Spoutin' Off: 'Citizen journalism' archive needed
By Michael Rau
September 5 2005
As I write this, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is being witnessed by billions worldwide. I would find it difficult to believe that anyone who's seen any of the images of the devastation would remain unmoved by the scope of the tragedy.
So what does this have to do with technology? In a word: everything.
First and foremost is the almost immediate outpouring of critical public assistance. As was the case after December's Indian Ocean tsunami, it's unlikely that - absent the imagery and accounts of the disaster - those of us who did not share the experience could fathom the degree of devastation.
Once they comprehended this, people all over the world - including millions of Americans - opened their hearts and their wallets to help mitigate the tragedy in South Asia and East Africa.
And now it's happening again. Within hours of Katrina's landfall, offers of help began pouring in to any agency or organization to which people could think to make such an offer. They saw the live television feeds and video. They read the online accounts from those in the middle of the storm. They heard the stories of cell phone calls from trapped residents, begging for help.
I'd like to think that we'd be as generous without seeing for ourselves just how bad it was. But I'm also grateful that the technology exists and was used, which rendered the contemplation of this question moot.
Nothing matters more than the human cost and offering aid and comfort to those affected. But there are certainly other fascinating applications of technology to consider in relation to informing the public about this event.
No words offer enough praise for the meteorologists and support personnel who tracked the storm. Their work, which manifested on-air and online, was nothing less than exemplary.
For those willing to pay attention to the information provided (but sadly not for those not in a position to evacuate in the wake of warnings to do so), they might have lost their belongings but not their lives.
For those who chose to stay, survived and ended up in extreme risk, their cell phones were often the source of their salvation. Numerous people were saved by being able to call emergency agencies for rescue.
We've seen and heard from the news professionals who, quite frankly, did a fantastic job of providing real-time coverage of the event and continue to do so. Many local television stations in the areas affected by the storm maintained running accounts of Katrina's progress and wrath on their Web sites. Some provided streaming video, which they constantly updated. Some had live webcams online.
In the aftermath of the storm, these outlets relied on advanced technology to get their stories out. Among many others in the region, New Orleans' storied newspaper - The Times-Picayune, whose downtown offices are underwater - made fellow journalists proud by keeping an online edition available and updated, even when it couldn't publish a print version.
But what makes this whole process rather revolutionary isn't how technology is further empowering professionals who disseminate news, but rather, how it's empowering the emerging idea of the "citizen journalist."
Many people shared their experiences as things were happening and in the aftermath through blogs, text messages, and e-mails. Some of these accounts are pretty riveting.
One media element that I haven't seen much of yet - but expect to as conditions gradually improve in the affected region - is home video shot by residents and visitors as the storm rolled through. I would imagine that this will be as compelling as anything. (Remember the home videos of the tsunami?)
Although some of this will make it to commercial outlets, I think that for the evolution of the citizen journalist to be complete, there needs to be a universal effort created to collect and archive all this media without commercial (or political) consideration.
Perhaps a university or other nonprofit agency could set up an e-mail or FTP location to which people could send their digital video clips and pictures.
Someone should take on the additional task of collecting in some searchable form the blog accounts, e-mails and other media that senders or recipients are willing to share.
This wouldn't be terribly expensive. It requires storage capacity and a front-end administrative database application of some kind.
We're talking about thousands, not millions, of dollars in startup costs.
Not cheap, for sure, but certainly not too much to secure the entire record of a really important event in history and, at the same time, create a system to archive the records of citizen journalists who will record those events yet to come.
Technology - driven by dedicated people - predicted what happened, recorded what happened, reports what's happening now and, in the long run, will ease the suffering and damage caused by something over which we have utterly no control.
We can control whether the annals of this event, enabled by technology, will be preserved.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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