The Guardian are having their SxSW hack event this weekend (follow it on Twitter) which seeks to explore uses of technology in reporting events, all framed by their forthcoming coverage of SxSW. As part of the Digital Champions project last year we had a go at that very thing, so here’s an overview of what we did, why we did it, and what we learned.

Events as digital narrative

My BCU colleague Andrew Dubber has already written a great deal about his process for “Aftershock”. Aftershock focuses on music creation, with the Internet material being understood as its own text, and just as important as the finished record. The final record presents us with a writerly text: authored, mediated, packaged and complete, but the Internet part of the project is much less defined, much more open to interpretation, and is also open to comment and direct interaction.

This process can work for news just as well as it does for music, and indeed already does if you think about the way in which stories evolve over a series of days through a cycle of “breaking news” to considered and in depth analytical features. That’s something that news organisations are already doing quite well, especially when they live blog some sort of news event (Over by Over cricket live blogs which might inform a final piece, or political live blogs are good examples here). The difference perhaps between Dubber’s approach to Aftershock and the media approach to live-blogging of stories is that Aftershock seems much looser, and to encourage ephemeral production and vignettes in a way that a “live blog” situation does not. Aftershock is very much a “capture everything” approach, whereas a news liveblog is a more deliberate professional discourse.

So my submission to the gSxSW hack would be to move to a publish then filter (Shirky, 2008) approach:

Casestudy: Fused at SxSW 2010

Fused are music, style, art, and youth culture media publishers, based in the UK. For the past few years Fused have led the West Midlands regional delegation to the music strand of the South By South West conference in Austin, Texas; each year Kerry and Dave, Fused’s owners, capture audio, video and photography to document their trip; each year the material lies untouched for several months after the trip. As a result very little ends up used within their magazine and other projects.

The Solution – The Fused Podcast

I asked Fused to free themselves up from thinking in terms of printed editions of the magazine, and start to think of immediate, live documentation of what they see and hear at events. I asked them to publish, and then filter their material. Additionally I suggested that their magazine shouldn’t be limited to print, and could exist in other forms. I designed a workflow for live-blogging of activity, and then for filtering content to produce a magazine style audio package called The Fused Podcast. The project was experimental, and as such I didn’t want to commit Fused to a podcast in the long term. I based the initial podcast series around South By South West; this allowed the podcast to have a natural end point, so that Fused were not tied to audio production indefinitely.

Immediacy, Relevancy and Work Flow

I was determined for material to be used quickly, not left on the shelf for months. I undertook an audit of the equipment available to Fused for the project. iPhones, netbooks and Flip cameras all allow media files to be shared online quickly and effectively. I set up a Posterous blog – which can be updated via email – as a space for content to be uploaded to with immediacy. The Posterous blog would become a raw, unedited, timeline of events, published as and when Fused were able to record them; it would also allow viewers to comment on material as it was captured. From the perspective of the audience, this would provide a useful, immediate, scrapbook account of the trip. However, looked at from the perspective of a media producer, it could also be seen as an edit script – and one with the added bonus of audience interaction during production. I brought together a team of radio students from the second year of Birmingham City University’s BA (Hons) Media & Communication programme and asked them to produce an edited audio package based on the content that Fused were delivering. There would be no script – just the raw material sent down the line, and a timeline built on the Posterous blog: first publish, then filter.

Enabled by the Internet, Fused produced media in Texas, and made it immediately available to the production team in Birmingham; as Fused went to bed in the USA, we awoke in the UK – as they got up in the morning, we were uploading a polished account of their previous day. In addition to Posterous we used the web based “cloud” storage and file management system Dropbox, so that Fused could send larger files to the production team. We produced three podcast episodes of Fused’s trip before they arrived home – a fantastic achievement when we consider that their 2009 material was first used in our pilot podcast episode a whole year after it was captured.

Technologies & Web 2.0 services used in the project

Project Outcomes

Some aspects of the project were not wholly successful. Fused had unanticipated issues connecting to wireless Internet in Austin (in previous years, this had not been an issue) which meant content uploads were not as immediate as we had hoped. Fused used Dropbox more frequently than Posterous, which reduced the opportunity for social interaction around the draft content. However, the project was successful in that, using free web services and the recording devices which Fused already had available, we produced three well-received podcast episodes that captured a flavour of their trip.

In summary

The workflow in this process worked remarkably well, but it did rely upon reliable access to good Internet connections. Posterous could be replaced by any platform that allows video, photographs and audio to be uploaded quickly and then encoded on a server (not on the phone). The process relies heavily upon those recording the event to really buy into a “record everything” philosophy. The more interaction with an audience you can get through the blog, the more interesting this approach might become.

Next questions

This project was part of the “Working Neighbourhood Fund – Stimulating Demand Programme 2009/11 – Web 2.0 Presence” package of support being delivered on behalf of Digital Birmingham and Birmingham City Council.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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