The evolution of 18 Days in Egypt: A conversation with Jigar Mehta

18 Days in Egypt, a collaborative, interactive documentary project that began last year in the living room of 2011 Knight Fellow Jigar Mehta, recently launched its public beta in Cairo – just as new confrontations between police and protestors erupted, posing a real-world test of the project. The 18 Days team, led by Mehta and co-founder Yasmin Elayat, plunged into producing stories from streams of photos, videos, tweets and other material created on mobile devices. 2011 Knight Fellow Hugo Soskin also is a member of the team.

Mehta and Elayat are trying to raise $18,000 for a fellowship program to hire and train 20 Egyptian university students, who will fan out across the country to collect and document stories of the revolution. You can support this effort via their Kickstarter campaign.

18 Days in Egypt is using GroupStream, a platform developed by Elayat and Mehta to enable collective, rich storytelling. In recent months, their work has been recognized and supported by major new media and technology accelerators.

We recently talked with Mehta about his Knight Fellowship and the evolution of his project. (You can also watch 3 minute talks by Mehta and Soskin.)

Tell us about your original project idea, and what you expected from the fellowship experience?

I came to Stanford with the idea of creating a network of video journalists around the world. I saw the need. When a story broke, we were always struggling to find someone at the scene. We relied on old networks. It occurred to me that the tools are there. My idea was to create a network of the best video journalists out there that would act like a clearinghouse for news agencies. I thought I would spend time at the Graduate School of Business figuring out how to create that network and the business.

What did you learn here in the first few months that supported your ideas?

I did the design school boot camp the first trimester, and ended up spending a lot of time there. That crash course in design thinking encouraged me to go out and do a lot of empathy work, with other journalists and multimedia publishers. It’s similar to what we do as journalists – I asked a lot of open-ended questions and stopped worrying about the business model. They saw the need and were open to the idea. Since I was a Knight Fellow, they saw it as research for an idea that was going to help journalism in some way.

What did you learn that challenged your thinking?

Most of the pushback came on the business side. I drilled out some nice insights, one of which was that one of the reasons there isn’t a network already is that a lot of people hold their cards back; they’re not willing to share. So the challenge was how to deal with that real-world tendency in an online environment. So I shifted to searching out behavioral people on how to make this feel like a community, not just a marketplace. I started looking at how to quickly and effectively bring the community together and what served the community — like boilerplate contracts, a place to share ideas and new work. At the same time, other things were happening in the marketplace. People started seeing more value in licensing crowd-sourced material. There was no system online to license it, or manage it for you. Then it became, who’s doing things out there, and maybe there are ways to white-label it and make it your own. That’s when Egypt happened.

How did the idea for 18 Days come about? How did it differ from the project you had been envisioning?

By this time I was becoming more familiar with the user-generated space. Some of my old thinking was based in a very high-end production network. But I saw that there was even greater value in connecting every cell phone out there that has camera on it to content curators. I was watching live feeds online on Al Jazeera. There was this very distinct imagery of a lot of cell phones being held up high. Blue screens of cell phones. People recording themselves in that moment. It occurred to me that there were a lot of breadcrumbs scattered over the last 18 days. I wondered if there were a way for us to go in and tell a story with these breadcrumbs left behind. So I brought together a couple of other Knight Fellows, some design school buddies and others and brainstormed that weekend. The idea was to get people to add the hashtag “#18 Days in Egypt” so we could tag their material. Video, photos and tweets. We put up a web page, and talked to influential bloggers here and in Egypt. They spread it into their communities. Early on, we saw issues with data being inconsistent and not quite telling a story. We didn’t know exactly where it was coming from, when it happened or who created it. Further iterations got us to where we are now – getting groups of people to tell stories. Groups can fill in the gaps, remember things others forgot and call bullshit on each other.

What did you learn during this process?

That it was about partnership. That I shouldn’t do everything on my own. Rather, find people who are good at what they do and convince them to join the team. An Egyptian friend living in New York, an interactive designer, came on as technologist, and a Brooklyn law clinic came on as our lawyers. Things in Egypt were moving rapidly so I felt I had to get it done. In that excitement, I landed a lot of great partnerships. I got meetings at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and in April, and we got on the radar of Tribeca. (film festival) We were pitching “18 Days” as an interactive documentary. We didn’t realize it, but there’d been a lot of movement in that space this past year. They were about to launch a brand new fund for projects such as ours and invited us to lunch at a launch presentation for the Tribeca New Media Fund. Mostly it enabled us to plant the flag – We’re doing it; we own it.

Was there anything specifically about the Fellowship environment that guided you through the process?

The nice thing about being here was that at a very basic level I was working. I had a salary. I had the space. I had the resources. I could justify taking a chance. It’s different from where we are now – using other resources to get to the next level. Beyond that, two things were important: institutional support – you’re at Stanford. That goes a long way. Then there’s the nurturing environment of the other fellows. Everyone wants you to succeed as opposed to a newsroom, where there’s more competition.

What has surprised you most about the project?

I always saw myself as a risk-taker but this kind of solidified it. In some ways it may seem stupid to leave a good job to go take a chance on something that may or may not pan out, especially in these tough economic times. I could have pushed to go back to the New York Times, but I realized, ‘Oh wow, this is a turning point – of not thinking about the next month, but the next five years. What helped was seeing others go through that process here in the larger Stanford community – people rolling the dice, picking themselves up if they fail. There’s something in the water in Silicon Valley. It’s like being a shark: As long as you keep moving you’re fine, but if you stop you’re dead.

What do you think you learned about the future of journalism during your explorations at Stanford?

Journalists are not going save journalism. It goes to the idea of building teams and knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. You see a lot of the great journalism innovations coming from that mixture of journalists and non-journalists: engineers, people from other industries. It brings a multidisciplinary approach. Some of the traditional media are trying. I think the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle now have incubators working out of their offices. I think we’re going to start seeing an uptick now. There were bad years, but a lot of media started becoming lean, doing more with less. That market’s just completely diversified. I think newspapers may become the information carriers again. There’s a really good high school sports blog in Pennsylvania. One person owns that space. Maybe they could start licensing these individual bloggers for their content. Then they would manage the relationship between producers and consumers.