Scroll to the bottom for links to websites of the organizations/projects mentioned, as well as a podcast link.

“No one knows everything, we all know a little bit. Let’s look at our realities together,” says Amanda Garcés of Mobile Voices (vozmob), an IT platform that helps Latino, immigrant workers in Los Angeles create and distribute stories about their lives and communities directly, using cell phones.

“Video has immense capacity to generate action,” says Priscilla Néri of Witness, a New York based organization whose mandate is to provide training and support to local groups worldwide to use video in their human rights advocacy campaigns. Witness has coupled this mandate with the outreach and in-reach capacity of the internet.

Garcés and Neri were two of ten panellists at “Citizen Media Rendez-vous,” a one-day event held in Montréal on August 23, 2010, co-sponsored by international and local civil society and media organizations and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

I was curious to check out this event given the panic about “the disappearance of the print media as we know it”, contrasted with the proliferation of new media technologies and usage, and accelerating audience fragmentation. Perhaps new “Citizen Media,” whatever that was, would present the empowering face of this cataclysmic change, largely depicted as negative. This is what I learnt:

Craig Silverman from MediaShift, a PBS, U.S.A., funded “guide to the digital media revolution,” is currently working on OpenFile, in Toronto. This is a collaborative, local news site where stories are suggested by readers, then selected and investigated by OpenFile journalists.

Apart from producing journalism that is much more locally responsive, OpenFile can get actual intervention, for e.g., a municipal staff person may be called on to answer a question about tree cutting in a particular neighbourhood,

Tim McSorley is a Montreal editor at The Media Co-Op, a Canadian coast-to-coast network of local, media co-operatives. “We want to be accessible, accountable, democratic,” he said. Their open publishing site allows citizens to upload text, audio and video reports, while also funding professional journalistic reports. Media Co-op is independent – reader funded and member-run. They believe in talking to people directly affected first, then, time and resources permitting, the journalist brings their questions to those making the decisions: politicians, corporate executives. Typically this is the opposite of how mainstream media operate.

Georgia Popplewell, MD of Global Voices, started Caribbean Free Radio with the aim of broadening the stereotypical coverage of her country, Trinidad and Tobago. This expanded into “an international, volunteer-led project that collects, summarizes, and gives context to some of the best self-published content found on blogs, podcasts, photo sharing sites, and videoblogs from around the world, with an emphasis on countries outside of Europe and North America… and on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international, mainstream media.”

With 300 bloggers and translators on board at Global Voices, the content is translated into 18 languages. Amen.

Norman Cohn, the Canadian-American co-founder of IsumaTV, among the most politicized of the presenters, had an urgent mandate: to stop the disappearance of the 4000 year-old, Inuit language and culture, which he said is melting away as rapidly as Arctic icebergs. (Isuma, means “think” in Inuktitut.) IsumaTV is an independent, interactive network of Inuit and other indigenous multimedia that offers 200o plus films in 41 languages for free online.

The project started years ago with the idea of Inuit filmmakers and communities being able to film their own stories. Some of the ensuing products, like the not-to-be-missed Atarnajuat, the Fast Runner, were a critical and commercial success. “Our films were being seen elsewhere, but not in the Inuit communities, and there is still a problem of access,” says Cohn.

Remote communities in the Canadian North (as well as parts of rural Canada, another participants added) lack affordable, usable internet access, and the situation is getting worse. “There’s a class system here; there’s colonization,” Cohn reminded us. He is working with a community-oriented, internet company to improve access.

Jean-Noé Landry from Montréal Ouvert (Open Montreal) is working to get Montreal to adopt an open data policy. This would allow citizens to understand better how the city operates, and analyze and use municipal data that is usually kept private. A handful of cities have adopted an open data policy, and they have been able to save money, he said. This project is trying to promote grassroots democracy and transparency.

Other projects presented were the Indian CGNet Swara and Ushahidi. Swara is an audio website where people can call a phone number to record news, and listeners can call in to hear the recorded news. It serves tribal people in remote areas in the state of Chhattisgarh, India. Community members sometimes have cell phones, but hardly any other technology. (Electricity is not a given.)

This pilot project, like Mobile Voices and IsumaTV, is about disadvantaged minorities generating their own news to build identity, solidarity and community while also presenting their realities from their own perspective to the larger public. While these kinds of initiatives are not new, marrying them to the potential of new information technologies gives them wider scope.

Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) is a platform that enables a person to send in information by phone or e-mail that can then be electronically mapped. It has been used in several crisis situations. Jaroslav Valuch, who works with Ushahidi, recounted the fascinating story of its deployment during the Haiti earthquake this year, when trapped Haitians were calling in from various parts of the country, and Haitian expats, mobilized through Facebook, were translating the messages and helping localize the calls, putting their geographic and cultural knowledge to use. Click to listen to a podcast about Ushahidi and its larger implications.

Many challenges also surfaced – sustainable funding, ensuring data accuracy, quality control, maintaining independence and not getting coopted, increasing public awareness and engagement, how to protect people’s identities in human rights abuse contexts, and others.

While not being naive about the obstacles, the presenters came across as committed and positive, which was truly inspiring. If a key goal of civil society organizations is promoting citizen involvement, and giving citizen’s voice and agency, then new Citizen Media, whose potential is just emerging, is surely a good thing. I welcome the decentring and opening up of media creation and diffusion as never before. Do you? It may be bewildering and a tad scary, but it looks like it is going to be an exciting ride!

Accessing citizen media panel:
• Norman Cohn, co-founder IsumaTV (Montréal – Igloolik)
• Tim McSorley, editor Media Co-operative (CAN – Montréal)
• Georgia Popplewell, Managing Director Global Voices (TRINIDAD & TOBAGO)
• Craig Silverman, Managing Editor MediaShift (USA) & Digital Journalism Director OpenFile(Toronto)
• Jean-Noé Landry, co-founder Montréal Ouvert (Montréal)

Use of new media for human rights panel:
• Jaroslav Valuch, Haiti Project Manager Ushahidi (KENYA – Boston)
• Priscila Néri, Program Coordinator, Witness (New York)
• Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNet Swara (INDIA) *via Skype
• Martin Lessard, Zéro Seconde (Montréal)
• Amanda Garces, Project Coordinator Mobile Voices (Los Angeles)
(This is a mostly Spanish site.)