Let Freedom Tweet
By Jack Feuer
Published Jan 1, 2012 12:00 AM
During the Arab Spring, the rest of the world read and heard about the struggles firsthand from live Twitter feeds in Egypt and Libya. Both were the brainchild of UCLA School of Public Affairs Ph.D. student John Scott-Railton. It wasn't the first time the young scholar's adventurous intellect has found novel technological solutions to challenges in the developing world. He's also used GPS to help villagers in Cambodia and a camera kite to chart the effect of flooding in Senegal.
Q: One blogger wrote that you "practically [own] a patent on combining creativity with simple technology to lift the masses worldwide." Accurate description?
A: That's high praise, but I don't think that. I find it extremely exciting to find ways to combine technology that interests me with my [academic studies]. That's what keeps me motivated and encourages me to look at problems sideways. And if I wasn't having fun, it would be hard for me to do it.
Watch John Scott-Railton discuss his relationship with revolution in Egypt.
Video by ReasonTV
Q: You became the social media voice of the Arab Spring almost by accident, didn't you?
A: It was very much ad hoc. I was sitting in my graduate student office the day the Egyptian Internet was shut down. I still knew a lot of people in Egypt from when I had been there, and I asked them for contact lists. We made calls for a couple of days while the Internet was blocked. And it grew quickly, because people wanted to know what was going on.
Q: Did the reaction to your efforts to bring the voices of the Egyptian revolution to the world surprise you?
A: Yes, the scale. I learned that there's a tremendous desire, a tremendous demand, for knowledge about what's happening in places like that. And popular media is not fulfilling that demand, [so] other actors can come in and help provide that information. It surprised me that we were able to do it with Twitter, because you start with nothing. You're just a name and you have to build your credibility with what you say. And that's a tremendous responsibility because you feel that every time you tweet, your credibility is on the line.
Q: And then there was Libya.
A: After Egypt, I realized this collaborative model could work elsewhere. So I reached out to Libyan Americans and expats, this Libyan Diaspora, and worked with a husband and wife, Abdul and Sarah, and they really did amazing work. Just remarkable. And so another feed was born. And we stuck with it until now. You see this throughout these conflicts, people creating these ad hoc [digital] networks. That's doing a lot of things, including changing how these conflicts are covered.
Q: What's the biggest challenge about using social media networks to amplify or even ignite social change?
A: Twitter is a great antenna, but tweets are very short things. It is nearly impossible to supply the level of context necessary. It's a ticker, in effect. That's part of why I added audio to the feeds; I wanted to capture how people's voices added context and meaning.
Q: Will there be more feeds?
A: It depends on time, a little bit. As much as I find this really important work, it's a challenge to balance this and the demands of my Ph.D. work. I want to make sure I honor my commitments. And I'm headed back to Senegal, where I'll do the final chunk of my field work and then the writing phase.
Q: Does one particular voice stay with you?
A: It was one of the first calls I made in the first days of the Egyptian uprising. The government had shut down cell phones and I was scrambling to get land-line numbers. I was talking to somebody's aunt, an older woman, who was standing at the window and looking out onto a major street in Cairo. It was Friday, and she was waiting for the men and women to come out of prayer because a very large demonstration was planned for that day. And you could hear in her voice that something was going on. She takes the phone over to the window and sticks it out and you heard this absolute roar. It was like hearing the world change live. That just galvanized me. There I was in my office but I was, in some sense, part of the chain of witnesses. That call was probably what committed me to this.
Q: And there have been other adventures. For example, why were you in Cambodia with three global positioning system receivers?
A:I was there to work with a bunch of local organizations that were supporting communities at risk of eviction. The Cambodian government had been engaged in practices that many people would call illegal. Cambodian land law says that if a person stays in a place long enough, they can lay claim to that land. But the government wanted the land, so they were evicting people, the urban poor, and dumping them in resettlement sites far outside the city. I was using GPS mapping to support land rights among the urban poor.
Q: And your ongoing, camera-in-the-sky project in Senegal?
A: I'll be in Senegal by the time you read this, flying the kites and interviewing people.
Q: Where did this fascination with far-away places originate?
A: I was in an urban studies master's program [at the University of Michigan], where I engaged with urban core communities. One of my close friends had done an urban core community group in Cambodia. He suggested, ‘If you want to work with GPS, I'll take you with me when I go to Cambodia.' And it started there. After doing my master's and going back to Cambodia, I switched research areas and moved on to Senegal. It was a process, rather than a decision, that I wanted to work internationally.
Q: This isn't quite what people think of when they think "urban planner."
A: People don't necessarily understand an urban planning education. We're taught to think about systems, of government and spatially, and process. A lot of the tools I got from UCLA I've been able to apply to the Twitter feeds.
Q: Where to next?
A: Right now, what I will be doing is buckling down and doing some pretty intense field work. After that, I'll be writing it. I am going to Egypt and Libya again in the near future. There are a lot of people I need to re-meet, and a lot of people I need to meet for the first time as friends.