Dickens Olewe is the creator of AfricanskyCAM, a project working to use UAS in newsrooms in Africa. He has worked on data journalism projects, including a health portal to allow users to access information about health facilities in their countries. Olewe is also a fellow at Stanford University, where he is working on africanDRONE, which works to coordinate efforts of UAS users across the continent.
How did you originally get interested in using UAS? What prompted you to develop AfricanskyCAM?
I had observed how Kenyan media was covering flood stories. It was template journalism. Journalists would hire a boat and row about, getting closer to submerged houses, risking life and equipment. The footage would also not tell the scale of the disaster. For a bird’s eye view, journalists would get a ride in police helicopters, which in my view, compromised editorial independence. So I submitted a proposal to the Africa News innovation Challenge arguing for a low-cost technology, instead of expensive choppers, that would enhance frontline reporting and uphold editorial independence. My project made it to the finals, and I got funding to start Africa’s first UAS journalism team.
You have quite a bit of experience promoting the use of UAS in journalism and news gathering. What do you see as the primary value of UAS for journalism?
As I said above, the cost of civilian UAS has made it possible for media houses to acquire a tool that can capture a bird’s eye perspective of a story, which enhances storytelling. A UAS is a perfect alternative to using helicopters.
You have stated that the goal of AfricanskyCAM is to revolutionize frontline reporting. How do you think AfricanskyCAM’s services will change journalism in Africa?
Importantly, we want to set professional standards in UAS journalism. We aim to train journalists, advise on the use of the technology and kick-start content sharing among African media. We are also exploring the use of camera-equipped balloons and other uses of UAS, including deploying them to gather data.
Our work is deliberately meant to carve operation areas and increase awareness of professional UAS use. This is critical. At the moment, most countries in Africa have no guidelines for civilian UAS use, and the absence of such laws creates an environment where anyone can operate a UAS. This means that those of us who have professional interest in using UAS risk being shut down following an incident. We want to lead by providing best practice guides and working on a training and licensing regime that will ensure safe and professional operation. We are also reaching out to farmers, conservationists and emergency services industries that have professional interests in using UAS, so that we can lobby together for a favorable operating environment. The blanket ban of civilian UAS use by the South African government should serve as a wake-up call to the drone community that there’s a need to work together. I believe such proactive engagements will help us create a space for what’s a nascent industry and help protect its future.
What are the challenges you have faced in communicating the value of UAS journalism, and how do you hope to address them?
The one big problem we face constantly is perception. The problem is that civilian UAS have been conflated with military UAS, so that when you talk of UAS, people immediately think of bombing and spying. These are perceptions that ironically have been propagated by the media. So the media needs to be educated on how to report and package UAS stories, especially in using accompanying images of what a “civilian” UAS looks like. I also decided that the best way to fight the negative perception is to do feel-good stories to show the possibilities of the equipment. We did a tourism promotional video for the Kenya Tourism Board after a media tour, which went well. We used the pictures in a newspaper feature. I think these efforts will help in winning public confidence and affirming a UAS as a journalism tool.
AfricanskyCAM has partnered with CCTV Africa to give audiences a view of Kenyan wildlife. What has been your biggest success story to date?
The partnership with CCTV Africa at Ol Pejeta Conservancy was a big outing. The story was featured on several outlets including Yahoo News, NPR and the Daily Mail online. We did the story at a time when Kenya was losing elephants and rhinos to poaching. Also, at the time the conservancy was getting ready to launch a fixed-wing UAS to help with monitoring the endangered animals. (The Kenyan government stopped the project in June.)
It was interesting flying so close to the animals and observing their interaction with the UAS. This story, inasmuch as it’s not a big journalism story, helped us showcase the possibilities of using UAS. We have since partnered again with CCTV Africa to report on a conservation project of the African Wildlife Foundation at Manyara Ranch in Tanzania, where poaching has been stopped almost entirely, compared to the situation in Kenya where the poaching rate is alarming. We are still in discussions with CCTV Africa for other ambitious projects in the continent.
AfricanskyCAM also recently joined a tourism campaign promoting travel to Kenya. Do you plan to apply your services to more fields outside of journalism?
#KeepCalmAndVisitKenya was a popular hashtag. What we did was to put together a video clips from a number of footage we took in different assignments. I just thought it was a feel-good thing to do, but importantly it was about putting our work and name out there. I would strongly consider any invitation, because for us at this experimental/expansion phase, the more we are out there, the more operation areas we are winning.
You have announced plans to begin a fellowship at Stanford to develop an association called africanDRONE. What is the goal of this project?
The goal is to inspire UAS journalism in Africa, build connections with newsrooms in the continent, advise on professional rollout of UAS journalism, and agree on a training, licensing and certification regime which ensures professional operation and a platform to lobby for friendly operation guidelines.
What are your plans for the future of AfricanskyCAM and africanDRONE? Do you have any other projects planned?
AfricanskyCAM remains a live lab during my time at Stanford. I have a team of four in Kenya, and I am also working closely with Ben Kreimer. Ben is the project’s trainer and adviser and will be going back to Kenya soon for more outings. I am also reaching out to the Civic Drone Center for collaboration. We are also planning to offer our services to Kenyan journalists so that we can complement their reporting. During my time at Stanford I’ll study and reach out to journalists in a select number of African countries to invite them to be part of the africanDRONE community and agree on starting drone journalism teams in their countries. I’ll be getting help from the African Media Initiative.