Interview: Dr. Awab Alvi organiser of the Long March in Pakistan
The Long March in Pakistan is a case study in digital activism. The campaign utilized the full range of digital tools, from blogs to social networking and citizen journalism, through the use of old and new technologies. Yet the most interesting aspect of this campaign is not in the tools themselves, but in the breadth and depth of the digital coverage.
The campaign mixed old and familiar tools such as Twitter and Facebook, with new and customized tools. Twitter was augmented by See ‘n’ Report. Like Twitter, See ‘n’ Report collated emails but also SMS and MMS updates whilst providing a campaigners front page, compromising a geographical view, multimedia feeds, SMS feeds, twitter feeds and beautifully compiled video footage using Flowplayer (a video player for the web).
All of which was collated through CoveritLive to provide live coverage of the event. CoveritLive is a viewer that can be embedded on a blog or website to link a combination of Twitter accounts and hashtags (up to 12 twitter accounts and 6 hashtags), reader comments, multimedia and live blogs (through iPhones, Blackberries etc).
Activity was monitored through Cligs which provides analytical tools on traffic going through a site.
DigiActive interviewed one of the organizers, Dr. Awab Alvi.
Tamara: Tell us about the organisations and people involved in the March.
Dr. Awab Alvi: The Long March was a movement by the civil society, lawyers and a few political parties who believed in creating a level of public pressure for the restoration of the judiciary in Pakistan [Reference November 3rd 2007 when, the then, President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf fired the top 60 judges of the country merely because they were becoming a hurdle in his reign of power]. This was the second Long March [first one was in 2008] and it started from Karachi to go all the way up north some 1200 km to Islamabad to try and orchestrate a sit-in [Dharna] and push the parliament to restore the judges
The Long March was essentially organized by the lawyers and various civil society organizations in Pakistan – supported extensively by a few like minded political parties who believed in the supremacy of the judiciary
Tamara: You ran an extremely innovative campaign using SMS, MMS, email – using blogs, feeds, videos etc. Did you notice any trends in terms of the effectiveness of the different tools?
Dr. Awab Ali: To follow the progress of the Long March in Pakistan we had to utilize the prevalent technology and Pakistan has a tremendous mobile user base. Twitter would have been a great tool but its expensive to send SMS’s messages internationally and they have stopped sending updates via SMS since a few months. We, with the help of our friends in See ‘n’ Report created an SMS number which was also supported by an MMS and email address, so that people going on the long march could send updates live.
Once we had the system established we just needed to propagate the information. Initially it started from our roving reporters and slowly spread to a wider base.
I believe the social web was essential in spreading awareness to the digital savvy individuals in Pakistan. The traditional media and electronic media coverage was biased as well as slow. In many occasions we had far more updated information as compared to any media outlet in Pakistan, merely because it was from the people actually taking part on the ground.
People used Facebook and Twitter as well and likewise the information was shared across both channels. All the information was more or less scattered across so many areas that it then needed to be consolidated into one place and that is when we started the CoveritLive which became one of the most viewed tools through out the long march. The CoveritLive application was in my opinion impressive at consolidating various sources into one unified application.
Tamara: What was the problem with your contact number?
Dr. Awab Alvi: Well the contact number was not easily memorisable – so you either needed a good publicity campaign or you needed an easy to remember number. We had neither – short launch meant less exposure and volunteer finances did not permit spending money on publicity
Tamara: In terms of the mobile coverage, it has been my experience that in some countries, even though the mobile coverage is huge, usage is limited by resources. Many people may not be able to afford the calls and use a system of “beeps” to communicate. Is this the case in Pakistan?
Dr. Awab Alvi: SMS do cost money – unless we develop a reimbursement fee that could always be a hindrance. In the first long march, a project called See ‘n’ Report did reimburse the reporter with mobile credit – but I’m told it was difficult as people were not on a single rate package – SMS hover between Rs 1 to Rs 0.30 per SMS, this is not much of a variance but misreporting merely to siphon of mobile credit was rampant. People could send an SMS for Rs 0.30 and get Rs 1 in exchange – that’s a Rs 0.70 profit for the reporter
So our aggregation of long march updates – was then dependent on digital savvy reporters having GPRS to send Twitter updates – and sometimes they would also send the odd SMS.
So that is a hurdle – we are already working to deploy a more permanent SMS number connected to Frontline and up linked to Ushahidi.
Hence, any way that we can exploit Frontline would be the key in monitoring disasters or activism issues in Pakistan. I have acquired 0313-iReport – a simple number and in turn I believe if we can reciprocate them with up to the minute SMS updates – we might feel the value.
A trust relationship might help – but at the same time SMS is getting cheaper and I see more and more people going for the unlimited GPRS packages.
Tamara: For the long march, how many reporters did you have? Did you recruit/train volunteers?
Dr. Awab Alvi: We had a good 20-30 reporters on the ground spread across – people who were in regular contact with us – many more on the side – we had an army full of Pakistani twitter’ers who were keeping track of all news channels reporting and any breaking news anywhere across the 30 odd news channels would get instantly reported
Tamara: One last question. For your next campaign, what conclusions/lessons have you drawn from the Long March?
Dr. Awab Alvi: Well – we need an SMS gateway (done) – we need an easy to remember number (done) – we need a credible way to verify reports (done ~ Ushahidi verify reports) and we need a viral method. We are working on building on the “313 iReport” idea. iReport is CNNs branding but a well recognized name easy for even Urdu speaking people to remember. We lastly needed an SMS collaboration gateway for NGO’s like human rights and women action forums – with Frontline up and running I believe very soon we will be offering SMS coordination services for NGO’s in Pakistan to make use of our gateway and provide a secure and reliable service. If another long march were to hit us – I believe merely using the SMS network will bypass the controlled media in Pakistan and empower the people.
All these above points were our weakness in Long March II – we improved from Long March I, which was only SMS to email, to blogpost service limited to only 5 people to an an aggregation of a lot more services
Cover it live is a must have tool – its free – but maybe an open source variety aka self hosted would at times might be more secure
But in my case it handled our traffic load tremendously – so I can’t complain.