Tuesday, June 24, 2014

“Building the Battalion”, Crowd-Sourcing and Ushahidi

A guest blog from one of my MA students Liberty Martin, who is helping me organise the In Battalions Festival next Friday 4 July. 

The 4th of July is an exciting date this year. The In Battalions Festival at Drama Centre London will bring Fin Kennedy and Helen Campbell Pickford’s work on the In Battalions project into its third and most dynamic chapter.

By investigating the effects of cuts to arts funding on theatre, the first In Battalions report outlined the problem, the Delphi study suggested possible solutions, and now the Festival will create the opportunity to take action.

There’s an emphasis on the new in this provocation. If we maintain projects that foster creative risks, new work and diverse voices, we maintain a vital theatre industry as a whole, where the mainstream is continually fed by the experimental work being made on the fringes. But only if that work keeps getting made.

The first In Battalions report went viral in 2012. From personal blogs and tweets to comment in the Guardian, people harnessed the power of the report to express their frustration at a pending crisis in theatre. Through the In Battalions Delphi study industry professionals proposed ways to “work with the Arts Council to protect risk-taking” in British theatre - without having to spend much money. The problem is widely understood, the solutions are more difficult to grasp, but there’s a common sense that there is a crisis.

At the first In Battalions Festival we’ll be proposing that crisis-mapping could be a useful tool for people in the UK theatre industry to share information, ideas and resources in response to reduced subsidy.

Many in the industry are already familiar with crowd-fundingplatforms like Kickstarter and Seedr, but there’s more to crowd-sourcing than funding. Should we be using crowd-sourcing as a way of distributing information rather than funds?

Instances of crisis-mapping have been effective in cases of natural disasters, in political uprisings and in longer term efforts to build communities and respond directly to shared problems.

Ushahidi was the name given to a website created by a group of volunteers in response to the violence that followed the elections in Kenya in 2008: the word means “testimony” in Swahili. In a time of confusion and upheaval a small technically literate group created a tool for people on the ground to share information on a Google map, intelligence which could not be accessed directly via any other channel.

The humanitarian technology network crisismappers.net was set up by Ushahidi founders in 2009 and continues to function as an international community with member affiliations all over the world. Ushahidi was also successfully deployed in 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. There the platform was used to link up aid organisations and people suffering in the crisis to share information in almost real-time and help respond to life or death situations unfolding throughout the country. It was also effectively used after typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines last year. You can read more about crisis-mapping on Ushahidi founder Patrick Meier’s blog

Now Ushahidi can be used or ‘deployed’ by anyone with the need or desire to share information on a map, inspired by the simple questions that have been so useful in crisis deployments, “What can you see?” and “What do you need?”

Crowdmap is currently being used in wide and varying contexts to deal with on-going situations. From “My health, my voice” an NGO project improving maternity care in northern Indian hospitals, to “Fix Your Street” a site allowing people across Ireland to report issues like vandalism, fly-tipping or broken streetlights for immediate review by their local council.

The concept of crowd-sourcing and crisis-mapping has gained popularity since 2008 and Ushahidi has been the most publicised developer, with founders going on to create new programmes based on their initial work. This tool is freely available and deployments can respond to any given problem or situation.

This is how a deployment could work in the context of British theatre. The In Battalions Delphi study highlighted a need to make free space available for developing new work. The most popular proposal was:

“Ask theatres to make under-utilised space available for rehearsal and performance of new work, scratch nights etc. on a free basis. These spaces would be listed on a national register of support and resources available for creative Research and Development, arranged by region.”
This was voted the most useful and practical way of protecting risk-taking in the industry, though naturally problems were identified. The difficulty of asking theatres to offer free space in a time of austerity, and the problem of who would administrate an online register were raised. The idea of getting councils and private renters to offer unused space was presented as a possible alternative.

A crowdmap deployment could respond directly to this proposal by bringing together reports on:

  • Free space that theatres are willing and able to publicise
  • Projects calling out for space to use 
  • Businesses that need to fill temporarily disused space

Information would be searchable by location, respond directly to a need identified in the industry and could help people make the most of the available resources in a local area.

In the Building the Battalion room at Drama Centre on the 4th of July, we’ll be bringing together people currently innovating in theatre (for instance the nation-wide movement for Fun Palaces), exploring the proposals in the In Battalions Delphi study for practical development, and using crowdmap as a tool for community building online.

As the pragmatist John Dewey said, “a problem well put is half solved.” The key to an effective crowdmap lies first in identifying a real and urgent need in a community, then setting up a deployment that speaks productively to that need. This Festival is an opportunity to work with a real problem and develop real solutions. We’ll be celebrating what we’re doing, and working out how to get what we need.

The In Battalions Festival is from 10am-5.30pm on Friday 4th July. Tickets are available to book now.

Liberty Martin trained specifically in Small-Scale Theatre Practice and is now completing a practical MA in Dramatic Writing at DCL, Central Saint Martin’s College. @LibertyMartin

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