On May 2, residents of Kliptown, an informal settlement in Soweto in Gauteng, South Africa, took to the streets to protest housing conditions. This was the latest in a slew of widespread protests over social issues in the greater Soweto region. The demonstrations had been receiving coverage from local newsrooms, but most reports focused on the immediate actions and sound bites from the protesters. That is, until an article appearing on the Grassroot website offered a new perspective.
The article, “Kliptown protest action: One community, two different stories,” had been published with input from on-the-ground community leaders, using a new mobile-driven tool called LiveWire. The post drew the attention of an investigative journalist from the leading broadcaster eNCA’s program Checkpoint, who requested the LiveWire team to put her in touch with leaders in the community. Those leaders then introduced the eNCA team to resident elder Esther Bezana, through whom the story of the Kliptown community’s struggle for housing was told. The result was an in-depth episode that delved into the causes of the protest, taking into account the long-running story of community struggle.
LiveWire works by connecting community leaders and journalists, so grassroots activity becomes better known to mainstream audiences. The tool was developed by Grassroot, with funding from innovateAFRICA, a Code for Africa program that supports disruptive digital ideas to improve the way news is collected and disseminated. The tool is built around two main functions, a ‘press alert’ generator and a ‘find contact’ tool.
“The press alert generator allows a community activist to issue an alert to news desks with a short description and include a contact number and name,” Grassroots CEO Luke Jordan explained. “The Grassroot back-end then complements the alert with information on the group’s size and top-level stats about its prior activity and, after a quick review, fires out an email to a list of news desks.” Similarly, the find contact tool enables media outlets to generate a list of potential contacts in a community when they are reporting on it. “Due to the obvious privacy risks involved, the function is only open to journalists and only displays users who have opted in by calling a public meeting or registering as a LiveWire contact,” Luke said. LiveWire can be used across any kind of data connection or phone type.
The tool was developed with input from community leaders and journalists, and its workings reflect the feedback gathered from potential users. “We first thought media would require lengthy information about any alert, but we found instead they wanted bare bones information — enough for a rapid determination if the lead might be worth looking into and an easy means of following up,” Luke said. LiveWire was rolled out to community ambassadors, who have been using it to send alerts on various issues such as electricity access, housing registration, neighborhood security and protests, similar to the one picked up by eNCA’s Checkpoint.
Grassroot is now training LiveWire users on citizen journalism, so that the alerts they generate are the most effective possible. “There are also plans to integrate media capture onto the LiveWire Android app, so along with the alert, our users can add instant images, video or audio,” Luke said. Currently, there are 10 alerts per week, generated from 205 activists and community leaders on the contact list and going to 25 journalists on the email lists.The Grassroot team is focusing on connecting more news desks to the tool and training journalists on the contact search function, in order to encourage uptake and get more community stories featured on mainstream media. “The primary goal, after all, is use and impact, rather than technology for its own sake,” said Luke.
Grassroot is a community organizing tech startup founded in South Africa two years ago.
Irene Wangui is an Africa program consultant at the International Center for Journalists.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Nagarjun Kandukuru.