Protestify: Revolutionizing the Citizen Journalist

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“We want to connect [journalists] on the streets with those in the newsroom,” explained Christina Hawatmeh, founder and CEO of Protestify at their Brooklyn launch party on 4 November. Protestify, a high tech journalism start-up, aggregates and publishes global protest news through social media, and helps citizen journalists connect and monetize their photos and video through microstock photography.

With the growing ease of sharing media via smartphone through social networking sites, the opportunity for citizen journalism in capturing images and videos has risen worldwide. The contributions these citizen journalists make help encapsulate the power of protests, and are crucial in bolstering support for these movements.

Protestify aggregates citizen media content from all over the world. By using the hashtag #protestify on Twitter or Instagram, citizen journalists send their protest photos or videos to the Protestify online social media platform. The hashtag is available in all major languages. “When protest news begins to break somewhere, we begin to see an influx of content coming in from the location of the protest as well as a spike in visits to the webpage mostly from people in affected areas. It’s almost automatic, people panic and they want information,” Hawatmeh said.

Users who share their media will also receive a link with a copyright agreement. “If a traditional news agency wants to use content posted to Protestify, we will sell the content to the news source, and give a portion of the sale to the citizen journalist,” Hawatmeh said. This also allows grassroots journalists around the globe to participate with a sense of ownership of the content.

“In my customer discovery, I found that those taking these protest photos and sharing them through social media were young and unemployed,” Hawatmeh added. “We hope to empower these citizen journalists as journalists and bring their work into the mainstream media.” The team at Protestify hopes to use compensation as a means to incentivize these citizen journalists to continue visually reporting from protests around the globe.

On the other hand, the team also hopes to create a tool for mainstream journalists who typically rely on social media as their primary breaking news source for protests. “Since Twitter and Instagram were not designed as news channels, they lack a centralized way to organize visual news. We will offer visual protest news that is organized by location and topic from a single platform,” Hawatmeh said. “We want to free the journalist from the manual and tedious task of browsing social media for breaking news.”

“The platform will at once serve as a single location for visualizing real time protest news worldwide and to addresses issues of compensation, copyright, and authentication for content that citizen journalists share through social media,” explained Manoj Pooleery, CTO at Protestify and Director of Technology, Business Development, and Entrepreneurship at Columbia’s Center for Computational Learning Systems.

Protestify was chosen for Columbia University’s Business School Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program in the spring of 2013, where Hawatmeh and Pooleery had the opportunity to develop the platform and to create a fundable business plan.

A 2014 graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Hawatmeh, 26, identified the need for a central platform where citizen journalists reporting from protests could display their visual content. She began developing Protestify during the first year of her master’s degree as a means to bring greater visibility to protesters worldwide.

Pooleery acted as Hawatmeh’s mentor while she was enrolled in the Launching New Ventures course at Columbia University’s Business School. His expertise in technology and big data collection coupled with Hawatmeh’s idea of aggregating visual protest news helped create the foundation for Protestify. “I am passionate about entrepreneurship and was excited to help on a project that combined social good with technology,” Pooleery said.

Working out of the Columbia Startup Lab on Varick Street in Manhattan, the Protestify team of engineers and interns has been collecting protest data since February 2014. “We have 13 million uploads in our database now with a rate of 42 thousand uploads in a day. This is a lot of data to organize,” Hawatmeh explained.

“Our supreme data, and data visualizations, provide an ability to compare trends in the lifespan of protests. Supreme data translates to really amazing data visualizations,” Hawatmeh described. Protestify is at its core a data repository, and hopes to capitalize on the protest data trends they collect and analyze by selling this information to major news sources. “We are offering trials of our supreme data and data visualization through our Kickstarter page,” Hawatmeh added.

Protestify has attempted to craft an image that embodies the youth and edge of their mission. At Protestify’s launch party at FreeCandy in Brooklyn, attendees milled around contemporary artwork while a live DJ spun house music. The team projected a demo of their website in beta on a wall and attendees were given an iPad to play with the interface. Hawatmeh’s team and the Dean of SIPA, Merit Janow, are scheduled to demo the platform with VICE News on 20 November.

“Through Protestify, you can see people all over the world campaigning for a better social, economic, and political future,” Hawatmeh said. As daily protests and revolutionary movements continue to erupt globally, the ability to access real time visual information is indispensable to supporting the public’s right to information.