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Testing my kit for mobile reporting in Africa

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So, you've brought your smart phone with you to a country like Nigeria, brimming with all your favourite apps for social media and live video streaming. Will everything work? Well sort of, inshallah.

Recently while training radio journalists in Kano in Nigeria's north, I used a variety of applications to get an indication of how practical they might be for mobile reporting, micro-blogging/blogging in a country where 3G networks are gradually expanding.

My mojo mobile weapon of choice at the moment is the Nokia N82. Here's what's in my toolbox of applications.

N82 apps high  

Twibble - for Twitter and Twitpic on Nokia symbian smart phones

Bambuser - mobile phone video streaming

Qik - mobile phone video streaming

Kyte Producer - upload mobile phone video and photos

Tumbla - tumblr blog upload app

Wefi - wifi detector

I really wanted to know before travelling to Nigeria what network would suit my needs. I asked the local tech bloggers on Mobility Nigeria for some advice on networks. They suggested going for MTN, one of the bigger Nigerian mobile networks, and gave me the going price for a buying a pre-paid SIM card.

This is the sort of information that saves a lot of mucking around when you arrive. I'd love to find a blog or a wiki that keeps track of all those things.

Upon arrival I bought a new pre-paid SIM card from a street hawker for 600 Naira (c.3 euro). Recharge cards are available literally on every corner for 1500 Naira (c.8 euro).

MTN's website also explained that an ordinary pre-paid SIM card is ready for data services. There's no need to visit an agent to manually register the SIM card for accessing the internet or fiddle with settings.

I was a little skeptical but sure enough the internet and my (MobileMe/Mac) email launched immediately. If only it was that easy in every country.

So, getting started was a breeze, but the biggest challenge was getting a reliable 3G connection. (And under the umbrella of "3G" I'm not sure what MTN's network and kbit speeds supports across UMTS/GPRS/GSM.)

Personally, I found MTN's 3G signal was a little erratic in Kano to connect for faster data services.

I did however find that early mornings were the best time to connect. Maybe there's less usage across the network as people are on their way to work?

When I managed to log on to MTN's 3G, Twibble worked very well keeping me updated on everyone I follow on Twitter and uploading photos to Twitpic.

Of course, updating my Twitter stream by SMS was the most reliable method. And, sending a direct message (eg D @blogschau) on Twitter by SMS was also a good way to stay in touch with colleagues. Twitter still emails direct messages to the recipient - a useful little service they've maintained.

Erratic 3G connections ultimately dashed my hopes of regularly streaming live video via Qik. Delays caused by the slow connection speed always built up even when shooting video in low quality. Chatting live to viewers did not even get a look in.

On the upside, my Qik and 12seconds accounts are connected. So as a compromise I decided to only shoot short video clips to suit 12seconds. I think these worked quite well and they weren't expensive to shoot. Both Qik and 12seconds can update your Twitter stream with a link to the video. If you use the html code that accompanies the video (look at any links to "share" "embed" or click on the QIK logo in the bottom left hand corner of any video), it's potentially an easy method to embed video into a blog post and save a lot of hassle trying to upload and convert video from scratch to a share site such as YouTube.


The drawback will always be whether there is enough bandwidth to upload a good quality video. You can also adjust video quality and delay in settings for QIK and Bambuser.

Trying another video tactic, I shot a couple of short videos of around 30 seconds and then used the Kyte TV Producer app on my phone to upload. That way I would always have a good mp4 copy on my phone memory card.

This worked OK but gobbled up credit. Better to seek out free wifi to upload. One thing I also noticed was that most Nigerian colleagues I worked with used USB dongles to access the net.

On the blog front, I thought better of accessing Typepad from my phone but tried to use Tumbla to send material to my Tumblr blog. Unfortunately, Tumbla was a casualty and would not work.

Outside of using data services I also sent an audio message to Utterli. This is a great social media phone service. Just call up from your mobile phone and leave a message. Utterli then sends an update with a hyperlink to your audio message to other services such as Twitter or to your blog. You can also add photos and video. My only grumble with Utterli is their decision to withdraw a local call number for Germany - you have to dial a US number. However, it's also possible to use Utterli cheaply by making calls using a local calling card.

So, how practical are some of these social media and video streaming thingies to use in a country such as Nigeria?

At the moment, that's all going to depend on your needs, patience and budget.

Any application that lets you update or receive messages on your phone by SMS or email is always going to be the most practical and the cheapest.

A new service I've been testing to receive @ replies and to track tweets from Twitter is Twe2 - so far I find it's quite useful, and it's free.

If anything, 3G services across Africa are only going to get better. On a recent trip to Dar es Salaam I was able to stream live video far better than in Kano. The main drawback was a lot of fiddling with phone settings to log onto the local Vodacom network. I almost gave up.

With a little thought towards planning, you can use your phone to great effect. Just look at how the AudioBoo app for the iPhone has taken off for mobile reporting during the recent G20 demonstrations in London. Though for now problems in connectivity in some African countries may prove to be frustrating hiccups in your social media and mobile video streaming happiness.


Onnik Krikorian | April 3, 2009 11:05 AM | Reply

Thanks for this post, especially as it comes at a very appropriate time. My mobile just died and I've been looking at getting a new one, but as a photographer, I want a good camera phone. Obviously, I know that mobiles are not as good as even compact digital cameras so megapixels are not important to me.

However, finding the best at a reasonable price is. So, I discovered the N82 on a few sites yesterday and the samples look great for a phone. However, if you had the choice, would you say there are better? Touch screens and fancy icons are not important to me. Camera quality and the ability to send photos and updates to twitter etc are.

Guy Degen | April 3, 2009 11:18 AM | Reply

Onnik, I'm really happy with the 5mp quality of the camera on the N82. I've had it since last July.

It means that I've always got a reasonable camera in my pocket. The flash is not bad, but I rarely use it.

Yes, I gaze at the iPhone with envy, but for now I'm sticking with the N82.

The big drawback of the N82 is the tiny keypad. I haven't tried using the fold up keyboard that's available.

I'll be in Tbilisi next week - are you around?


Onnik Krikorian | April 3, 2009 11:33 AM | Reply

Ah, for the opposition protest? Wasn't planning to be. Have a presentation to give for IREX on the role of blogs during the post-election state of emergency in Armenia last year. BTW: Are you expecting that anything will happen?

Anyways, thanks for the comments on the N82. Yeah, the iPhone looks wonderful, but can't say I'm impressed with the camera samples I've seen. Looks great to play with, but the camera isn't what I was hoping for.

Guy Degen | April 3, 2009 12:11 PM | Reply

I think Burjanadze and Nogaideli are wondering if anything will happen too!

I'm working on a UN filming assignment over next week in Tbilisi - just a co-incidence that I'll be down there at the same time.

BTW not sure if Apple will beef up the camera quality of the iPhone in the future, but have a look at http://www.kirkmastin.com - http://www.kirkmastin.blogspot.com/ he's quite a fan of what the iPhone camera can do. I like his attitude to using it.

Graham Holliday | April 3, 2009 1:59 PM | Reply

Great post Guy - very interesting to hear what does and does not work int he field. I found in France Audioboo was slow uploading to the Edge network and so may be troublesome on a Kano connection. I hadn't come across the Tumblr uploader, thanks for the tip although it didn't work...

As for phones Onnik, the iPhone is brilliant as an internet connection device across all media. It's crap as a phone and crapper as a camera.

I've always found the Sony Ericcson phones to have very good cameras. I think they use Carl Zeiss lenses. I used to use them a lot in Vietnam to take blog pictures and shoot films - you can get up to ten mins or so on them - http://bit.ly/tAJgD - I'm sure the Sony lenses are even better these days.

There's an interesting way of judging mobile phone camera quality on Flickr. Search for the phone you're interested in and click through to see the image quality users have got out of it,


I imagine Apple will up the camera game, they couldn't exactly down it...

Marc Maxson | April 3, 2009 3:02 PM | Reply

Great and useful info. Last month (March 09) I criss-crossed Kenya testing similar options. Internet was down country wide for days at a time but twitter by SMS still worked! That made me a twitter convert, as we work with over a hundred organization in Kenya (GlobalGiving.org) and most cannot access Internet reliably.

Unfortunately, people in Sierra Leone have not been able to get twitter-SMS to work. Anyone else notice West African networks that don't even allow sending by twitter? REceiving twitter messages to phone is still not available except in 20 rich countries.

Also found tumblr to be useful when Internet was up as a low bandwidth simple interface for updating several blogs.

If no one else sets up a blog to track this (which features work where) then GlobalGiving will be putting one up to help our orgs in 100+ countries know what will work.

Guy Degen | April 3, 2009 3:45 PM | Reply

Marc, thanks for the feedback.

I had no problems with Twitter in Tanzania via Vodacom last December.

I think some of the sales models used in Africa are quite innovative to get more people using mobile phones.

Compare that to Costa Rica where up until late January it was not possible to buy a pre-paid mobile card from the government telco ICE.

It would be great to see Twitter offer more local numbers to SMS instead of the UK mobile number. I only noticed that Twitter now offers a local German mobile number when I was changing settings for my Nigeria trip.

A couple of Nigerian journalists I met were also exploring the new NaijaPulse network http://www.naijapulse.com - though you can only send/receive messages on a mobile phone with email - SMS is not yet available.

From a glance, your organisation I'm sure would be well placed to draw upon local knowledge of social media friendly mobile networks in many regions. It would be a good experiment. Please do keep us updated.

Safdar Mustafa | November 29, 2009 7:07 AM | Reply

Really enjoyed reading your post, Guy.

From working in the mobile media team at AlJazeera Channel I can really related to your experiences. A while back we equipped some of our Reporters with N95 mobiles on their desert trip to Mali and Niger, what they came back with was quite interesting.

Following that we decided to purchase around 60 N82 handsets for our field reporters and load them up with custom Mobile Reporting software.

Are you planning to attend the mobile event in Jordan http://everybodytexts.eventbrite.com by any chance?

Would be great to meet and share ideas :-)

Onnik Krikorian | November 29, 2009 1:08 PM | Reply

Safdar, what is the custom Mobile Reporting software? Would be interesting to lear more.

What do you think?