Last week some of us from Small World News visited the Occupy Portland protest, a local spin-off of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have captured the national attention. We wanted to observe how citizen media was being utilized to cover the protests, and also to experiment with the tools of the trade. I've always been particularly fascinated with live media, whether it be live streaming video or realtime micro-blogging, and that was what I was interested in at Occupy Portland. While there are many instances of streaming video at the Occupy protests, I had a specific angle in mind.
At Small World News, one of our key areas of work is in how citizen media is deployed in repressive and dangerous environments, which is why we published our Guide to Safely & Securely Producing Media. It was with this in mind that I selected my tools. I used only my Android smartphone with its data connection, opting out of higher-end cameras, laptops, and mobile broadband. I personally prefer free and thoroughly mainstreamed applications for spreading citizen media (Youtube, for example, or Twitter) and thus settled on Ustream for streaming video.
The key here is that, in a repressive environment, the smartphone can be obfuscated in a crowd much easier than larger setups, and can also be quickly wiped out (all data erased) should the threat of security services present itself. Above all it can be deployed quickly and spontaneously, ideal for breaking news events. None of these concerns were present at Occupy Portland of course - there was no need to hide, security services were not a threat, and the protest occurred with several week's notice - but this was only a test.
Almost immediately, I noticed a few problems with my choice of software. First, the Ustream app would lose its connection whenever I received an SMS and was unable to reconnect without shutting down and restarting the application. Text messaging is an extremely important communication tool, especially in developing countries (Egypt and Tunisia for instance). Luckily, Ustream's website will refresh automatically, so anyone watching the stream when it goes down merely has to wait a moment for it to return. Even still, a user should not have to choose between SMS and live video, they should operate in tandem.
The next issue was that, while it allowed me to connect the app to my Twitter account, the app did not let me customize the text of the tweets it used to notify others of my broadcasts. What this means it that the user cannot use hashtags, such as #jan25 in Egypt, in order to have their broadcast spread farther. Remember, one of the benefits of this live stream set up is that it can be deployed quickly. This speed advantage does little or no good if the broadcast can't be seen and picked up easily by others.
Furthermore, the tweet that is broadcast by the app is very ambiguous and filled with junk information. "I'm broadcasting from Android phone, live on Ustream - http://ustre.am/DJCf - 15:30 PM Oct 6." Why does a viewer need to know what device I'm using, and why would they need a timestamp when the tweet itself is timestamped (as is the video)? They can be forgiven for branding the tweet with Ustream, it is free after all, but the rest is wasted characters better used for relevant hashtags and contextual information.
Even with these technical problems, the effect of the stream was still apparent. The most common feedback I received was along the lines of "I felt like I was there." This is certainly exciting, but it only provides an experience, not necessarily informative data. When live shots are used on television, they generally have someone onscreen talking, providing context to the viewer on what exactly they're seeing (and experiencing). But this isn't always possible in a repressive environment, as a user may not necessarily want their identity broadcast along with their stream.
There are ways to mitigate most of these issues. A partner can watch for the streams to come online, and aggregate them in a central location (say, a Twitter account) and then push them out to a wider audience with the relevant hashtags and much-needed contextual information. Even better would be an application specifically for this aggregation that would allow the partner to switch between multiple streams, cueing up one after another as they go online (and off).
How else can these streaming tools be improved for the purposes of citizen media? If you could design an application for streaming video, what features would you include? We're interested in your feedback, so sound off on Twitter or Facebook.
//Photo via Flickr