People's media

People's media means ordinary individuals and groups using media technology to create and disseminate content; this can be anything from images from demonstrations to reports on human rights abuses. In advocacy work this means that individuals and organisations are able to collect and spread information and reports about things that matter to them.

This section of the toolkit explains ways of using the multimedia capacities of mobile phones to publish reports on local or national events, to take photographs, and to record sound or video. Organisations are also able to use mobile phones to establish new media channels for their content by setting up mobile friendly versions of their websites. We look at how this is done, what tools are available and how people's media can make the work of your organisation more effective.

In other parts of the toolkit you can find out about using mobiles to update blogs and websites, about getting media off your phone, about enabling participation by using SMS for monitoring, about how to create a mobile web site and about tools and services for people's media.


Why use mobile phones for people's media?

Many mobile phones can document events in photos, sound recordings and even video images. These recordings can help your work a great deal.

Because access to mobile phones is very widespread, organisations can support civil society by encouraging people to submit reports, or by collecting and collating the information that people provide and then re-distributing it. Photographs and videos are more compelling than verbal eyewitness accounts, and tend to attract more interest. A video or photograph provides an opportunity to engage the wider public in a cause, and can cross over into the wider 'traditional' media.

People's media in advocacy work

People can document and report human rights abuses (police or army brutality, for example) or civil disturbances using SMS, photos, audio or video. Photographic evidence can be particularly useful if peaceful demonstrations are violently broken up by the authorities. In Egypt, systematic torture in prisons was captured on mobile phones (see Exposing police torture with mobile phone video). During political crises, mobile phones may be the only way of reporting what is going on to the outside world. In Burma where the media are controlled by the state and heavily censored, reports about the 2007 pro-democracy protests were filed using mobile phones.

Gathering evidence

Photos taken on mobile phones can document crimes and abuses, which may be useful in their prosecution.

Reporting damage to the environment

Members of the public can send reports of events such as oil spills, flooding, forest fires or pollution, and submit photographic evidence for analysis or scrutiny.

Raising awareness of a plight or cause

Local groups or individuals can take photographs and make video and sound recordings to inform the wider public about a local or national issue (violence against women in South Africa or ‘slum’ clearance in Zimbabwe, for example). This material can be collected by a co-ordinating NGO and used as part of a wider publicity campaign or sent to traditional media outlets such as television channels and newspapers. Activists from the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia submitted photos from their campaign to the commercial camera phone picture agency Scoopt to raise the profile of their campaign to protect the Sumatran tiger.

General reporting and education

Technology can help promote cultural awareness. People and groups can create reports about their day-to-day lives and ideas and make them available to a worldwide public. This kind of information helps their supporters, and others, to understand what life is like for people far from themselves. Mobile phone cameras are ideal for filming in everyday contexts without being too intrusive. On the website Zexe, marginalised communities such as Roma people, wheelchair users and motorcycle messengers use mobile phone images to share their views and experiences.

Broadening the global news agenda

People's media can provide a channel for supporters of civil society the world over to bring attention to the events, causes and problems that matter to them. Stories which have been ignored by the traditional media can now find a place in a more open and inclusive news arena, and become available to the traditional media as well. Mobile phone cameras are often able to capture footage in situations where conventional film equipment and news teams do not have access. Advocates can send such material to national and international news channels for broadcast.

As part of the Voices of Africa project, reporters in Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa were hired to master mobile technology and to get experience in updating a news website with text, photos and videos. Some of the most striking images captured by the reporters were those of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. 

Creating a media channel

Creating a dedicated, mobile friendly version of your organisation's website can be a way of broadening the reach of your message. Accessing the internet on a mobile phone is becoming increasingly popular as data rates decrease in costs and more phones are equipped with wifi connections. The Sri Lankan peacebuilding initiative Groundviews have created a mobile version of their citizen journalism site so that people are able to access it on the move. A mobile version of independent news media site Indymedia has been created to broaden the reach of this content.

In situations where there is censorship of the news media SMS can be an invaluable way of getting information out. In Zimbabwe the radio station SW Radio Africa started sending out news headlines via SMS when their signal was jammed by the authorities.

Using your mobile's multimedia capacities

Before you buy a mobile phone for your organisation, make sure it has the functions and capacity you need. For example, if you want to take pictures with your mobile phone and then print them, it should have a capacity of at least 2 or 3 megapixels. This makes a big difference to the image quality. There are many online databases which will allow you to compare the features of various mobile phones before choosing the one that suits your needs.

Video and sound recorded on a mobile phone is saved in a format which is specific to mobile phone files. You will be able to transfer such files to your computer and play them back, but if you want to edit them they will need to be converted into computer-specific files. More details on open source and freeware converters that do this are included below.

If you want to use your phone to update a website check out the guide to using mobiles to update blogs and websites included in this toolkit.

Stills camera

The more megapixels a mobile phone camera has, the better the image quality of the photos taken on it.
A 2 megapixel camera will allow you print out images of adequate quality (150 pixels per inch) at 8 inches by 10 inches. A 3 or 4 megapixel camera on your phone will significantly improve the image quality, allowing you to make much better prints.

Most mobile phone cameras will allow you to take pictures good enough to be used as small images in screen format on a blog or a website .

It's worth spending some time testing the camera on your phone and transferring your images to the format in which you want to use them before embarking on any significant projects.

A mobile phone camera can be a way of taking pictures in challenging environments without drawing attention to yourself, as you can take photos while you are pretending to make a call.

You can use tools such as Shozu to send photos directly from your phone to a blog or website.

Sound recording

Mobile phones typically record sounds using a file format called .AMR.

In order to use audio material recorded on your phone:

Video recording

Most mobile phones use a file format called 3GP for video.

In order to make short films using footage recorded on your phone:

Some mobile phones come with their own proprietary editing systems installed which means you can edit videos directly on the phone.

To create a video which can be circulated on mobile phones either via Bluetooth or MMS (multimedia messaging) the clip should be no larger than 100K, which will give you around 25 seconds.

Mobile phone video quality is fine for creating short videos for broadcast on video-sharing websites or for circulating via Bluetooth or MMS. However only a few very high end phones are capable of producing anything approaching broadcast quality video which is 30 frames per second, 640 x 480 pixels resolution. These phones are very expensive.

How to distribute multimedia material from mobile phones

There are two ways to distribute multimedia material from mobile phones: over the internet and between mobile phones.

Users can add multimedia content to web sites, blogs and photo or video repositories either by uploading their data directly on to the site (see the section on 'Using mobiles to update blogs and websites' to find out how to do this), or by first transferring their content to a computer and then uploading it to the internet (see the section on Getting media off your phone for more information on how to do this) . Mobile phones can be a powerful way of feeding these other technologies, for example by uploading photos of an event or demonstration on to a website.

Multimedia content can also be transferred between phones via Bluetooth or MMS (multimedia messaging). MMS in some cases requires a high-end phone, and is more popular in some countries than others because of the cost and the sometimes restrictive packages that the different service providers offer. Bluetooth has the advantage of being free but requires the two phones to be close together. In countries where websites are heavily censored, video and audio content which challenges the authorities is more easily shared via Bluetooth.

Mobile phone ringtones can also be used creatively, to popularise an issue. In the Philippines, part of an alleged conversation between the Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has become a hugely popular ringtone on mobile phones - read more on Using ringtones to popularise an issue.

Issues & problems

Security considerations

There are obvious security issues for people who use mobile phones to capture video and photographic images or to record sound in sensitive or conflict situations. In addition, the possession of incriminating evidence on a mobile phone could put the owner at great risk in some countries if the phone is confiscated or found. Special care needs to be taken if and when content recorded on a phone is transmitted over the mobile network, as governments and authorities can force mobile phone service providers to hand over records of activity, which could be used to identify the senders and recipients of particular images. In Zimbabwe, for example, a Telecommunications Interception Bill (passed in August 2007) allows the government to monitor activity across mobile networks and the internet. Since many outlets insist that people buying SIM cards produce identity documents and register their phones with the mobile network, the sources of content transmitted on the network can easily be traced.

Networks also automatically track the location of every mobile phone whenever it is switched on (this is done for the purposes of routing calls and messages, but the information is retained by the server). People can therefore be linked to a specific location at a specific time. If this happens to be within an illegal demonstration, or puts a user within range of witnessing government brutality at a gathering, they could again be put in danger.

Each image that you make on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time and type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, the file format most commonly used for digital images. This information could be useful if you want to prove that you were in a particular place at a particular time to witness an event, or it could be particularly incriminating. Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded as part of a viral marketing campaign, or posted on a website. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove this information – called 'metadata' – from your images.

These issues are described in more detail in the Security section.