ already successful fellowship is born.