Mobile phone technology meets citizen journalism

Jul 242010

When my health-journalism fellowship began two and a half years ago, I dreamed about finding the “killer app” for mobile telephones that would revolutionize journalism in Africa.

I didn’t make much headway, and the dream came to look like a wild fantasy. But today, 26-year old Lydia Namubiru is engineering the kind of leap forward I once dreamed would be my claim to fame.

The diminutive Ugandan was working as a features writer for the New Vision newspaper when I arrived in her country at the beginning of 2008. She is a good writer, adept both at analyzing complex social issues and amusing readers with light-hearted social commentary. I encouraged her to do more health stories, and helped her refine her analysis and polish her writing around the edges. But alas, she grew restless and started looking for new challenges. As much as I hated to do it, I felt duty bound to tell her when I learned that the Grameen Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that is developing innovative uses for mobile telephones, began looking for staff for its Kampala-based “AppLab.” She applied, and Grameen quickly snatched her up.

I had tried to bring Grameen into a partnership with a newspaper in 2008, but nothing came of it. The reasons are complex, but a big one clearly was that I didn’t know what I was doing – and hence couldn’t make a compelling case for the collaboration.

A lot has changed since then. The Gates Foundation has funded the new Knight development fellowships, which included among their objectives establishment of citizen journalism networks linked by mobile phones. Separately, Grameen has launched an ambitious new “Community Knowledge Worker” project – a network of Ugandan farmers equipped with high-end mobile phones that enable them to bring information to, and collect information from, Uganda’s farm sector.

Although I feared Lydia would be lost to journalism once she left the newspaper business, she remained a journalist at heart. Almost from the outset, she urged Grameen to turn the “Community Knowledge Workers” into citizen journalists. We brainstormed a bit, but the concept remained vague in my mind. Not so for Lydia. This week, she presented a comprehensive plan to a gathering of ICFJ’s Africa-based Knight fellows.

I watched in awe as she described a remarkably elegant vision. I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. As soon as the meeting ended, Lydia found herself flanked by ICFJ Vice President Patrick Butler and Justin Arenstein, a former Knight Fellow and founder of African Eye News Service. Patrick was looking for ways to make the Gates-backed citizen journalism project a reality. And Justin, a technology and journalism whiz, told me the marriage of Lydia’s ideas and Grameen’s technology would produce the most advanced mobile phone-based citizen journalism project in southern Africa.

Less than 24 hours later, Lydia was introducing Patrick, Tanzania-based Knight Fellow Joachim Buwembo and me to Whitney Gantt, her boss at Grameen. An hour after that, we had an agreement to explore collaborations in Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana. I participated in the discussions where I could, but held my tongue whenever the conversation touched on topics like Java-enabled or Android phones. On the other side of the table, though, the young woman who brought us all together continued to wow us.

For me personally, it was an exciting moment. The teacher has become the student.

Editor's Note: Fellow Chris Conte attends Knight Fellows Meeting in Kampala.