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This Journalist Is Helping Isolated Communities Share Their Stories Using Cell Phones

Libby is the founder of On Our Radar, a platform that allows citizen journalists in isolated communities around the world to share their experiences, using nothing more powerful than a text.

by Mark Wilding
Mar 1 2016, 2:00pm


Libby Powell. Photo by Carl Wilson

It was in 2009 that activist and journalist Libby Powell first realized the true power of stories. Her work with Medical Aid for Palestinians took her to the West Bank and Lebanon, but she had to wait nearly a year to secure a permit to enter Gaza. She arrived shortly after the war in 2008–2009, but her knowledge of the conflict did little to prepare her for the human tragedy.

"To get a permit to even enter as an NGO worker is a hell of a thing," she says. "When you do walk through, it's a weird sense of achievement, which is quite quickly destroyed by what you're seeing."

Powell was asked to gather testimonies from those affected by the conflict. Jo O'Neill, a director at Medical Aid for Palestinians, recalls: "She was always interested in the story. Not the one coming from professional reporters but from the people who are most closely affected by local events."

Three years later, Powell launched On Our Radar—a platform that allows isolated communities to share their experiences with the world. O'Neill joined as chairman. The idea was simple: train teams of citizen reporters to file stories using one of the most widely accessible pieces of communication technology. "Every single mobile in the world, whether you have a green screen or an iPhone 6S, has SMS and voicemail," says Powell. Radar allows local reporters to file news reports for the price of a local text. Since 2012, the nine-strong team in London, with help from its local networks, has trained nearly 400 reporters in five countries and shared their stories with governments, media outlets, and NGOs.

Radar's first project was in October of 2012, when 45 citizen journalists were trained in Sierra Leone to cover the country's elections. Seray Bangura was one of the first recruits. His report on the voting difficulties faced by people with disabilities was published by the Guardian and helped bring about changes to the country's voting system. "The skills that I've acquired will stay with me for the rest of my life," he says. "It's also given me the opportunity to give back to my community and change the situation for people with disabilities."

Powell didn't always have humanitarian ambitions. "My mum always jokes that I was a rebel without a cause," she says. Her activism was prompted by a tragic incident in 2003. Powell's boyfriend Tom Hurndall was working as a photographer in Gaza when he was shot in the head by an IDF sniper. Hurndall was flown back to the UK where he spent nine months in a coma before he died. "It was a shattering experience," she says.

Powell threw herself into political and environmental campaigning at Nottingham University, where she helped set up an activist club night called Demo. After graduating in 2006, she left university and worked at the Disaster Emergencies Committee and British Red Cross, before joining Medical Aid for Palestinians.

It was in this role, after her visit to Gaza, that Powell was inspired to take up journalism. In 2010, on a visit to a refugee camp in Lebanon, she met midwives struggling to convince men of the dangers their wives faced from repeat pregnancies. She filed a report that got her to the finals of a Guardian journalism competition, which she went on to win with a feature on the stigma around disability in Sierra Leone. It was while working on that story that she met Fengai, a 21-year-old man who was living on the streets of Freetown, in a community of disabled children. "Go home and tell them that we are living in misery," he told her.

Hurndall's death might have sparked Powell's activism, but it was her meeting with Fengai that convinced her of the need to tell people's stories. "One of them I knew intimately and one of them I knew fleetingly, but they were both pillars in this journey," she says. "I felt compelled to be involved in telling stories that weren't being told."

A citizen journalist working with On Our Radar. Photo by Matt Badenoch

Powell retrained as a journalist, but she soon became frustrated at the lack of resources for international reporting: "The same people are interviewed, the same stories get retold. I found it completely destroying, being involved in that process." The turning point was when she traveled to Sri Lanka to cover the aftermath of the civil war. She spent more than a week interviewing people about the atrocities and finding cover-ups of mass graves, but her editor just lost interest in the story. "If it was about me being turned down as a writer that would be one thing," she says. "But the editorial will just wobbled for some reason. It happens. But I'd spent ten days speaking to people who were sharing the most harrowing parts of their life and experiencing all of that again for nothing."

Five months later, Powell set up Radar, aiming to get the stories of local reporters heard in the mainstream media. Amjata Bayoh was one of the first journalists Radar trained in Sierra Leone. His reports on the Ebola crisis were published by the Guardian, Channel 4, and the Huffington Post. A devoted Everton football fan, he wrote about his frustration at being unable to watch his team's first Premiership game at the cinema after public gatherings were banned. "That was a big boost," he says. "I was badly frustrated, and it helped me accept the situation."

Radar initially started out to link on-the-ground reporters with editors at major news organizations, but now it's just as likely to be working with major charities to see how cell phones can improve democracy. A current project with Christian Aid is helping people living in remote communities report issues to their local councillors via text. "For us, it's the bridge between citizens and government," says Kathryn Irwin, international communications specialist at Christian Aid.

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"We started to realize that if we were being clever, we would create an information service," says Powell. "If we could create a way that this content was trusted and verified and developed then we would become something quite unique and special."

In much of the Western world, the ubiquity of social media can mean we take the almost limitless opportunities we have to share our experiences for granted. Powell and Radar have helped to extend that same freedom to communities all over the world, so they can tell their stories in their own words, using nothing more powerful than a text.

Freda moved to the UK from Uganda to seek asylum six years ago. She's since struggled to access basic services such as housing and mental health support. This summer, while staying at a homeless shelter, a support worker introduced her to Radar. Since then, she's been sharing her stories as part of a Comic Relief-funded project.

"I feel that I've been given a voice to share my experiences in a way that they are probably going to benefit someone else—giving someone an understanding of what happens on a day to day basis," she says. "I just feel that my voice is being heard."

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