CUNY Research: Crowdsource Documentation

Posted: March 9, 2012 in Biz, CUNY Research, Incubator
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Name of Project: 18 Days in Egypt

Country: Egypt

Key Players: Jigar Mehta, Yasmin el-Ayat

Type: Storytelling and documenting the 18 days of Egypt’s revolution through crowd-sourcing

Founding date: 19 January 2012

Website: http://beta.18daysinegypt.com/

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/18Days

Twitter Handle: @18daysinegypt

Revenue model: No revenue model. They are a non-profit.

Documenting the Egyptian revolution through an interactive storytelling website is their goal. 18DaysinEgypt is the new media battlefield that was launched a few days before the first anniversary of 25 January 2011, an unforgettable day in Egypt’s recent history.

The Founders are Jigar Mehta, a Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University where he worked on developing tools for collaborative journalism and Yasmin el-Ayat, interaction designer and software developer based in New York City & Cairo. She studied Computer Science at the American University in Cairo (AUC) before doing her Masters degree from the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University(NYU).

The initial plan was to collect critical moments in the lives of Egyptians through what they have been filming on their mobile phones and cameras as well as their tweets and Facebook statuses on their path to freedom. These moments exist already on the Internet, but, there was a need to centralize the documentation for future reference. The main goal was to provide a platform for people to tell their story without interference, but the founders came to realize that the context in the videos uploaded on YouTube was missing creating confusion. They then decided to ‘storify’ the documentation and connect it together through combining different social media fragments creating stories out of them.

Social media remains till now the free dynamic medium available to young Egyptians to document their diaries and document Egypt’s history as well. A year old report shows that the number of Internet users in Egypt prior to January 25 was 21.2 million people but they have reached to 23.1 million after this date, an increase of 8.9 percent, or 1.9 million users. The report was published by the Egyptian tech company Techno Wireless.

Slogan reads "You lived it, documented it. Let's write our country's history".

The technology used so far in the website is a collaboration between the founders Mehta and el-Ayat with Emerge Technology to create a new web-technological platform called GroupStream. This new platform is the storytelling springboard that empowers citizen journalists, photographers, filmmakers and the culturally active with the ability to upload tweets, pictures and videos into a storyline.

Navigating through their website, it can be easily observed that this is quality documentation. It needs, however, to expand.  Right now, the aggregation of online content used for documentation is done manually but the team is trying to provide algorithms for the aggregation to be done automatically which will be a lot easier.

Since many people may not be connected to the Internet especially outside Cairo, the documentary project established a fellowship program to build bridges between the online and offline worlds. Selected Egyptian fellows spend between 3-6 months travelling all around Egypt, connecting with people and collecting the documentation that young people have recorded but could not add to the web. Most importantly, they teach media skills.

“It’s early to tell”, Mehta said about how Egyptians are reacting to the project. He wouldn’t reveal traffic statistics.

Cost-wise, a $100,000 grant was secured from the Tribeca New Media Fund and $20,000 was successfully raised through a Kickstarter campaign. The recent funding will be directed especially to fund 20 Egyptian journalists going outside the capital to document the revolution in other cities. You don’t see media caring to report or document what’s happening outside Cairo everyday. This is related to the one big problem of centralization that Egypt faces. So, it’s good they’re reaching out beyond the capital.

What is not good and questions the results of the project is that the founders seek no revenue. “We depend solely on grants”, Mehta said bluntly as 18DaysinEgypt partners with a NY-based NGO. It is true that the project is somehow limited to a certain period (18 days), yet, there are millions of social media fragments to look into. If serious documentation will be done (which is the case right now) and on a large-scale, a sustainable approach must be guaranteed but it cannot be with a complete interdependence on grants.

Since technology is the main keyword in the project, it apparently consumes a big portion of the secured grants. Currently, the founders are working on developing a more interactive way of watching 18 days documentation. A new online documentary program is expected in Autumn 2012.

How do they envision their project in 2-3 years? Ideally, Mehta says, the fellowship program will have been well-established to continue the mission of training journalists in Egypt. The ‘ideal goal’, as Mehta describes it, seems to be still in-the-making but, from the way it sounds, it looks like the founders are not planning to stay there for long.. for Mehta at least.

This research was done based on Skype calls with founders of and co-founders of booming digital media start-ups in the Arab world. Interviews were conducted in February and March 2012 originally for Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York (CUNY).

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