Underwater Smart Phones: Keeping tabs on drinking water

Hi Tech, future of journalism & basic human rights

Deep in Mpumalanga province a poorly resourced newspaper is using a combination of high and low tech solutions to improve the quality of life in the community it serves. Pioneering a new and innovative form of journalism that places ordinary people at the centre of its coverage, the newspaper involves readers directly in the newsgathering operation – a lesson for bigger, more established media of what is possible. As part of our focus on Human Rights this month we look at technology that makes a difference.

The Ziwaphi community-based newspaper is distributed to the poor and under-serviced communities in the Nkomazi district, situated at the epicentre of South Africa’s Aids pandemic, where women and young girls spend hours every day collecting water from rivers for drinking, cooking and washing.

But these same rivers are also often used to dispose of human waste and for people to wash in, resulting in sewage contamination and the E.coli count sometimes spiking, causing diarrhoea and, every few years, an outbreak of cholera.

Using a grant and technology assistance from the African Story Challenge and technology assistance from Code for AfricaZiwaphi is placing old smartphones submerged in clear plastic bottles in rivers in the area. Functioning as simple electron microscopes, the phones use their inbuilt cameras to take regular flash lit pictures that are then magnified and compared against an existing image database to detect dangerous levels of E.coli.

The results are delivered via SMS to residents, informing them where it’s safe to collect water.

Completing the circle, the newspaper analyses the real-time data to detect trends, and hopefully even triangulate the sources of contamination. And once a month, Ziwaphi publishes an in-depth story based on the results, which is shared with other community papers and local radio stations in the area, to help empower ordinary people with information to force government to deliver clean water and sanitation to their poor and under-serviced communities.

Eyewitness Stories

Ziwaphi’s readers also help gather information using a mobile-based citizen reporting app to help supplement the smartphone data with eyewitness stories about the impacts of the pollution and possible sources of contamination.

“The total project only cost US$20 000, including a modest salary for a year for a full-time health reporter,” says strategist Justin Arenstein. “But the important thing, from a media sustainability perspective, is that Ziwaphi is using the water project to build the digital backbone it will need to survive in the near future.”

The phone-in-a-bottle project is just one example of what can be done with limited resources and holds a lesson for bigger, more mainstream African media about the benefits of using a combination of old-fashioned journalism and technology to generate content and grow communities, as they search for sustainability against a backdrop of shrinking traditional revenue streams.

While Africa has lagged because of the prohibitively high cost of internet access, this is changing as the deployment of new undersea cables bring down the cost of connectivity, especially in East and southern Africa.

This has sparked an exciting new era for African journalism, with an explosion of ideas and innovations that are producing ‘news you can use’ tools. It is also seeing established media reaching out to citizens, to involve them in their newsgathering and content production processes.

Flushing Out Dodgy Doctors

In Kenya the Radio Group Africa the third largest media house, has set up Star Health as the first in a set of planned toolsets, to help readers do easy background checks on doctors and learn whether they have ever been found guilty of malpractice (in one case a man working as a doctor in fact turned out to be a vet).

The site, which has proved to be a big hit in a country where dodgy doctors are a big problem, also helps users locate medical specialists and their nearest health facility, and to check whether the medicines they have been prescribed are covered by the national health scheme.

Importantly, the results of queries on Star Health are delivered via a premium SMS service that generates an income stream, crucial in an age when media need to diversify revenue models away from reliance on advertising and, in some cases, copy sales too, if they hope to survive the digital tsunami.

“These tools don’t replace traditional journalism, rather they augment journalistic reportage by, for example, helping readers to find out how a national story on dodgy doctors personally affects them,” says Arenstein. News must be personal and actionable and should become an important part of the media’s digital transformation strategies, he stresses.

In Nigeria, in West Africa, the Hala Nigeria: Many Voices, Better Lives project and its sister Code for Nigeria initiative is using mobile tools and 3D printed drones to help amplify citizen voices, while improving audience engagement with traditional media, as well as creating interesting and valuable content.

The reality of journalism today is that, even though they may not have the large audiences of conventional media, anyone with a smartphone or basic digital skills has the ability to be a “publisher”.

Citizen Voices A Priority

In Nigeria, for example, the Sahara online community blogging platform has over a million followers on social media, far more than many media houses – and the challenge will be for newsrooms to tap into these grassroots networks, but still keep citizen voices at the core of the feedback loop.

A pioneering project – in Nigeria’s isolated Delta region – entails mainstream media working with an existing citizen reporting network, Naija Voices, to adopt remote controlled drones fitted with cameras to monitor for environmentally destructive oil spills. The plan is to syndicate the footage into mainstream TV and newspaper partners in Lagos and Abuja, allowing them unprecedented reach into parts of the country that had previously been largely inaccessible to them.

The fixed-wing drones (similar to those in this TED video) are relatively cheap and simple to fly, but they crash from time to time. “Getting new parts, like the wings or pieces of the fuselage, would be costly and time consuming, so we’re experimenting with 3D printers to create parts onsite and on demand,” says Arenstein.

This citizen reporting experiment builds on the work of skyCAM, which for the past year has been experimenting with drones in Kenya as part of “Africa’s first newsroom-based eye in the sky”. skyCAM uses drones and camera-equipped balloons to help media that cannot afford news helicopters to cover breaking news in dangerous situations or difficult-to-reach locations.

Geo Journalism

In South Africa, Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Reporting is using “geo journalism and other mapping techniques to amplify its reporting and to analyse ongoing stories like rhino poaching and canned lion hunting to uncover trends or links to criminal syndicates. Their reportage is credited with promoting a recent ban on canned hunting in Botswana and helping to shape laws on trade in rhino and other wildlife products in China and in Mozambique.

But the reality is that poorly fly-resourced African newsrooms seldom have the in-house technology resources or digital skills to build these new tools.

So, Code for Africa’s digital innovation programme and similar initiatives at Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and at smaller donors like the Indigo Trust, are all building external support systems to help newsrooms leapfrog into a digital future.

In a column on the future of newspapers, Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press, a national South African Sunday newspaper that is struggling to reinvent itself in the digital age, wrote: “Nothing is at it was. Nor are most things what they seem. We have a future, and it is tantalising.”

And you just need to look at the smartphones in a bottle and 3D-printed drones to know that this future is slowly, newsroom by newsroom, project by project, becoming a reality.

A version of this story was first published by Index on Censorship in a series on the future of journalism. It has been edited to update some developments.

Drone picture by Don McCullough: Creative Commons use

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