Creating Technology for Social Change

The power of the crowdsourced documentary

Jigar Mehta is a documentary filmmaker and a journalist who came to address the MIT Open Doc Lab and the Center for Civic Media about the collaborative documentary project, #18 Days in Egypt. The project, which tells the story of the ongoing Egyptian revolution, is a collaborative web-native documentary project about the ongoing Egyptian revolution. For more information, see @18daysinegypt and @jigarmehta.

This is a liveblog of the event by rodrigodavies and schock – please let us know if you have corrections or additions.

Jigar begins by introducing himself as a documentary filmmaker who now thinks of himself as a documentary storyteller. He says that he believes the people he has met at MIT really understand the future course of the documentary.

“It’s been an incredible year because we’ve been breaking the rules of documentary. I spent the early part of my career working on what John Els called ‘dinosaurs’ – 90 minute films with big budgets and blockbuster premieres at film festivals. After that I went on to work at the NYT’s film unit, a unit they started as a co-production with the Discovery Channel. At the NYT I began exploring interactive storytelling. A lot of my collaborations were not in my department, but in the multimedia unit. I worked with Gabriel Dance who is now at the Guardian US. He was a computer scientist by background, and one of the things I learnt from him was that we didn’t have to behave as a newspaper online.”

Jigar left the Times to go to Stanford to be a Knight Journalism Fellow. He says:

“If anyone in the field is thinking of doing somethinf entrepreneurial, I’m a big advocate for the fellowship. It helped accelerate the entrepreneurship angle to my work. In the middle of all that, the Egyptian Revolution happened.”

From Documentary Film to Web Project

Jigar takes us on the journey from the documentary film, to a web project.

He begins with the 18 Days in Egypt website

The 18 days are from January 25 – Feb 11 when Mubarak stepped down. It’s a collection of stories. We encourage participants to each tell a story about a moement, so that when put together these moments help tell the story of the ongoing revolution. Each stream is a media fragment.

A hypermediated revolution

“This is how I experienced the Egyptian Revolution. I saw it unfold on social media.” He shows an image of Al Jazeera on his laptop, on the 17th day of the Revolution. “My twitter feed was exploding. I turned on the TV and it was like Days of Our Lives. None of the channels were breaking their programming. So instead I went to YouTube, on whichAl Jazeera was experimenting with livestreaming. For the next few hours I was glued, waiting for this announcement that never came. I noticed how many people were there with a recording device. Not just cameras, but cell phones. Not professionals, but students, teachers.

“They not only witnessed history, they recorded it. It was unique because tech was allowing me in CA to experience what was happening in Egypt. The Egyptian people achieved was we thought was impossible – in 18 days overthrowing the president of 30 years.”

During those 18 days, people documented the revolution using Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and more. Throughout it all, it was clear that people were adding their own voices and images to the story.

“My natural instinct was to make a documentary, to tell the story through the eyes of characters. It was a form that I was used to, and it’s what my NYT colleagues did when they reported it in February. Thinking it out though, I wondered if it was possible to create a more complete account of the uprising, using the media of all the people who were there. A documentary maker usually builds a team around the project. I broke that rule. I found the right co-partner, Yasmin Elayat (@elayat). She was at Potion at the time in NYC. She experienced the revolution by the same means, but through a different lens, as she had family participating in the protests in Cairo. I was drawn to this as a journalist. Together we formed a unique pasrtneship of a journalist and a technologist, but the key focus was that we’re both storytellers.”

“So with 100s of hours of footage, 1000s of photos, we thought there was an incredible story to be told. So we created 18 days in Egypt. Our first idea was to make a 90 minute film of those 18 days, almost a tick tock, that would be a story supported by those who had created media around events.”

“We found that there were a lot of great aggregator sites out there, e.g. I Am #Jan25, and Hypercities (UCLA) who looked for tweets with a certain hashtag and put them on a map. These projects both do a good job of showing us the breadth of the content out there but they don’t get to the depth, or give us the context.”

Context is King

Mehta shows a clip of protesters and then asks us to turn to our neighbours and ask, based on the video:
– what day did it happen?
– where did it happen
– what’s going on?

(The Clip)

Reading from the YouTube description, Mehta says the creator of the clip calls it “Happy Gauntlet”, on the 16th day, February 9th, as new protesters arrived, they sang and danced.

For me it changes the experience, knowing that extra information. It would be useful to have translation, as Egyptians are known for their humour. It could use better location. It tells us it was an entrance to Tahrir Sq, but different entrances were managed by different people. I would also like to know the story of the person behind the camera. We wanted to encourage people who were recording to tell their stories.

Mehta shows an early iteration of the site. They approached aggregation by asking everyone to tag their content on FB and Twitter as #18daysinegypt. This was a big departure from my doc days, where we’d have been very secretive. The upside was that we got a lot of buzz early on, and lots of media attention. That was a motivation for us to see this through from a weekend project to the next level.

In addition, they asked people to use tags to add context: tag the day, where the event occurred, and other tags. However, most people just tagged #18days with not much else. They followed up with people by messaging their YouTube accounts, but not many people use YouTube messaging so response times were very slow.

Hacking relationships together

Jigar says: “What we were seeing was that there was potential, and we wanted to dig further. A month into the project we were invited by Mozilla to the first hackathon using Popcorn. We wanted to experiment with bringing together footage from lots of people together and making those pieces relate to each other.”

They hacked together the following interactive space:

In this demo, there’s a video of Jan 28th, the 4th day of the revolution, one of the early iconic images: clashes between security forces and protesters on the Nile Bridge. This was one of the most documented clashes because it took place close to high-rise hotels and offices that overlook the bridge. The idea was to mix a wide shot from one contributor in the background with several others in the foreground: a still image, some Al Jazeera footage, an interview with a protesters.

“It was exciting for us to be able to bring together these contributors who didn’t know each other. It was super early, a wireframe experiment. A month later I was showing this to a filmmaker in Sheffield, and it turns out that he shot one of the contributions – but it was from 5 days later, not the date we were trying to capture.”

Tell us more

“Yasmeen and I are both passionate about telling accurate stories, and to create innovation by allowing the source to be the storyteller. We imagine ourselves to be behind the crowd, encouraging them to tell their stories accurately. An early idea was to have every piece of media be its own page, in which the contributor could answer various questions (date, description, location, etc).”

“We actually found that if we reflected back on the contributor, and asked them to tell you more, you could really bring them into their story. [Their submission] was like the tip of the iceberg.”

“While we were going through this iteration of the idea, the situation was changing – as its changing now. It was just about those 18 days. It was a big moment for us because we realised that it was about the ongoing revolution. It was going to be a living, organic thing. We’ve seen some films where the last title card is “and the revolution continues today” and we didn’t want that for our project. Now less than a quarter of our stories are about those 18 days.”

The best stories are the ones told together

“The second interesting discovery we made was that the best stories are the ones experienced together. So we deicded that we wanted groups of contributors to tell stories that mattered to them, using media that they made or others made. We were able to work with great developers at Emerge Technology (Cairo); we spent a lot of time looking for existing solutions, but nothing served our purpose of making the story authentic.”

So they built functionality into their platform to help gather stories as told by multiple people together. Mehta demos how someone contributes to the story, then indicates others who could help tell the story. The demo is in English but there’s also an Arabic version of the site.

1. Log in as a user (register through social media sites)
2. What day did your story take place?
3. Where did the story happen? (It’s a great data point to get, and it helps to focus the story – constraints are good)
4. Who was there with you? Who can help tell the story? (Friends names can be entered via Facebook/Twitter/Email accounts)

The development built a CMS that will take you to the date you specified in your social media stream, so you can see your Tweets / FB posts from that time.

“Our thought was to make it easy for people to tell stories using their media fragments. They can add their own media from global searches too, e.g. a news report from YouTube or someone else who was at an event that they can use to tell their story. Once a contributor hits publish, it automatically goes to the website. There’s no holding bin or fact-checking process.”

So now we have a platform, how do we get people to use the site?

“Part of it was about building a core audience building up to launching the platform. We got involved with a lot of the networks already on the ground, so people knew what we were doing. We were very open. We also teased a launch, with a release date and a trailer video that we released two weeks before to get people motivated and excited.”

Mehta shows the promotional video.

The last line really resonates: “Let’s write our country’s history together.”

Digital access inequality and the Fellowship program

One of our earliest challenges was that internet penetration was low: 25%. How many are online all the time? Quite low. It was a huge challenge. We wanted to make sure that 18Days wasn’t just a programme for people accessing the internet.

So we started a Fellowship program to hire young Egyptians to tell the stories of them and their network. A huge part of the project was being able to hand off control to the participants. They had a passion that I haven’t seen before, about telling these stories.

Before the project launched on Jan 19, we worked with our Fellows to preload the site with stories. It helped make the site come alive. No one wants to be the first person at the party. To have the site already alive was beneficial.

“Like any good film launch, we also hosted a party. I helped pay for the party but I wasn’t there. We imagined it as a part-rock concert, part awareness campaign. It was right off Tahrir Square at an exhibition space. We launched it ahead of the 1 year anniversary because it had this momentum. That launch event, combined with the fellows, built a lot of momentum for the project. For us it’s been about building a community and challenging them to tell stories. Building the platform and saying people will come never really works out. You get some people, but you don’t get engagement unless you challenge the community.”

Challenging the community

“We’re thinking of ways to challenge our community about ways to tell stories about the current situation.

“On February 1 there was a large massacre incident in Port Said, at a soccer club, and it spurred off a series of stories. I’m not going to go deep into the story, but it was one of the first stories that our fellows did. We had 7 fellows working with us who were collecting stories on the ground. We published a tick-tock of that night. The group that was primarily involved was the Ultras, these politicized soccer soccer fans They’re often the ones you see protesting on the front lines. This is almost a love letter to the Ultras.

Jigar shows several examples:

  • One of the youngest victims was Anas, and this tells his story.
  • Koshary and Tear Gas was one of two stories I had a hand in, because I experienced them.
  • The Motorcycle heroes – they drive to the front of the clashes (where ambulances can’t go), where the teargas has caused people to faint, and they pick up people and take them to the back of the crowd
  • No Walls, Just Art: In order to quell the protests, the security forces built a wall, and the community took back one side of the wall by creating art on it

“Our collection of stories has been the story of Egypt since the 18 days. The stories have provided an interesting EKG of the country. We think the most powerful way will be telling the story through characters. We want to be able to drill down into the characters on the site.”

They initially thought that people would send clean images, but a lot of what people sent us were remixed versions, with music, incorporating news footage, adding their own voice overs.

Mehta shows a video for the story of Ahmed Salah. Ahmed’s story continues. We want to explore the idea of how the audience can see the story continue.

“Our fellowship program is going strong (they used Kickstarter to raise more money). We want to see how we can work more on digital literacy and training in the country.”

“Yasmeen and the team think what does it mean to share a story in 5 years, 15 years. What if someone wants to contribute a story in 20 years. How do you make sure that the project is still there? When I used to make films, I was told to make three copies. How do you do that with something like this? My dad prints out the website. Maybe that is the artifact. I ask him to print it out in color, at least. This is something that we’re trying to get the community to address. Im the same way that films are being preserved, we need to think about how to preserve these web projects.”

Mehta shows an image of Tahrir Cinema: They throw up a bedsheet and show YouTube videos to crowds in Tahrir Square. He thinks it would be great to do a partnership with them.


  • How do we engage millions of Egyptians to be part of the project. How do we lower the bar for being part of the project while maintaing quality?
  • When does the project end? Does it have to end?
  • Is it possible to build a dynamic narrative based on this database? Something that is cinematic?

Mehta thinks there’s a trend towards more collaborations between technologists and storytellers.

“Documentary is up for grabs right now. The television networks, the festivals have held on to this type of storytelling and there are lots of interesting people getting involved. The audience want to consume stories as close to the person who’s telling it as possible. I’d like to see our industry embrace this. We are outliers, but there are many of us who are helping to shift the balance. With that shift comes funding, audience and recognition. We’ve had a lot of failures that I’m happy to share with others.”

There are some exciting projects to look out for over the next year:

Hollow – Elaine Macmillan’s film from South West Virginia, using a lot of workshops on the ground

Immigrant Nation – in San Francisco, Theo Rigby and Kate McLean, are telling the collective immigrant story

Our hope is that our project will continue the energy and enthusiasm that existed in Egypt on those 18 days, as the people there continue to go through the revolution. We’re coming out with a new video that addresses the question of what happens to history if it’s not documented.


Denise Cheng, Center for Civic Media (@dennetmint): Is it still mostly you and Yasmeen who are facilitating the project? Have any other people who got involved stepped up?

JM: Yes. I don’t come from activism, I come from journalism (i.e. ‘you do your story, you move on to the next story’). It’s an incredible time in Egypt, but these things take time and focus. With our fellows, we had to fundraise to create a stipend so they wouldn’t take another job. They’re probably the ones who’ve been the most involved in the project. We have a lot of good faith in the network, so that if we needed to step something up, we could. In the early days the Ford Foundation brought together a lot of people for an archival project, so

DC: Could you see yourself handing off the project to the people who got involved?

JM: Yes, definitely. I think that’s important. Now it’s like, we don’t have to end it – there are enough people around it who want to keep it going. That brings up a lot of questions about who is the right partner, how it will be supported. Earlier in the year there was an update to the Flickr API

Sasha C-C (@schock): You’re embedding content from across the social web, but these are companies that rise and fall, shut down, etc. There’s no reason to expect that any of these social media companies will be around 5, 10 or 15 years down the road. Can you talk a bit more about the archival problems?

JM: We picked the most blue chip companies out there. If YouTube has a problem, a lot of us are going to be in trouble. It would be great to now if there’s a way to go out and pull and cache that content.

Sasha C-C: Have you talked with

JM: No, but if you have a contact we would be happy to pursue it.

Eamon: Do you have any thoughts on additional functionality you have in mind, or ways it might change?

JM: It’s going to be open experimentation. We’ve thought about allowing people to click on dates and locations to bring up other stories from those days or locations. We also thought about people having Google Glasses on walking around Tahrir Square and seeing stories. That’s one way the project could go.

Becky Hurwitz, Center for Civic Media: Did you look at video partnerships with collectives in Cairo?

JM: There was a lot of focus on now now – so partnerships were hard. We don’t have the resources to maintain those. We’re hopefully going to turn a corner on that. We know who they are, they know who we are. We’re all friendly.

Jim Paradis: Are other people using your content?

JM: Because of our connections to Western media, when things flare up people leap to our site. People don’t just visit the site to browse for stories, they’re usually coming through social media.

Jim Paradis: Are they remixing your content?

JM: Not yet. But we haven’t made that easy, either.

Katherine D’Ignazio, Media Lab (@kanarinka): Given there are so many people and multiple events, I think it would be interesting if the site could become a video search engine, so that if I wanted to create many multiple scenes of a particular crowd, I could search for this crowd on this particular day. It could become like a remixing tool. It could be a way to treat these videos, these final products, as data.

JM: We just don’t have that volume. That volume exists on YouTube. Our real data and our real strength is the quality of the stories and the depth you get from one individual nugget. People aren’t going to consume every story, but you get really deep and you get a connection with that contributor.

DC: What about copyright? One of the pictures led to a Flickr page that was All Rights Reserved.

JM: We thought about this a lot. It’s not what stopped us from doing a documentary. Making a film and using other people’s footage is incredibly complicated and labour intensive. You need E&O Insurance, for example. For us, we saw the project change for other reasons. The recommendations we got from our law partners was that because it’s a web project you get some protection from the DMCA, so we have a process if someone feels that we’ve violated their copyright, and we pass that on to other sites, too. If YouTube takes down a video, it filters down into our site too.

DC: How do the people contributing feel about it? Might some people feel their privacy was invaded if it was shared elsewhere?

JM: Their motivation is to get the story out. We sign a pretty standard ‘it’s your story, we have non-exclusive rights to use it, and you can do what you want with it.’ A lot of people have not contributed to the project, because contributing would prevent them from selling their material elsewhere. It’s pretty short sighted, but that’s how people have to get their projects made.

Katie Edgerton, @OpenDocLab / Comparative Media Studies: Have you thought about curation – is that something you want to leave in the hands of curators, or take a more active role?

JM: We’ve got our recommended section, but perhaps we could give you better guidance – organised by topic, for example. We’re all curators. When you share a video with your network and choose your favourites, you’re curating.

S C-C: You began with the idea of a film, went to a web project… what about coming back to a feature-length film? There’s something about the film as a text that walks peopel from beginning to end that can still open back out on to an open space like a web space – have you completely abandoned the idea of a film?

JM: I’m very excited about being able to showcase what the community has already done. I had the idea if we could fundraise for it, to hire 3 or 4 Egyptian filmmakers and have them remix the work. But where do you put that final title card – “The revolution continues”?