By Jessica Weiss
Kenyan digital journalist Dickens Onditi Olewe wants to help journalists across Africa improve their coverage of hard-to-reach places by giving them an “eye in the sky” aerial view.
But instead of expensive helicopters, he’s interested in low-cost drone technology, which he says has the potential to revolutionize media access to frontline events and stories in remote areas.
Last year, Olewe founded AfricanSkyCAM, Africa’s first drone journalism team, to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and camera-equipped balloons to give journalists an added perspective in storytelling. Based in Nairobi, AfricanSkyCAM is in the process of expanding across the continent.
“Africa is a massive continent with vast numbers of its one billion people still living in isolated rural areas,” Olewe told IJNet. “Just think how useful drones can be here.”
The concept for AfricanSkyCAM was born when Olewe, a journalist with The Star Newspaper in Nairobi, was working on a piece about flooding at Lake Nakuru National Park. He had helped build a mobile-based citizen reporting app to crowdsource photos and video of the floods, but realized that an aerial view would give the story a much richer perspective.
A few months later, AfricanSkyCAM’s first project documented flooding at the park.
“We have floods in this country pretty much always, and journalists often go out with random fisherman on a boat, risking their equipment and shooting at eye level, which doesn’t give you scale of the floods,” he says. “So I thought having an ‘eye in the sky’ would be much better.”
The project’s early successes at reporting floods has sparked interest from media elsewhere on the continent, with requests from newsrooms in Nigeria and South Africa who want to host their own drone teams. The growing interest has prompted Olewe to establish a continental association, africanDRONE, to help both media and other users access the training, equipment, and technical support they would need to be effective.
Drone technology has been used by media across the world, including by CNN in the United States, BBC in the United Kingdown and Australia’s ABC. Unlike those countries, Kenya has few laws restricting the flight of remote-controlled planes. But this freedom isn’t a boon for drone journalism, Olewe says.
“The fact that we don’t have a law means anyone can buy and use the technology, which creates a very big problem,” Olewe said. Authorities can harass or stop operators, and anyone without training can operate “equipment which can cause injury and death” if misused.
To help the Kenya public get used to the technology, Olewe is partnering with conservationists, emergency services personnel and journalists to “carve a softer image for drones” by adopting the equipment in their work and participating in experiments.
“We actually are bringing this equipment to the public space, and getting people comfortable with it,” he says. “My strategy is to show that other sectors can use drones and are using them for business.”
Future applications could include monitoring poaching of endangered species and covering violent clashes, Olewe said.
AfricanSkyCAM’s next step is to partner with like-minded media across the region to share knowledge and experience, and to help kickstart the adoption of low-cost drone technology in storytelling.
Jessica Weiss, a former IJNet managing editor, is a Bogotá-based freelance journalist.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Don McCullough under a Creative Commons license.
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