Douglas Arellanes – creating open-source solutions to help independent media

Douglas Arellanes, photo: Archive of Sourcefabric

A long-time resident of Prague, Douglas Arellanes has been involved in internet innovations in this country since the early 1990’s. A few years ago, he became one of the founders of Sourcefabric, an organization that creates open-source online tools for media organizations all over the world. Douglas began by telling me about how he was first enticed to come to Czechoslovakia from Los Angeles, having received a letter from his friends who at the time founded the newspaper Prognosis, the precursor to The Prague Post.

Doug Arellanes,  photo: Archive of Sourcefabric
“The story goes – and it is honestly the truth – I was sitting in one of those floating chairs in a pool in Los Angeles reading this letter from my friends in Prague, which said, ‘You have to come out, the main Czech exports are beer and supermodels. You have to be here – they have a playwright-president, it’s the place to be historically.’ And they closed the letter by reminding of the nickname of the LA Times, where I was working. The LA Times was called ‘the velvet coffin’, because it was a very comfortable place to be, but you were never heard from again. The letter ended by saying: ‘Velvet coffin – no; velvet revolution – yes!’

“And so in 1992, I bought a one-way ticket to Prague, I had 100 dollars in my pocket, and I came out to Prague to work on this newspaper and to be part of a really wonderful time”

Doug Arellanes,  photo: Archive of Sourcefabric
I definitely wouldn’t mind getting that kind of offer. So, in the end, you stuck around, and eventually founded Sourcefabric. What happened in between?

“Sourcefabric was founded in 2010. I’ve been doing various things related to technology and the internet. First, as a volunteer with a group called iConnect, which was one of the first providers of internet connectivity in the country. I then started my own internet company, then did a couple of things in the start-up field. So, all of that stuff happened in the 1990’s.

“I was really bored with it, and I began volunteering, doing some media trainings for various organizations. And I was really hating my job for this large multi-national company. And then I decided to do some interesting working in media development, and specifically technology for media development.

I really like the idea behind Sourcefabric. In a way it is really complicated with all the technology and complex online tools, but in reality it is quite simple, the idea is to provide independent media with tools to grow. How did this idea come to you?

Photo: Archive of Sourcefabric
“I had been working with this organization called the Media Development Investment Fund as a consultant in technology. And were getting essentially the same request – we need to make a website, we need to make a website. And we said, wait a minute, we can actually create an economy of scale by creating the same tools and reusing those tools in many places.

“And then around 1999 or 2000 we heard about this really crazy group of techno-hippies led by this student in Finland, and this whole thing called ‘open source’. And we heard about this idea of people making software and giving it away, for free. And that really was something that we connected with, because we were very much about freedom in media and freedom of expression and this happened to be a good technical fit as well.

Marshall McLuhan,  photo: Wikimedia Free Domain
“The problem is that a lot of journalists tend to back away from technology. But what’s happening is that these tools are shaping the way that people are not only getting the news, but how the news itself is being created. I think it was Marshall McLuhan who said ‘we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us’. And if we can get more journalists involved in the process of actually creating the tools that they need, then they are going to be able to do their jobs better. In some way, we just make tools, we’re like a shovel maker or something, we just make really nice shovels.” [laughs]

So could you give us a bit of a taste of the nice shovels? Maybe one new thing that you have come out recently.

“One of the projects that I am working on right at this moment is a tool for citizen journalism verification and newsgathering. So, this is something we are working on in Mozambique, where they have elections coming up at the end of October, I believe. The tool is designed to take reports from, say, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, but then to allow the editors to figure out if it is a legitimate report, or something that they can just ignore. So the system is designed to help the editor make those decisions really quickly.

Doug Arellanes in Mozambique,  photo: Archive of Sourcefabric
“What’s interesting about this project is that Mozambique, like most African countries, is incredible when it comes to mobile technology. The uses of mobile are incredibly innovative there. And we’re learning quite a bit from our colleagues in Mozambique as much as we are bringing what we know to the table. It is a really cool collaboration with a newspaper called Verdade, truth, which is based in the city of Maputo, but it is a free newspaper distributed all over the country. So, I am really glad to be working with them.”

You also work a lot with former Soviet republics; I know you travel there a lot. In the years that you have been working with news organizations there, have you seen any changes and improvements in journalism culture there?

“One of the places where I have been working relatively continuously since 2008 is Georgia, and the development there has been relatively positive. Although it is two steps forward, one step back. But I have been pretty encouraged to see pretty big growth in online media in Georgia. We’ve worked with a couple of organizations that have managed to double their audience year-on-year for the last couple of 5 or 6 years. And now they are starting to be taken serious by just about everybody on the media scene, whereas when they started people were very dismissive, because did not take online journalists, and especially bloggers, seriously.

Photo: Archive of Sourcefabric
“So Georgia has been a very encouraging example. Obviously, there have been some difficulties there as well. One of the more interesting areas of repression there has been in the selling f advertising. That’s a very easy way of putting someone out of business, especially if you are running a newspaper or a magazine, or any online media that relies on advertising. This is starting to change, but for a long time in Georgia, it was very difficult.

“Some of the places in the former Soviet Union have taken bigger steps back and there are areas of great concern. I visited Azerbaijan earlier this year and that was an eye-opener. Technologically they are really well advanced. You’ve got 3G telephony everywhere. I was using my iPhone like mad. And that was an interesting surprise. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a place where anyone can go online or television and write or say whatever they want. So, we would like to do more work throughout the south Caucasus. And we are working on that right now.”

And if we return to Central Europe now, there are always, I think, very polarizing opinions on Czech media. From your perspective, especially from the technological standpoint, how advanced is Czech media today?

“Today, especially, since today we have the big story about the police raids, I was very encourage to see all the online reporting that has gone on. The front page of was just astounding. It was like science fiction; they had two live blogs going on at the same time, they had slideshows, they had this data desk where they were showing the dossiers of what they have been able to collect on all of these different players involved in the cases. And this was something that they were able to put together in a matter of hours. It is exemplary journalist, and it is not only exemplary on a Czech stage, but really internationally. This is something that deserves high praise.

“The same is true for the work that servers like have been doing. Their coverage of the flooding was just amazing. There are quite a few examples like this of real innovations on the Czech media scene. And these are things that give me a lot of hope for the future. “

What areas do you think Czech media still has to work on? Not just in terms of technology, but in general in terms of news coverage.

“I think just like most of Europe, the Czech Republic is facing a demographic time bomb with the aging of the population. I think that, especially for people like us who are involved in high-tech stuff, we tend to think that our grandmother and grandfathers are not interested somehow in the world around them. And one of the things that I think we should be looking to do is give them better access to the technology here, so they can also enter the debates about what’s going on.

“The young, and the extremely well connected, they are always going to be well connected, they’re always going to be fine, but if all that you are learning about the world comes from the commercial television stations here, you are not really going to get a valuable view of what’s going on around you.

“And the great thing about the Czech online scene is that it is relatively diverse and there is a diversity of opinions, but if you’re not connected to that, then all of that is irrelevant. There is this discussion that you don’t even know exists. This is partially demographic – it’s mostly people who are older, people in rural areas. This is something I would look to address here.”

And I think that the presidential elections showed that divide very clearly. Maybe we could finish up talking about something slightly lighter. I wanted to talk to you about one of your passions that I know about, which is DJing. You are also on radio, so maybe you could give us a brief assessment on what is going on on commercial radio in this country right now?

“I’m a moderator on Radio 1. So every other Saturday from 6 to 9 am I drag myself out of bed and come down to the studio and play music that I think would be nice to listen to on a Saturday morning. And some of it comes from the places that I travel to and some of is just really interesting music that I think needs attention.

“And in terms of commercial radio stations in this country, I really wish there were fewer jukebox stations. I really do wish that there was greater freedom for the moderators and the people actually making the radio to choose more interesting material. I think that that would really help open up the scene. And what’s also interesting is that the music scene is lively, there are a lot of different groups that are deserving of attention that we will never know about, because we will never hear them, because we are constantly hearing the songs that were playing back when Husak was president. And that’s really unfortunate. And it is eventually going to kill the diversity and creativity here, if we don’t start paying attention to new music and new things that are being created.”

And Sourcefabric has also come out with an audio tool as well.

“Yeah. We have a tool, called AirTime, which is a tool for making your own radio stations. It’s kind of a cross between google calendar and iTunes. So you make a playlist, then you set it to play a certain time, and it plays. You can even do this completely online, you don’t have to install anything, you can just open up an account with us.”

The fact that you guys developed this tool, does that mean that you guys are fairly optimistic about the future of radio? It’s not such a clear-cut question these days.

“Oh, I love radio, and I do not think that radio is going away any time. The simple fact that you still cannot drive a car and operate Pandora, for example, from your car, or any of the online systems…They still require too many fingers and fumbling. Cars, I think, will be by far the place where people will still get most of their broadcast radio.

“That broadcast radio may not be delivered by analogue FM. It might be delivered by satellite, or digital means, it might be through streaming, but the great thing is that there will still be a smart person sitting behind the microphone, choosing what material is going to go out over the air. And that part of the equation will never really disappear. “