National Geographic Young Explorers Grant Workshop at McGill

Today I went to a workshop held by National Geographic at McGill about their Young Explorers grant program. Rolled out in 2006, the program has so far sponsored more than 200 researchers, journalists, and adventurers with nearly a million dollars.

National Geographic had brought three of their previous grantees to present their work. Andrea Reid talked about her research on Nile perch in Lake Victoria, an invasive predator that has been described as “Darwin’s Nightmare” for its consequences for other species. Becca Skinner should photos from a project in which she tried to trace the locations of pictures taken in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh five years after the catastrophe.

I particularly loved the story of Amy Higgins. After graduating witha B.Sc. in Biology, she was working as a school teacher in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmere when she heard a ‘myth’ about artificial glaciers. Being an avid hiker, she organised a school trip to the remote area and indeed found artificially created frozen lakes.

The artificial glaciers were built by Chewang Norphel, a retired Kashmeri engineer. Amy took the opportunity to intern with Mr. Norphel and started to learn from him. On creating artificial glaciers, she says it is “like building an ice skating rink in your backyard.”

With the help of two consecutive National Geographic Young Explorer grants, Amy started researching the impacts of the artificial glaciers on local agriculture. They are used to store water for irrigation, which is otherwise scarce in the region. In the Master’s thesis she just completed at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Amy reports that Mr. Norphel’s constructions add 20 to 40 additional days of irrigation and allow farmers to switch from growing barley to more profitable crops such as peas.

I loved Amy’s story because it’s a tale of immense serendipity, although guided by her obvious curiosity and enthusiasm. Very, very cool.

The other speakers National Geographic had brought in included Environmental Anthropologist Kenny Broad, who was immensely funny in one moment (“… if all else fails, go to Burning Man. […] If Burning Man fails, go surfing.”), only to talk of the dangers of field research and the friends he has lost to explorations a minute later.

The day was concluded by breakout sessions. In small groups, we could pitch our own project ideas to the old hands (I ended up with National Geographic’s Chris Thornton, who did an amazing job giving feedback, and Amy Higgins). There were a ton of really cool projects in my group – on the role of music in the identity of Sahrawi refugees in Western Algeria or lessons for conservation to be learned from the Canada’s indigenous people, to name just two.

I can only encourage everybody who is working in a field science to have a look at Natural Geographic’s Young Explorers program. A grant of up to 5,000 US$ is available for applicants between 18 and 25 years of age. There are three sources of funding available for different projects:

  1. The Committee for Research and Exploration funds scientific field research. Applicants may come from disciplines such as Geography and Biology, but also Anthropology.
  2. The Expeditions Council supports “explorations with story potential”. While these projects may have a scientific component, they should yield material for Natural Geographic’s many publications.
  3. The Conservation Trust funds on-the-ground conservation action. The emphasis of this program – the smallest of the three – lies heavily on innovative methods.
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New Publications on Mobile Phones & Citizen Journalism in Africa

The last few weeks have brought a flurry of new publications – my first properly peer-reviewed work, actually. I had a great time working on these rather diverse projects – two reviews and two survey-based studies; on media and on economics; about Africa and Europe. As you can see below, much of the work has been in cooperation with Drs. Mutsvairo, who’s a PhD candidate at Leiden University’s African Studies Center and teaches communication at my College in Amsterdam. He is partly responsible for my shift of geographic focus towards Sub-Saharan Africa, although I’m sure other factors played a role as well. Below is a short introduction to all four papers.

Already out since February is a book edited by Ndubuisi Ekekwe and Nazrul Islam, “Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign” with two chapters in which I’ve been involved. The first is a review of the literature on economic impacts of mobile telephony in developing economics; the second a study done in cooperation with Bruce Mutsvairo and Louis Klamroth on the implications of media usage patterns for traditional media theories.

In another paper just out this last weekend in the Central European Journal of Communication, Bruce and me studied citizen journalism in Africa. I did what I consider a rather comprehensive review of the (sparse) literature on this topic. Some of the key findings are a complex relationship with traditional media (“against, parallel to, and interlinked with…”) and democracy (here I’m drawing heavily on an excellent working paper by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich for the Berkman Center on Kenya). In many parts, the review highlights the lack of sources however: most of the papers cited are case studies of conflict situations.

Finally, a week ago I was in Austin to attend the International Symposium on Online Journalism where Bruce presented a paper written by us and my friend Iris Leijendekker. In this study, we explore the ethical beliefs of African citizen journalists. In particular, we asked our (unfortunately rather small sample, n=20) questions about their motivations, aims, and allegiances. We find that citizen journalists are strongly driven by the wish to inform others and have a tendency to reject self-censorship and governmental control. In a traditional journalism ethics framework, this is consistent with the theory of social responsibility. Especially with regard to our analytical framework based on Yochai Benkler’s notion of the ‘networked public sphere’, this is a hopeful finding; yet the question remains whether beliefs and practices actually measure up.

One issue I have with academic publishing are the restrictions it puts on sharing. The book is available from IGI Global for some ridiculous price (each chapter individually costs $30, of which I get absolutely nothing); the online edition of the Central European Journal of Communication will be out “in Spring 2013” according to the publisher. The very positive exception is the International Symposium on Online Journalism, who put up all presented papers following a request from attendees. Ours is here. As for the others, I guess you know how to write me an email…


Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Leijendekker, I. (2012, April 20). African Citizen Journalists’ Ethics and the Emerging Networked Public Sphere. Presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, Austin, TX.

Mutsvairo, B. & Columbus, S. (2012). Emerging Patterns and Trends in Citizen Journalism in Africa: A Case of Zimbabwe. Central European Journal of Communication 5(1), 123-137.

Columbus, S. (2012). Is the Mobile Phone a Disruptive Technology? A Partial Review of Evidence From Developing Economies. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Mutsvairo, B., Columbus, S., & Klamroth, L. (2012). Rethinking mass communication theories in the Internet era. In N. Ekekwe & N. Islam (eds.), Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Global Redesign: Emerging Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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Review: Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

I attended Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum on June 22 & 23 (days two and three). This year’s topic of the conference was climate change, with a focus both on technical and social solutions and the way media deals with the issue. The Global Media Forum also featured an award ceremony for the winners of the BOBs. Here are some short (but still belated) notes.

Environmental reporters under threat

A panel including investigative reporters from from China, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti as well as free speech advocates from RSF and CPJ was devoted to the threats professional as well as citizen journalists encounter when writing about local environmental issues. Reporters without Borders just have a report out on this, “High-risk subjects: Deforrestation and Pollution”, which provides a good world-wide overview of the issue.

Writing about environmental issues often gets people into conflict with companies and local government, which are in many cases strongly intermingled. A Moroccan activist told me that he keeps his anonymity not out of fear of the government, but because companies would not employ him if they found out about his commitment to preserve the Mediterranean environment. This has been the fate of Egyptian Tamer Mabrouk, who was fired from his job and fined about 5.000 Euros for blogging about his employer’s illegal waste-dumping.

Liu Jianqiang, probably China’s most influential investigative journalist, told a similar story. His reports on environmental issues such as genetically manipulated seeds have attracted a lot of attention. Prime minister Wen Jiabao himself is said to have stopped work on the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” dam when Liu broke news that it lacked official approval. Yet he lost his job at the prestigious Southern Weekly over an unauthorised interview with the Washington Post – an excuse to get rid of a journalist who had angered influential companies and local government with his stories, Liu says.

While CPJ’s Frank Smyth told the harrowing story of Russian newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov, who was nearly beaten to death for reporting critically on plans to build a commercial centre in a forrest area, RSF’s Jean-François Julliard warned that “economic pressure is a strong threat”. Newspapers are facing losses in ad sales if they write articles critical of major local companies, and journalists or bloggers are living in fear to lose their jobs.

Besides violence and economic pressure, legal procedures are another way to bar environmental reporters from doing their work. Smyth reported that Lucio Flavio Pinto, founder of the Brazilian magazine Jornal Pessoal, did not dare to attend the Global Media Forum. Pinto is currently facing more than 30 lawsuits brought against him by companies. He does not want to leave Brazil out of fear that courts could rule against him in one of these lawsuits in his absence.

To avoid these threats, Liu advised his colleagues to fact-check their reports with the utmost accuracy so as to not allow their opponents to legitimately challenge their work. Rina Saeed Khan, from Pakistan, “as a developing country journalist, you have to make as many international links as possible”, saying that international pressure was important to free persecuted journalists.

My German readers may also be interested in an article I wrote for Spreeblick about this issue, “Wer über Umweltschutz schreibt, lebt gefährlich”.

Listen to the session’s audio recording on SoundCloud.

Two projects on solutions to climate change

One panel, which discussed “covering climate protection and possible solutions”, showcased two interesting media projects with a positive outlook on climate change. One is run by journalists, one by activists. I’ll spare you the discussion on whether there is a difference between journalism and activism (and if yes, what is it?).

Global Ideas, produced by Deutsche Welle, is devoted to “showcasing people & projects from around the world taking action against climate change.” Their weekly six-minute videos feature entrepreneurs mostly in the energy sector (e.g. “Biomass briquettes in India”. All the content is available in five languages (English, German, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese). Their communication efforts on Twitter are not really successful yet, but they say they forward any request they get to the respective organization.

OurWorld 2.0, a UN University project based in Tokyo, “reports on and analyzes innovations in order to inspire people to learn” in four categories – climate, oil, food and biodiversity. It’s a webzine (about one profound article every two days) with occasional videos produced at quite a high quality. Their world-wide aim is visible in a map showing the location of the webzine’s subjects. OurWorld 2.0 is published in both English and Japanese.

Listen to the session’s audio recording on SoundCloud.

Ushahidi wins the Best of Blogs award

Crisis mapping tool Ushahidi was awarded the prize as “best weblog” at this year’s BOBs. I must say I don’t really understand why – their blog is very informative, but to me it seems as if the jury rather chose Ushahidi as a platform and organization. Nevertheless, it certainly is a very interesting project.

Erik Hersman said that while the technology behind Ushahidi wasn’t new, its use is. While “technology will always be only be ten percent of the solution”, these ten percent allowed them to “disrupt the status quo” in the aid sector, which he called the “huminatarian-industrial complex” during the press conference. Those of you following Ushahidi more closely might notice that Erik perceives the importance of these 10% vastly different from his colleague Ory Okolloh, who recently cautioned: “Don’t get too jazzed up! Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.”

Finally, some general words on the Global Media Forum

All in all, I really enjoyed Deutsche Welle’s conference. Not so much because of the panels – I only managed to see a few – but because of the great participants. The conference had an extremely multicultural atmosphere, aided by the attendance of Deutsche Welle’s international staff. I finally had the opportunity to meet Jillian C. York, who won the best English blog award for her project Talk Morocco, a blog featuring several well-known Moroccan bloggers’ articles in monthly single-topic “forums” (check out their latest edition on citizen media, including a highly critical article by my friend Mahdi).

But I was also disappointed about some things I heard. On the “dangers” panel, Jean-François Julliard did not caution to admit that in the field of environmental reporting in non-free countries, bloggers are more in advance than traditional journalists. But other panels, focusing on the role of journalists in times of climate change, were full of the ignorance of professionals, who kept up the image of journalists as reporters of nothing but the matter of fact, which prompted a Norwegian colleague to say that “this kind of objectivism has survived only in journalism”.

Alex Kirby, a veteran BBC environmental reporter, moderated the first session I attended, entitled “Who will fuel our future? A fundamental debate between rivalling energy sources.” In the beginning, Kirby said to the announcer: “You called me a gentleman twice, but I am a journalist and these two don’t go together.” Indeed, I twittered, a journalist should court nobody. Yet the session proved to be an advertising space for such controversial companies as the Desertec project, with almost no criticism.

In fact, Deutsche Telekom’s Ignacio Campino dared to propose that journalists team up with companies to “educate” the “customers” on the issue of sustainability. All this at a broadcaster’s conference. Do I even have to ask to which level journalism must have degenerated to make this shameful proposal possible?

All the sessions are up as audio recordings on SoundCloud.

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