Alive In Egypt was created after Google and Twitter introduced the @speak2tweet dial-to-tweet service. Both companies wanted to see these phone conversations translated into English (most were in Arabic) and asked three outside organizations for assistance. These organizations, Small World News, Yamli and Meedan, assembled a core team who's mission was to bring the voices of Egyptians directly to those who could not understand Arabic. Bold missions and goals with world-changing implications tend to bring together phenomenal people and Alive In Egypt was no exception. Over 200 people from around the world translated tweets into four languages. A core team of ten, have been holding this together with Sisyphian dedication. Many long nights and hard work have created something that allows the words of many to a be read by a world hungry for the real story.

People yearn to hear each other's stories and times of crisis require deeper, meaningful connections. This work has made the world smaller and richer. We hope that we have helped in some small way to make the world better.

Tools and Process

For a work of this magnitude, the tools were conversely very simple. We could have done things differently, but our success is directly attributable to the simplicity and openness of our technology choices. There are four tools we use behind the scenes:

  • Twitter provided tweets from @speak2tweet
  • Google Spreadsheets to manage translations
  • Skype for back-channel collaboration
  • Wordpress for publishing

Our process is equally simple…

  • We manually fetch the tweets and put the links and timestamps in a spreadsheet.
  • Transcribers "lock" a row in the spreadsheet and start playing back the audio in another window while they type the Arabic transcription.
  • Translators (often those undertaking the transciption) put their transcription in another column.
  • Finished translations are reviewed and enhanced with comments or asks questions on Skype and marks it clean when they are done by coloring the row pink
  • The spreadsheet is examined periodically, looking for pink lines to indicate a blog post should be published from Wordpress.
  • We automatically tweet from @aliveinegypt when the post goes live.

This process sets the tone for the whole endeavor. With a straightforward, analytical approach we are not tempted to editorialize. We simply work through the list and post things as they are completed. If some event happens where there is immediate use of the content (i.e. someone is released from prison, a major speech) then we skip ahead to the relevant story, but that is the extent of our curation.

Put simply, the tools get out of the way of their users. Alive In Egypt has people inside, not technology. Great things are enabled by the tools, but they are not the reason we are here.

Success and Failure

The reason Alive In Egypt has succeeded so well is because we think about the content and the connections before we worry about the technological implementation details. As great as the tools are, our technology's failures help us get more connected to one another as a team and to solve problems more quickly and in different ways.

Our manual process engenders more intimate contact between the content creators and our volunteers. There have been a few times where someone would call in or tweet about the work we are doing. A volunteer would inevitably chime in on the chat room about it to let everyone know. This two-way connection helps make our mission more "real" and facilitates a deep dedication to the work at hand.

We have been fortunate to have the backing of Google and Twitter through this whole endeavor. When our spreadsheet had troubles in the middle of the night on a Saturday, Google responded quickly and told us that we had hit a bug that they hadn't known about.

Our efforts tend to fall down because our process is quite slow and erratic. Early on we got very bogged down with bad translations, too many incoming tweets and not enough people to post them to the site. We have never formalized a duty schedule for any of our volunteers. We got through those times by being vigilant. We have talked about, and worked on,  automating things to some degree, but have never put any of that into practice. We have been better off leaving the manual process in place.

What's next

We want to continue to explore these deep connections we're making with one another and the larger world. We want to see what happens when we empower people even more than @speak2tweet did by giving them a more complete media toolbox to use. We have a lot of questions:

  • How do conversations form around stories?
  • How do we enable real-time collaboration on an even bigger scale to produce truly global stories?
  • How does the concept of Moderating or Curating instead of Editing content work in this new media landscape? Does it scale?
  • How do people want to tell their stories with the advent of new tools?
  • How do we turn the work on into a broader, meaningful as a basis for a new platform for grassroots reporting.

I could go on, but these are deep and meaningful questions that we have seen some evidence of the answers to in the past two weeks. Time will tell if what we've observed is just in response to an event or is a sustained wave of change sweeping through the way in which we view one another and our stories. This is the great victory of an endeavor that has only been alive for two weeks, but has the potential to help countless people connect with one another in new ways.