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Somalia Speaks: How Al Jazeera Reports Via Text Message

Al Jazeera’s ambitious new project uses SMS text messages to gauge how ordinary Somalis are coping with the ongoing conflict in their country. It’s the first time they’ve been polled in years, and things in Somalia may be worse than anyone knew.

The ongoing—and some would say confusing—chaos in Somalia is regularly overlooked by American media. And unlike other recent conflicts in the Arab world, Somalia lacks the Internet infrastructure to broadcast out updates about what is happening there. There aren’t a lot of tweets coming out of Mogadishu. However, Al Jazeera English is betting that mobile phones are the best bet to help understand events on the ground. The Qatar-based network just launched Somalia Speaks yesterday. It’s the first-ever large-scale survey of Somali citizen sentiment. Due to the fact that Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, no large-scale citizen surveys have taken place in decades. Rather than using traditional surveying methods, Al Jazeera decided to instead poll Somalis on their quality of life via SMS text messages.

Al Jazeera partnered with several organizations to bring the project to life. Middle Eastern classified advertisement NGO Souktel (whom Fast Company has written about before), mapping nonprofit Ushahidi (ditto), enterprise crowdsourcing platform Crowdflower (…and ditto again) all contributed to the project, along with another organization called the African Diaspora Institute. Souktel managed the SMS gateway, Ushahidi provided the project’s mapping platform and assistance, and Crowdflower is assisting with offering a mechanism for crowdsourced analysis and translation of replies.

Approximately 5,000 Somalis on a database belonging to Souktel (which operates a sort of Monster.com analog that runs exclusively via text messaging) received the following Somali-language text message from Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera waxay doonaysaa Inay Ogaato: Sidee ayuu dagaalkii Bilihii udanbeeyey u saameeyey Noloshaada? Fadlan Magaca magaaladaad u dhalatay Jawaabta Kusoo dar. Mahadsanid!

Translation: Al Jazeera wants to know — how has the conflict of the last few months affected your life? Please include the name of your hometown in your response. Thank you!

Over 2,000 replies have already been received by Al Jazeera as of press time. This is the second time that the new organization has tried using text messages as a story-gathering method; during the 2009 Gaza conflict, Al Jazeera broadcast a phone number for Palestinians to report news that was then pegged to a Ushahidi map. Souktel participated in this project as well.

According to Riyaad Minty, Al Jazeera’s head of social media, one of the Somalia project’s most noteworthy aspects is how it embraces crowdsourcing for finished reportage. Minty told Co.Exist that "due to the volume of SMS’s that have come in, we’ve opened up the translation option to the online Somali-speaking community. After posting on Facebook and Twitter, we’ve had quite a few people from the Somali diaspora volunteer to join in and help us translate it. There has been an amazing response from Somalis who were really thankful that we’re trying to give them a voice." Al Jazeera is still actively calling for Somali speakers to help them with translation.

Thanks to the project, Al Jazeera has already discovered stories overlooked by the international press. Respondents repeatedly mentioned a major fire in the provincial city of Bosaso that destroyed the town market.

Other respondents had more general complaints:


The conflict in Somalia left me in a prison cell with no care and very bad conditions. I was accused unjustly. I’ve been behind bars for years now. I’m a woman who would like to get out one day and marry and raise a family.

 

The conflict has interrupted my education repeatedly over the past 20 years. I had to move from one to town to another, and go many years without education. Now that I’m about to graduate from high school I face uncertainty. There are no accredited universities around, and I don’t have the means to travel abroad.

Since the replies Al Jazeera have received were all written in Somali rather than in English or Arabic, posting of actual reports has been limited to the speed of crowdsourced translation. But what has come through shed a fascinating light on what it’s like in a country that’s as close to Hobbesian chaos as we’re likely to find in 2011.

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