After decades of peace, tensions have flared and fighting has broken out in the “Sultanate of Qumar.” International and local news organisations are scrambling journalists to cover the fighting and the humanitarian crisis that looms.
How might those news organisations use digital news, information and data to cover this emerging conflict in Qumar? Are there ways we might collaborate and innovate to help keep colleagues safe?
You might recall Qumar, the imaginary sultanate that played a central role in season four of The West Wing television drama. We revived its conflict to create an imaginary scenario to put to representatives of some of the world’s leading international news organisations.
They gathered recently at a co-design workshop in central London sponsored by Pop Up Newsroom and the Thomson Foundation to focus on innovation in the coverage of conflict and humanitarian crisis.
We wanted participants to consider some of the common challenges they would face in covering an emerging conflict or humanitarian crisis where they don’t already have an infrastructure or digital news-gathering network in place, as they might currently have in, say, Syria or Afghanistan.
The group engaged in a rapid brainstorming sprint to generate a long list of challenges that they would all face in Qumar.
Editorial challenges; lack of relevant contacts, desk and field collaboration, harassment of sources
Challenges around safety and logistics; lack of real-time safety information, bad connectivity, no back-up.
We divided into different groupings to tackle the next task: designing innovative and collaborative ways to solve some of these challenges.
After we broke for lunch — food seems to drive creativity — several ideas started to take shape, especially around ways to help improve the safety of journalists on the ground in Qumar.
Digital Breadcrumbs and Flares:
Participants designed a technology solution to monitor the safety and movement of news teams on the ground in Qumar. An application would enable teams to drop “digital bread-crumbs” to let their desks know where they are, that they are safe and, if the situation turns dicey, to raise “digital flares”. At the same time, this information could easily be anonymised -protecting a news organisation’s competitive efforts - and then shared securely in real-time with other journalists in Qumar.
Journalists’ Safety Net and Hub:
A hub would be tasked with collecting and then pushing out real-time safety information to help journalists and news organisations make decisions about their on-the-ground operations in Qumar. The hub would double as the nucleus for a network of participating international and relevant domestic journalists and news organisations that will feed safety information from the field back to the hub in real-time, perhaps using the Digital Breadcrumbs and Flares programme. The open-source community and other digital sources would also play key roles in this network, feeding digital information back to the hub to push out to newsrooms and teams into field.
We now know that there is a real need to improve the way real-time safety information is gathered from and pushed out to journalists operating in zones of conflict and humanitarian crisis. And, from this design workshop, we also know that leading international news organisations are eager to work together to improve everyone’s safety through innovation.
The next steps involve spending some time analysing the best ways to build out the core elements of this collaboration:
Building the safety net and hub: Policies are needed to govern the safety net and hub. For this project to work, for news organisations to buy-in and for reporters to trust it, the rules of the road need to be clear and transparent at the outset. Then the networking can begin.
Tech development: A back-end infrastructure is needed to rapidly handle different feeds of safety data in real time plus a User Experience (UX) that is easy to use in the field, in newsrooms and by the open-source community - one participant envisioned it as Waze for the journalists of Qumar.
Editorial collaboration: It will be important to look beyond the safety collaboration to consider ways to expand this project into the trickier territory of editorial collaboration. How might news organisations, for example, collaborate to more effectively share and verify open-source digital information about conflict and humanitarian crisis?
The author: Andrew Mills is a journalist and Assistant Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University's campus in Doha, Qatar. He is co-founder of JumplineJournalism.com, a community hub to support journalism educators.