#Citizenrelay: Engaging with communities through participatory practices

Special Guest blog post from Jennifer Jones & David McGillivray….you can hear them speak at #BeGoodBeSocial Edinburgh!

#citizenrelay was a Creative Scotland-funded participatory arts and (social) media project that brought an interdisciplinary team of academics, activists, artists and community media specialists into dialogue with a variety of publics around the ‘hook’ of the Olympic Torch Relay as it travelled around Scotland in June of this year. The project also addressed the potential use of citizen journalism as a means of opening up channels of debate and discussion and offering a space for critique around major sporting and cultural events. #citizenrelay secured positive impacts in the way it formed a strong online and offline community of local reporters and utilized accessible tools and techniques to ensure their voices were heard within the saturated media landscape around major events. There are five features of the #citizenrelay project that merit further discussion here: immediacy, connectedness, locality, empowerment and participation.

In designing the #citizenrelay project, we were acutely aware that the established media were investing significant resources on technology and personnel on the ground to provide up to the minute content for their various media platforms. In order to create a niche space within the wider Torch Relay media landscape, we emphasised the importance of immediacy, of content generation and upload. We recruited 60 reporters and 8 interns to support content generation and the focus of our training was on how to point and shoot quickly with minimal editing and upload through 3G or wireless networks within minutes. The complete the circle, that content was then pushed instantaneously through our integrated social media channels (Twitter, Facebook and the blog) to the audience.

Another hugely significant part of our success was connectedness, both physically and virtually. We started out by reaching out to the sorts of partners who were interested in community media, social media, community engagement or even the Olympic Games themselves. We forged mutually beneficial partnerships with universities and colleges and a wide range of community organisations (often from the third sector) by going out to meet them and developing a shared vision for involvement , however limited. We then built an online community around #citizenrelay, embedding the notion of a participatory, citizen-owned media environment where anyone with a smartphone could contribute their views on what the Torch Relay and the Olympics meant to them. From January 2012 onwards, use of the hashtag increased each and every month on the lead up to the Torch Relay itself, culminating in its being used by a wide range of public agencies, media organisations and individuals from the 7-14th June.

Foregrounding locality was also at the heart of the vision of #citizenrelay, despite the project having a declared ‘national’ ambition to aggregate content during the Olympic Torch Relay’s visit to Scotland. Our commitment to a more bottom-up, place specific agenda was built into our recruitment of interns and reporters from four regions of Scotland (Glasgow and the West, Inverness and the North West, Dundee and the North East and Edinburgh and the East) and our investment in driving a mobile community media centre (aka our University minibus) around the country to help support our media makers in each locality. Our commitment to localness also extended to the use of a variety of wireless enabled venues across Scotland, from a pub in Tomintoul to a library in Giffnock to edit and upload content when the 3G signal was unsatisfactory. Finally, we handed out cards containing links to the website and our social media channels to local people so that they could easily access content about their community. This tactic helped drive traffic to our website and provided communities not covered by the established media on their limited TV coverage to see themselves recognised as part of the Scottish-wide event.

At the heart of the emergence of small media, community media or whatever moniker you wish to use is that the Empowerment (to become media makers) and participation (the ethos of accessibility) as features of successful citizen journalism initiatives. The rich data generated from the project has been visualized and our own research endeavours have been captured in the form of a documentary film in partnership with the Media Trust’s newsnet project. Allied to the data journalism expertise being deployed by others to ‘read’ #citizenrelay and we have a fascinating participatory ethnography taking place where both the product (media content) and the process are being analysed from a range of perspectives.

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