Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Digital skills to take control of local press coverage

A research project is giving people the digital skills to take control
of local press coverage

High-definition cameras and web-enabled mobile handsets wielded by
ordinary people have become crucial elements of news coverage in
places such as Tehran and Rangoon, where what once was unreported is
now recorded and rapidly shared with the world. But as shown by the
mobile phone film that a passer-by took of Ian Tomlinson – who died of
internal bleeding after being attacked by a police officer – at last
year's G20 demonstrations in London, those digital technologies have a
part to play in news coverage closer to home.

Until recently, local press coverage of the Fishwick and Callon area
of Preston perpetuated its image – established a decade earlier on
ITV's Neighbours From Hell – as a crime-ridden, socially deprived
neighbourhood. But local activists, who are trying to steer the area
in another direction, are now learning how to tell their own stories
through Bespoke, a collaborative research project between five British
universities, including the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan)
in Preston, led by David Frohlich, professor of interaction design at
the University of Surrey.

Few social spaces

Research emphasises the role that libraries can play in digital
inclusion, but Callon and Fishwick has no library, and few social
spaces . As one local put it: "The only time this community gets
together is at Lidl."

Bespoke's citizen-journalists decided on the stories they wanted to
tell – and how they wanted to tell them – through workshops in schools
and church halls, as well as Uclan's Sandbox digital media lab.

Using small film cameras and mobile phones, members of the Ablaze
youth group canvassed opinion on the regeneration of countryside
between the estate and the Ribble river. They are now involved in the
ongoing consultation process for the multimillion-pound Remade scheme,
which is managed by Lancashire county council and aims to reclaim a
quarter of the region's derelict land by 2011.

"It's refreshing to see the kids coming up with ideas and being taken
seriously," says Lorraine May, one of Ablaze's volunteer youth
leaders. "They're definitely more at home with the phones and the
cameras than adults. And I think they appreciate that the ideas coming
out of the project are a bit different to the norm."

Three schoolgirls, calling themselves the Callon Young Reporters,
interviewed residents and community workers about methods of
disseminating information locally. "You never know what you're going
to come across when you talk to people," says reporter Kirsty
Worthington, 14. "We asked loads of people about the best way for them
to hear about things".

Other assignments document local life. For example, the Ablaze group
is recording the memories of patrons of the parish hall attached to St
Teresa's Catholic church, which faces possible closure. Farrah
Barbarakram has filmed a profile of Ruqia Saddiq, who pioneered
translation services for Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants in Preston
in the late 1960s, while local music producer Ste "Dub P" Robinson is
making a documentary about the hip-hop and grime scene in the area.

The work of the citizen-journalists will be loaded into a searchable
map of the area on a central, online news portal.

One of Bespoke's key objectives is "to allow those who are digitally
excluded to benefit from the economic, social and cultural advantages
that access to digital tools and content can provide". However, six
months after it began, the project is ready to engage with the wider
local community, who felt the most appropriate method of communication
in an area with so few common social spaces was via an old-fashioned,
hand-delivered newsletter.

Paul Egglestone, project developer at Uclan's digital media lab,
explains: "Communication is happening in the digital space, but we're
also giving people this information in analogue format."

Project co-ordinator John Mills says dummies for the newsletter were
evaluated within the community with the aid of Anoto pens, which look
and write like normal pens but when used on specially printed paper
send residents comments to a nearby laptop.

"It's good for people who can't use a computer for whatever reason,
who feel more comfortable with a pen and paper," Mills says. "Any
interface we create – online, newsletter or mobile – needs to be
accessible and usable for everybody. That's a real challenge."

Fifteen formerly unemployed young adults learning general work and
media skills will soon swell the Bespoke ranks in a joint initiative
by social housing landlord Contour Housing and community media
specialists People's Voice Media, with money from the Future Jobs

Responding to residents' desire to access footage from the
surveillance cameras around the area, academics from Newcastle
University and Dundee University are exploring the use of CCTV as a
tool for the community, and plan to set up a prototype system over the
football pitches opposite St Teresa's. "It will consist of two
cameras, each one filming a side of the pitch," says John Rogers,
product designer at Dundee. "If players do something interesting, such
as a goal or a tackle, a button can be pressed and the previous 30
seconds of footage will automatically upload on to YouTube."

Justin Marshall, a research fellow at University College Falmouth, is
looking at mapping extended family relationships in Callon and
Fishwick with what he calls a "family hedge". He says: "It provides a
tangible and engaging means of digitally recording and linking stories
and experiences with family photos and treasured objects. The
traditional family tree tends to represent families in
highly-structured and simplified bloodlines, which situate individuals
in a historical context, emphasising traditional notions of the
family. T he family hedge encourages inclusivity and the charting of
existing extended family connections in all their complexity."

Hyperlocal experiment

The two-year Bespoke project, funded by the Engineering and Physical
Sciences Research Council, is being closely monitored by Martin Hamer,
digital editor of the Lancashire Evening Post, which often takes Uclan
media students on placements. The newspaper is looking into the
feasibility of its own hyperlocal experiment, dividing its sales area
into 22 online communities, with content provided by local
citizen-stringers (correspondents).

Egglestone emphasises that sustainability is at the heart of the
project. He says: "The intention is to build relationships, train
enough content-providers, develop a community editorial board, and
identify revenue streams through partnerships to sustain the project
way beyond that. It's not just about laptops and cameras. It's about a
whole infrastructure."

Sean A Smith
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 March 2010
• Sean A Smith co-ordinated the launch of the Bespoke project in
Callon and Fishwick.