Ever since the 7/7 London bombings, mobile phones have been hailed as the new front line of journalism, where citizens, not broadcasters, break the stories. This can also include apps like Twitter, which has been credited by some for covering the US presidential elections better and faster than the cable TV news channels. Many people found out Barack Obama won the race via Twitter alerts before broadcast stations were close to calling the winner.
I've always taken this kind of hype with a dose of skepticism. Blogs were once considered the new journalism, but the vast majority of them don't break news - they link back to mainstream news sources. It's the equivalent of showing your friends a clipping from a newspaper - which is not the same thing as covering a story and reporting it, even if Web 2.0 allows you to do it in a way that reaches more people than CNN.
Still, there's definitely a case to be made for mobile and the web as grassroots enablers for collaborative applications (which is already been coined "˜crowdsourcing') that can create a useful view of the world and tell a story - which is what journalism does - so long as the story can be pieced together coherently.
In this case, I'm thinking of Ushahidi, an open-source project launched in Kenya, the aim of which was to track post-election violence earlier this year via reports from eyewitnesses on the ground. With the mainstream media banned from covering the elections and the aftermath, the story goes, citizens were the only source of news. The Ushahidi engine leveraged that by aggregating geotagged reports sent in via SMS, email and the web - and mapping everything on GoogleMaps.
According to the Ushahidi web site, the engine - which is being developed by volunteer developers and designers from Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Netherlands and the US - is "built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time."
Ushahidi intends to develop the engine into an all-purpose platform that allows anyone to collect and visualize information, with the ability to customize it as needed and allow for third-party plug-ins. It's already been deployed by groups in South Africa and Congo.
The alpha version of the Ushahidi engine was released last month, and allows users to create new crisis reports tagged by location, add images, video and news links to reports also tagged by location, visualize reports using an interactive timeline and heat maps, and rank stories by credibility. It also supports SMS alerts to users who want proximity-based news.
It's a fascinating concept. The potential weakness is verifying the credibility and accuracy of the reports - one aspect that traditional news media tends to get right more often not (spin and sensationalism aside). The good news is that Ushahidi works with NGOs to verify reports. It can also map its own reports against reports from other sources like mainstream media.
I don't know if Ushahidi (which, incidentally, is a Swahili word for "testimony") is the next CNN. But it'll be interesting to watch and find out. You can follow the saga on - what else‾ - the official Ushahidi blog.