African skyCAM

Africa’s First Drone Journalism Team

Google, the global tech giant, last week was reported to have given $5 million to the World Life Fund to build drones to help in combating poaching in Africa and Asia. The article came on the back of a vociferous debate in conservationist circles about ways to curb the runaway poaching and trafficking of endangered animals.

On 14th November the Business Daily ran an article titled Experts front drones for protection of endangered wildlife. It suggested that the technology is accessible and cheap and should be employed to complement conservation efforts. Despite the best efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service

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and it is struggling to deal with the recent rise of poaching.
Using drone technology to capture aerial footage has fired the imagination of hobbyists and environmentalists among others. Conservationists are gravitating towards using the technology to be employed as an alternative to expensive machinery for capturing aerial video/image footage, such as helicopters. Drone technology is already being used by large scale farmers in developed countries to monitor their huge tracts of land. The technology is simple and piloting simple drones such as the lightweight AR drones does not require extensive training or knowledge.
Drone technology is also firing interest in journalism. SkyCam, a project by the Star publication, was among

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the 20 projects that were chosen for funding in the inaugural African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC) run by the African Media Initiative, the winners were announced at the end of November.
The ANIC competition set out clear parameters for the competition entries; amongst others it insisted on disruptive digital technology ideas for improving the way news is collected and disseminated. The guidelines also insisted that the ideas should be focused on providing pragmatic solutions to real challenges facing Africa’s media. One such challenge faced by African journalists is accessing difficult terrain when reporting stories; with drone

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When covering dangerous events such as protests or natural disasters such as floods, Kenyan journalists have had to tag along with policemen and government transportation, compromising their freedom when reporting the story. With drone technology, journalists will have the ability to cover stories from a safe distance and will therefore have far greater access to areas without endangering life or equipment.
We have a revolutionary tool that will establish a new front in journalism. SkyCAM will benefit from the experience and support of hobbyists, engineers and journalists to ensure the

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project will be a success. This will be an experiment that will be keenly watched in other countries and one that we hope will be replicated across the continent.

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The Star Publications is proud to be named a finalist in the African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC).

I have just returned from Tech Camp, Zanzibar: a gathering of journalists and technologists from all

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over Africa and the rest of the world. I attended the Tech Camp as the project leader of the SkyCAM for Africa project (formerly africanDrone), one of the 40 projects selected as the ANIC finalists. We had great interactions with journalists and technologists to discuss and refine the project proposal. I am excited about what we were able to achieve at the Tech Camp and I reckon that we have on our hands a fantastic journalistic tool which will be a game changer in Kenyan media.

Kenyan media has over the years played a pivotal role in the country’s development. It remains one of the most trusted institutions and

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it’s not hard to see why. The media played a crucial role in the independence struggle, it was at the vanguard of calling for democracy after years of dictatorial one party rule and it has remained steadfast in calling for transparency, accountability and human rights.

Kenyan media has also been a leader in using and promoting new technology. It has been quick to incorporate social media and adopt best practices to improve the broadcasting and reporting of stories: in June top government officials died in a chopper crash the Star integrated Google maps to give the location of the accident and Storify to show citizen engagement. In August,

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riots broke out in Mombasa after a controversial Muslim cleric was killed by gunmen, the Star used interactive tools to show the timeline of the developing story and also to show engagement with readers.

The Star was started in 2007 and is absolutely a part of this trend. The paper is part of Radio Africa Group which also owns several radio stations and a TV station, a mix that provides opportunities for convergence.

Last month, The Star launched a citizen journalism mobile application to promote collaborative reporting. The decision to develop the application was informed by media trends that showed that the public are increasingly using their phones to access the internet to consume news and are actively creating and sharing what is happening wherever they are. It has long been assumed that the media has an exclusive role in ‘agenda setting’ that perception is now being challenged and undermined. The Star has adjusted by taking advantage of the trend and creating a platform that will integrate traditional media and new media.

The SkyCAM project follows in this tradition by leveraging low-cost technologies to disrupt how news is captured and reported.

One of the main challenges for journalists in Africa is lack of equipment, making it difficult to cover fast moving stories and stories in areas of difficult terrain. Unfortunately in their quest to cover news journalists must put themselves in harm’s way or have their equipments confiscated or damaged. This is where DIY, public interest drone technologies come in.

We have drawn inspiration from dramatic aerial footage captured by hobbyists at riots in Warsaw and Moscow, but also nature photography captured from the sky. We believe that DIY drone technology is now accessible and ready for experimentation in newsrooms. But to produce great journalism, the journalistic process will need to be sound.

Imagine a day in the life of a drone journalist working from The Star:

A team of journalists and technologists will meet to discuss a story idea and conclude that aerial footage captured from drones would help tell the story. For example, if there’s a drought in Kenya’s remote areas, the team will have to consider whether deploying the equipment will have any additional value to the reporting.

The team will have to survey the area of operation before a mission to determine the health and safety of the crew, the population in the area of operation and also measure the safety and success of the of the drone to capture images in the area. Safety will be at the heart of determining the deployment of the drone.

A certified operator will work as part of the news team to plan a mission. The operator will advise on the weather situation to determine if the conditions are right for a flight. The pre-mission survey will also identify a ground spotter for pilot support. The operator will have a line of sight of first person video, and will stay within the communication range.

The mission of the deployment will be to capture the desired data (e.g, video footage of a flooded area) and return safely. The team will then review the material. edit and prepare it for broadcast and publish it in multiple platforms.

SkyCAM will augment news reporting, journalists will have to worry less about their safety in frontline reporting and also the safety of the equipments they use which risk damage or being confiscated or damaged while covering stories. Drone technology will also fire the imagination of journalists on how they can use the tool for news reporting. The media fraternity will also appreciate the opening of a new front in journalism. The technology will also add a voice to the call for the media to establish data journalism in newsrooms.

Imagine using this

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workflow to monitor the fencing of national parks to prevent human-wildlife conflicts. Or to cover fires, floods and evictions—even political rallies.

Attending the ANIC Tech Camp in Zanzibar and interacting with fellow journalists and technologists reinforced the belief I’ve had for a while: that there’s need for continuous cooperation between content creators and technologists in order to make this kind of innovation work newsrooms. The SkyCAM project received numerous reviews in the camp with journalists suggesting different uses, legal implications, and ethical considerations—while the technologists were interested in the build and deployment of the equipment. Only weighing and addressing these various

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The interest these groups showed raises some questions about what it would

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actually mean to own and operate this equipment. How might SkyCAM change the African media landscape?

On one hand, it’s one of the most ambitious projects ever to be attempted by a media company in Africa; on the other, it looks like the overly ambitious dream of a hobbyist and a non-starter. Yet even the sceptics admitted that incorporating drone journalism would open a new front in news reporting. (It certainly helped to have a low-cost, toy drone available at the Tech Camp to demonstrate just how accessible this technology has become.)

In their quest to tell stories as objectively and clearly as possible, journalists put themselves on the frontline to capture events as they see them; often their work is limited by physical barriers and furthermore they are often exposed to dangerous situations.

The SkyCAM provides

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help gather footage from a safe area which will aid the Star’s digital strategy of providing rich video footage of events.

There’s no doubt that the SkyCAM will receive a lot of attention. However, managing expectations and operating within the legal permits and limits without being too adventurous will help create and reinforce the objective that the equipment is solely for journalism. It may well change how news is covered and reported in Kenya—and perhaps the continent.

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