Alive and Qiking in Chad


When Web 2.0 startup Qik offered me a free Nokia N95 camera phone plus their new video-streaming software for my trip to Chad, I jumped. Here was a chance to try out the latest technology in one of the world’s most remote war-zones.

The Qik-N95 combo promised to condense the basic capabilities of bulky and expensive professional-grade satellite communications gear into one compact, easy-to-use package. In theory, it was perfect for the solo freelance war journalist. In practice, it’s far too fragile a system for remote field work. Qik needs some major fixes before it’s a useful tool for war correspondents.

Qik works like this: you activate the software on your N95 or other high-end camera phone, point and shoot a short video, and it streams automatically to the Qik website via wireless internet, multimedia message or your phone’s data network. The Qik website can then relay the video to website widgets. What this means, in theory, is that you can stream short, medium-quality videos, with sound, cheaply to your blog.

The most recent video plays in a loop on the widget until you send another. Imagine the possibilities. You stumble upon some fantastic interview subject out in a public market. He’s on his way to a meeting and there’s no time for a formal interview. It’s now or never. So you whip out your N95, activate Qik, point it at your man and fire off a few questions.

Qik picks the best method for streaming the video – ah, there just happens to be a wireless network! – and seconds later your impromptu interview is live on your blog. Or you’re on some hours-long road patrol with the military. You’ve long ago given up hope that anything’s going to happen, so you’ve tucked away your cameras to protect them from the sand and heat. Then the rebels fire a few shots at your vehicles and the troops fly into action, accelerating, dodging, shouting at each other, shooting back. It’s all over in seconds – but what seconds they were!

You had just enough time to grab your N95, shoot some shaky video with Qik and send it, via GSM multimedia message, to your blog, where all the world can see just how sudden and chaotic war can be. But Qik’s limitations mean these scenarios are still months or years away. The hardware aspect of my system – the N95 – worked flawlessly as both a camera and a phone during my month in war-weary Chad. But the Qik software placed demands on Chad’s networks that the networks just couldn’t meet. The results were highly disappointing.

In a month of reporting from all over Chad, I managed just one minute-long Qik interview … with myself. It’s not that there are no phone, data or wireless networks in Chad. The impoverished Central African country, which hosts half a million refugees and several active rebel groups, has two major cellular networks with GSM capability. Several major hotels in the capital of N’Djamena have wireless networks, as do many of the compounds occupied by aid groups, the U.N. and the new European Union peacekeeping force in the country’s rugged east. But these networks are all highly unreliable.

The government routinely turns off the cellular networks (which, by the way, cannot talk to each other) for days at a time in order to limit rebels’ communications. And for some reason, two weeks into my trip, both networks’ GSM capabilities simply went away … and never came back, forcing me to stop using my GSM-capable N95 for routine calls, and apparently prohibiting Qik from sending video via multimedia message. At the same time, Chad’s networks began rejecting satellite phone calls. (Go figure.)

As for the wifi … I found just two networks in all of Chad that could handle Qik at all. The first was in what passes for a luxury hotel in N’Djamena. When I discovered the network while passing through the city, I tinkered with Qik some while laying plans to return and conduct short interviews in the hotel lobby. But by the time I had come back to N’Djamena, two weeks later, the network had quietly faded and died. No one could explain why. The second network was in the eastern outpost of Abeche, where on June 20 I got briefly kidnapped by deserting Chadian soldiers (some of them child soldiers) fleeing a massive, two-hour friendly-fire incident that killed at least one person.

The fighting happened to occur in and around the Catholic Mission where I was staying, which also happened to have what appeared to be a solid daytime wireless network. I planned to do a series of short Qik pieces showing the scene of the fighting, recounting my abduction and featuring other residents of the mission who witnessed the event. But on most days, Qik couldn’t hold the Mission’s network longer than 30 seconds. I’d get halfway through a piece … and Qik would crap out. On the day when the network was strongest, I squeezed in a minute-long shot of the Mission with some voiceover discussing Chadian child soldiers. That was the best Qik report I managed to do in Chad.

It’s clear that this initial release of Qik is intended only for the most robust networks in the developed world
. Hopefully future versions will be capable of finding, holding, and shoving data through the more rickety networks we find in the developing world. Beyond that, I can recommend some tweaks that might allow even today’s Qik to work better in places like Chad. First, there should be a “store” function, whereby you can shoot a video in some austere location, save it to your phone’s memory, then stream it later once you’ve got a solid network. With that function alone, I could’ve filed scores of fascinating videos about refugee camps, peacekeepers and urban combat. They wouldn’t have been truly live … rather “sorta-live.” But that’s better than nothing.

Second, Qik needs some way to buffer videos so that, if the software briefly loses its wireless network connection, it doesn’t also lose the whole video. The system should be tolerant of momentary hiccups with its connection.

Third, the current release of Qik requires you to enter wireless network passwords every time you connect, even if it’s to the same network you just lost seconds before. That’s a time-consuming process that can cause you to miss a network’s brief window of solid functionality. If Qik could remember network passwords, it could connect faster to fleeting networks, and perhaps allow video filing where now it’s impractical. In short, Qik, especially when paired with the awesome N95, offers tremendous potential for Web 2.0 journalism. But right now it doesn’t really work in those places where Web journos like myself are doing their best work: in the poor, troubled, violent places where robust communications networks are dispensable luxuries.

NB: David emailed me this for me to post on his blog. I have added relevant links. He’s not able to post from where he is at the moment.