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From Twitter to taxis: building a citizen reporter network in Mozambique

@Verdade's long wall
@Verdade's long wall

Sitting in his warm office in Maputo, Adérito Caldeira, Editor-in-Chief of @Verdade greets my opening question with a thoughtful silence. When he speaks, as always, he is considered, passionate and informed. "Really this is our first election where we are engaging with what is happening in the country," he says. "Before, in 2008, we were starting. We just reported the final results. But now, after five years, media is a tool for the transformation and development of the country. This election is one of the first steps."

On the 25th of May this year, electoral registration in Mozambique begins. The entire electoral register is being rebuilt from scratch, meaning everyone of voting age (and Adérito thinks around 50% of all these voters could be identified as "young people") has to identify and find their local polling station and register before they are able to vote. Municipal elections are coming up in November 2013 and the national elections are due sometime (none knows quite when) in 2014.

In a country as big as Mozambique (it is twice the size of Germany), just finding your polling station is a challenge. There are 43 municipalities and some might only have 50 polling stations, meaning the distances between polling stations are more usefully measured in hours, not kilometres.

Ensuring that all these polling stations are fully-functioning is a task @Verdade takes very seriously. But with only eleven members of their editorial team, covering this vast country and its 2,500 polling stations is an almost impossible task. That's where their innovative Citizen Reporter (Cidadão Repórter in Portuguese) network comes in.

"More than just a free newspaper, a movement changing the country."

@Verdade claims to be the most widely read newspaper in Mozambique. More than 80 percent of Mozambique's 23 million people live on less than $2 per day. Only 35 to 40 percent of the population can read and write, and less than ten percent has access to electricity. @Verdade believes that, despite this, if you give people information access and a channel to express themselves, you take the first step toward engaging them as active participants in transforming the country.

@Verdade is pretty much the definition of a hybrid newsroom. They do a lot of their source work in public, especially on Facebook, pushing out reports to the community for verification and backstory. Once clear details emerge, an article is created on their website and the url is posted back across to Facebook. Comments from their 30,000 followers rack up quickly. But, of course, many people are not online. @Verdade gets round this by having a blackboard outside their office where the articles of the day are posted. People respond in chalk with comments; the best of these are then photographed or transcribed and posted back to @Verdade's social network communities.

Once a week, @Verdade prints a 32-page newspaper that is distributed countrywide using a network of Txopelas (three-wheeled taxis). The newspaper is peppered with the best of the week's contributions from the community. This comes in the form of reports, Facebook comments, tweets and SMS, proving that valuable human interest and opinion helps engage the country's populace in the issues of the day.

Engaging citizens in a transparent democratic process

In December 2011, @Verdade deployed journalists to three key central and northern Mozambican cities, where mayoral by-elections were held. The small team of three, supported by newsroom staff and editors in Maputo, were able to provide real-time coverage of these elections via mobile phone. The newspaper's Facebook page served as the communications hub during the elections. An editor aggregated tweets into mini-posts and posted photo albums and videos that the journalists sent with their Blackberrys to over 8,000 active fans in Mozambique.

In 2013 and 2014, @Verdade are spearheading their election monitoring campaign with a tool called Citizen Desk, a tool built by us folks here at Sourcefabric that has already won the African News Innovation Award. Free, open source and available to everyone, once finished, Citizen Desk will allow any organisation to collect, verify, reward and publish reports from citizens that arrive through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, most importantly, SMS. @Verdade will use Citizen Desk to monitor all these incoming feeds, begin a verification process, save notes in a contact database and then curate all of this information in a contextualised, dynamic article.

The aim for @Verdade and their Editor-in-Chief Adérito Caldeira is clear. "We hope people, with the engagement we are trying to do, feel they can go vote and feel that each vote will really count."

Beta-testing engagement using Twitter and taxis

Here in Maputo, the Sourcefabric team are testing the beta version of Citizen Desk and heading out to the provinces, literally road-testing the human element of the network. The @Verdade team are visiting each municipality and polling station location and trying to engage new community correspondents. They are also reaching out to local civic networks, community radio stations, international election monitors, taxi drivers and more to help form a web of reliable information about how the registration process is working. Are the places open? Are officials present and voters free of intimidation? Is the equipment functioning correctly?

Adérito's benchmark for the success of their campaign is a simple one: "Free and transparent elections," he says definitively. "Until now, from the point of view of foreign observers, the elections have been free and transparent, but at the end of the day we know they are not. One of the causes of people not going to vote is feeling the elections are not free and transparent."

Where issues of voting freedom arise, citizen reporters can send SMSes to a special mobile phone shortcode (or - if online - Twitter, Facebook and What's App). All of these messages appear in Citizen Desk's dashboard and can be filtered, searched and even published into a live blog directly by @Verdade's editors. In the next phase of the project, editors will be able to assign verification tags to indicate how reliable or verified an SMS or tweet is. They will be able to assign other journalists for follow-up, add notes and background information, or connect the message to a contact database that holds a history of reports, contact information and more.

Reaching out to these potential voters and engaging them to report on their own elections is a vital part of the process for Adérito. "As a citizen you will grow after you vote. You will feel more empowered to ask politicians for what they promised."

Whether that engagement happens through SMS, Facebook or a chalkboard doesn't really matter to @Verdade. They join an exciting new breed of innovative, channel-agnostic newsrooms embracing any means possible to engage readers. What's more, they're using open software to do it, meaning their pioneering efforts pave the way for other countries and media organisations to follow suit. World, have your say.