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Video4Change Impact Research and the MIT Open Documentary Lab

In early 2013, the Open Documentary Lab and Center for Civic Media began a collaboration with EngageMedia and the video4change network to explore the impact of Video for Change; the innovative use of video towards advocacy aims.

I have been involved in what we now call the Video for Change field since the late nineties. When I was a University student in Australia, UK video activist pioneers, Undercurrents, inspired me with their work covering the swathe of social movements active at the time. I discovered a local equivalent in Access News, a weekly show on community TV in Melbourne. All this back in the days of tape and in some cases non-digital editing systems.

In 2004, I spent 6 months in Rome and got involved in the innovative network of micro TV stations called Telestreet, that was particularly active battling Prime Minister Berlusconi’s media empire. Telestreet combined with an online distribution platform called New Global Vision to share videos across the network of stations. The site looks clunky now, but at the time they were at the edge of what was possible with the technology, all pre-YouTube and operating for the most part on open source software and volunteer labour. I produced a short documentary exploring the Telestreet network that can be seen here.

Upon returning to Australia in 2005, I teamed up with Anna Helme who had previously worked with Undercurrents. We both felt that the Southeast Asia/Pacific region needed a space for sharing social change video materials and so we set out and started EngageMedia, along the way developing an open source video sharing content management system, developing networks of free software technologists and video makers and building a team across Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Fast forward to June 2012, when EngageMedia, WITNESS and a dozen other organisations gathered to co-found the Video4Change Network. Out of a weeklong retreat, a great many questions arose regarding what impact the work we do really has, and how to go beyond what is often fairly superficial reporting and analysis, mostly due to resource limitations.

Fortunately for the network, Becky Hurwitz of MIT’s Center for Civic Media was present at the event, which lead in turn to a research collaboration with both Civic and the Open Documentary Lab to explore the impact of Video for Change.

OpenDocLab is a great space to be conducting this research due to the Center’s exploration of the intersection of technology innovation and storytelling. The Video for Change research taps a number of interests at the Lab; participatory forms of documentary production, crowd-sourced media distribution and aggregation, multiple authorship, and the melding of video with other web-based content.

To my mind, video activists have often been at the leading edge of documentary forms, leveraging innovation to most effectively reach audiences, engage, and mobilise them. Challenge for Change, a project that worked with disadvantaged communities in Canada’s remote Newfoundland in the 1960s, was part of a vanguard that put video production tools in the hands of everyday people, and pushed the idea of first person story telling.

Along with MIT graduate students Sean Flynn and Julie Fischer, and Dr Tanya Notley of the University of Western Sydney, I have been exploring the impact of video advocacy and these media forms and subsequent shifts in moving image media. Whilst there are a number of projects presently looking at the impact of video – particularly feature documentaries – there has been less focus on participatory and video activist approaches and content from the Global South. Many impact projects tend to emphasise quantitative over qualitative measures, but beyond the hits, clicks, likes and tweets, we are interested in how the process of production and distribution influences participants, how video can move people beyond “clicktivism” and catalyze deeper engagement with a campaign or movement, as well as how ethical considerations are integrated into a video’s creation and dissemination.

The research will produce scholarly work for journals and other publications, but we also seek to bring an open and participatory ethic into the research process itself. As such, we are blogging the research regularly as we go, asking questions, seeking ideas, and building a global community of practice.

Finally, we will produce a toolkit to assist video makers better design for and measure impact.

The first stage of the research produced a scoping report and series of blog posts that included interviews with video4change network members along with specific impact case studies. The scoping report, including recommendations for this coming stage, is available here.

You can read a full introduction to the next stage of the research on the video4change blog. If you’d like to stay in touch please join our announcement list (closed).

About the Author

Andrew Lowenthal is a Fellow at the Open Documentary Lab, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founder of EngageMedia.