I own an $80 Huawei smartphone. It is probably the least smart of smartphones on the market but it allows me to make phone calls, use WhatsApp to chat with friends, take photos and upload them to Facebook and listen to music on Pandora. A decade ago, you would have needed a phone, a camera, a computer and some sort of music player to perform most of these tasks. So technology has made our lives exponentially easier,* but therein lies the problem.
What exactly goes into the manufacture of a smartphone? And at what cost to others have our lives become easier?
Photographer Marcus Bleasdale’s photo essay, The Price of Precious, highlights the major problem of conflict minerals that are used in most of the electronic devices manufactured today. His photographs tell part of the story of how mineral mining in the Congo, largely for use in electronic devices, has contributed to unspeakable violence. An excerpt of his text reads:
[The Democratic Republic of the]Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
Thinking about my own phone, as an example, and the way it has contributed to the “Congo’s pain” led me to the Huawei website. The company has gone to the effort of writing a statement on conflict minerals. On the surface, acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction but in reality the vague statement is a trivial attempt to ease the consumer’s mind without actually detailing how accountability or ethics are enforced. Huawei continues this greenwashing with their Sustainability Summary Report. While the report shows the company has contributed to global, non- profit projects and there are measures in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it does not mention conflict minerals nor detail specifics about factory workers’ wages and working conditions. Like most electronic companies, Huawei has taken some steps towards corporate social responsibility but it is questionable to what extent these translate into tangible and sustainable results.
So, is it possible to buy an ethical smartphone?
According to a Salon article, the short answer is no. But the paradox is that you can use your smartphone, tablet or laptop to learn more and raise awareness about conflict minerals which in turn may pressure companies and governments to seek ethical alternatives. More so, there is a new breed of smartphone in the mix.
FairPhone is a social enterprise based in Amsterdam that are producing the world’s first ethical phone. According to the company’s website, “the main motivation for founding FairPhone was to develop a mobile device which does not contain conflict minerals and with fair labor conditions for the workforce along the supply chain.” According to an Intercontinental Cry article, the company has joined the conflict-free tin initiative and the Solutions for Hope Project which certify the conflict-free status of the tin and coltan (tantalum) that goes into smartphones. They are also addressing the problem of e-waste by working with Closing The Loop ”to buy discarded scrap from affected areas, processing what can be safely recovered locally and shipping the rest to professional recyclers in Europe.” Unfortunately it is currently only available in the UK and Europe but FairPhone does have plans to expand their shipping following the production of the first phone model.
While FairPhone is a step in the right direction, there is not yet a universal, ethical alternative that is for sale on the mainstream market. But as Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association has said, “none of us want to be accessories after the fact in a human rights abuse in the global supply chain”—and as companies come to acknowledge this, we will hopefully begin to see an increase in ethical options.
*I would argue that life has also become far more complicated with the advent of smartphones, social media and other technologies that while being used for communication are also largely recreational.
Federally funded researchers and scientists have breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. government ended its shutdown last week. But after a fifteen day hiatus, not everyone is in the clear, and for scientists working further afield the repercussions may continue to be felt.
For Point Blue Conservation Science, a California based conservation science non-profit, the shutdown has threatened to cancel their annual research trip to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, where they have been studying Adélie Penguins since 1972.
Grant Ballard, the Director of Point Blue’s Climate Change and Informatics group, said he is hopeful the trip will go ahead, but so far there has been little news.
“Basically all they’re saying is they’re hoping to restore as much of the science as possible,” he said. “Because our program wasn’t scheduled to start until November, I’m hoping that we won’t be impacted mostly because we don’t require a lot of logistical support.”
Each year Ballard travels to the Ross Sea with a team of researchers to investigate how Adélie Penguins cope with large changes to their environment, such as those brought about by climate change.
Dubbed by David G. Ainley, the renowned penguin expert, as the “bellwether of climate change,” Adélie penguins serve as a tool for monitoring the varying impacts of global warming on the Antarctic environment. Because of their population size, wide distribution and dependence on sea ice, Ballard said they are arguably one of the the best Antarctic species to study. “They sort of serve as sentinels of the Antarctic ocean environment,” he said.
Due to the availability of long-term data, Ballard and his team have been able to study the causes behind penguin population trends, and in the short-term, Adélies are winning.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Adélie penguin colonies began expanding rapidly across the Ross Sea. It seemed that the smallest colonies were growing quickly, while the largest remained somewhat stable. According to Ballard, this led researchers to believe that the colony had perhaps reached its ecological limit.
“That raised the hypothetical question: what is the maximum population size of any animal, especially one in a pristine ecosystem?,” Ballard said. “And we had years of data, completely intact, so we thought we’d be able to get some insight into how these things work.”
“But recently, the largest colonies started once again growing really fast.”
One of the possible reasons behind this relates to the Antarctic environment, or more specifically: the sea ice. Globally, the amount of sea ice is changing, and in both the Arctic and Antarctic peninsula, it is quickly vanishing. But in the Ross Sea, the winter season—during which time the ice expands in size—has been getting longer, meaning good news for the ice-loving Adélie penguins.
“The season is incredibly dynamic and in the last 30 years has increased by 89 days, so it’s potentially a three month longer ice growing season than it was in the 1980s,” Ballard said. “That’s the exact opposite of what’s happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic peninsula.”
Should Point Blue’s Antarctic research be cancelled this year, it will be the first break in an otherwise perfect dataset—one that is not easy to fill in the gaps.
“It would basically make everything more complicated in terms of analysis and reporting,” said Ballard. “And inevitably something weird will happen that you can’t explain, so you then just have to speculate.”
After 17 years of studying Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea, Ballard has not been disillusioned by the cold, remoteness or difficulty of living—for a few months of the year—on the world’s seventh continent.
“Antarctica is mind-blowingly beautiful,” he said. “Most people would actually love it if they had the chance to be there.”
A recent audio- slideshow I created about a California Native Plant Society (CNPS) rare plant treasure hunt I participated in and reported on for Bay Nature. I don’t really consider myself a plant fanatic unless of course it involves a delicious edible vegetable but it turns out native plants are actually quite interesting — especially if they are also rare. Although I don’t think this marine biology fan is a convert just yet.
While many media professionals consider the audio- slideshow a multimedia relic of the past, it combines two of my favourite things: audio and photography. And for this reason as well as the fact it is really hard to do multiple things while kayaking against the wind, it was my multimedia tool of choice. To some extent, I do agree that audio- slideshows are an outdated and certainly not innovative way of storytelling. But when you’re a DIY- multimedia- learning kind of journalist, you just do what you can with the skills you’ve got and next time, do something better.
“All these peoples’ cultures teach us of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the earth” – said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis.
Yet while indigenous peoples make up around 5 percent of the world’s population, they account for 15 percent of those living in extreme poverty.
August 9th marked the 2013 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples- celebrating the 370 million indigenous men, women and children living around the world. From the unique marriage traditions of the Surma people in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia to the 841 languages spoken across Papua New Guinea there is much to be celebrated about the diversity of culture, language, life and thought that indigenous peoples bring to the world. But at the same time, many groups live in poverty, face discrimination, are constantly at threat of losing their land to extraction projects or logging, face significant cultural and language loss and struggle to make their voices heard in decision- making on a local, national and international level.
Although a few weeks late, I wanted to share some of my favourite photographers and writers focused on indigenous peoples and issues. This list is by no means comprehensive so please leave any suggestions in the comments!
The past few months have been a bit lazy on the blog front but I’m glad to say, busy on the writing front. With a little holiday back home in Australia and a lot of sunshine over here in the bay, it’s been hard to keep myself indoors, but following the advice of Lorena over at Big State, Big Life, I’ve put on the egg timer for 20 minutes a day and finally begun etching away at my to- do list.
Here’s some of the things I’ve been up to:
Redwoods growing faster in a warmer climate, Bay Nature.
It’s always sunny in California over at The Backpacker Collective is a new series of character and location vignettes aimed at documenting the ‘real’ California in whatever way it presents itself. Part One in the series was Manuela followed by Nathan, part two.
I just started taking a Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas ‘Data Journalism’ MOOC which I hope means you will be seeing far more infographics and data driven journalism on this blog.
A few weeks ago, I attended a media event on oil spill response held by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Being ushered from scientist to scientist, land to boat and shown a myriad of oil spill prevention technology proved to for quite a well orchestrated event and interesting morning. Despite this, there were only a handful of media organizations present at the event and most, as expected, got their quotes and left. Given I was representing a dedicated environmental magazine, Bay Nature, I had the luxury of spending the morning at the event and, getting a free boat ride out on the Bay.
While I was primarily there to write an article, I decided to use the opportunity to focus on visual storytelling as well. Juggling interviewing, photography and trying to take video, is actually very difficult. Since then I’ve been reading a lot more about how to juggle this sort of solo multimedia reporting and the key seems to be practice and planning.
Lam Thuy Vo’s website and blog has some fantastic resources on what medium to use when and why, video and photography ‘cheat sheets’ as well as a break down of some of her recent work. The Online News Association also has great advice from MJ Bear Fellows who are paving the way for innovative digital content.
Below are a few images from the day that I thought were particularly strong:
Last week I attended my first US graduation ceremony.
Although it was quite different to my own in Australia there are certain universalities when it comes to these events- the proud families, the sense of anticipation, the black gowns and of course, the speeches.
What struck me most about the ceremony wasn’t the commencement speech, but a speech given by a student on behalf of her class. I am guessing she was top of her year, excelled in all of her subjects and had participated in a long list of extra curricular activities.
She was enthusiastic, outgoing and had absolutely no idea.
Much of her speech focused on how the graduating class had done the hard yards in life and should now go out into the ‘real world’ to claim the jobs that were ‘rightfully theirs.’
I don’t judge her for encouraging her classmates to seek employment in a fledgling job market, but as I looked around many of the adults in the audience were cringing and the woman beside mouthed ‘oh my god’ to her husband. They were highly aware that very few of these graduates knew the slightest thing about the ‘real world’ or that the hard yards in life had not even begun.
In 2012 I was one of those graduates and for a long time I believed that I would be given my dream job because I had worked hard at university, graduated and was therefore entitled to it.
After receiving job rejection after job rejection I realized just how wrong this line of thinking is.
As soon as you believe you are entitled to anything more in life than a decent standard of living (which millions of people are denied) you slip into a frame of mind where you stop trying, stop striving for your goal and stop working hard not only to improve your skill set, but to improve yourself.
I don’t believe I am an arrogant person nor do I think that I deserve anything more than any one else. And I doubt the girl giving the graduation speech thought this way either. But often this line of thinking is easier to swallow than the prospect of being unemployed or if you’re lucky, working a job at Starbucks post university.
I am not any wiser than the graduating class of 2013 but through rejection, disappointment and frustration I have learnt that while you are not entitled to a great job simply because you have a degree, you are entitled to a life and the freedom to choose how you are going to live it.
So you could go day in, day out believing that you deserve so much more than life has dealt you or – you could continue working hard knowing that while you have achieved a great mile stone in life there are many more to come; and none of them will be nearly as easy.
** Many people would label this a ‘gen y’ phenomenon and perhaps rightly so. But for the purposes of this blog I decided to ignore that debate as I don’t believe it adds any real life value to the discussion.**
Last Saturday I attended the Guild Freelancer’s 2013 Spring Training for Journalists at San Francisco State University (SFSU). This is my first US based journalism event and considering the low cost, I was very impressed.
The downside of the day (for me at least) was that several of the workshops I wanted to attend ran during the same time slot meaning I had to pick one or the other. But this is the nature of larger events and understandably clashes are to be expected. I was also disappointed with the internship seminar as most of the participants were SFSU students and it felt very geared towards that audience. Similarly, it focused on how to find an internship rather than offering advice on how to make the most of internships and then translate that experience to help find an entry level job.
However, I still found the day interesting as much of it focused on multimedia and allowed me to better understand where US publications stand in terms of multimedia and online news development in comparison to Australian ones. Currently, I’m focusing on improving my multimedia skills so viewing something like Carrie Ching’s production, In Jennifer’s Room, opened my eyes to what I suppose is the direction journalism is headed. And personally, I am really excited.
Here are a few gems of advice that I took away from the day:
- Be technologically fearless. Don’t let technology get in the way because you know more than you think you do.
Kim Komenich’s lecture entitled ‘Multimedia on the cheap’ was exactly that: how to be a poorly paid journalist and still delve into the world of multimedia without fancy gear. Aside from this he encouraged the audience to use the journalistic skills they already possess and pursue multimedia stories no matter how basic they are.
- Seek intimacy in interviews. Have people introduce themselves three times: beginning, middle, end.
Mike Kepka is a photographer and multimedia producer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His series ‘the City Exposed’ focuses on interesting characters in San Francisco and it is essentially these characters that makes SF so unique. Kepka deconstructed one of his multimedia pieces, The Trumpet Kid, and discussed everything from interviewing techniques to those all important shots that will save your butt while filming and editing. Aside from the tips above, he also mentioned that what you think is the best quote, often has to be cut out first. For someone who finds it difficult to aggressively self edit, this is a piece of advice that should be taken and applied to every feature article/multimedia piece/news story/radio segment.
- Bad audio sucks.
Every multimedia presentation reiterated this point: even in multimedia pieces audio drives the piece. Without quality audio, you have nothing. I always thought good video drove a piece but as I learnt, especially in Carrie Ching’s talk, that if you have great audio, you can work with the rest. Some key tips were: always check your levels, if worst comes to worst do the interview in a car and never let the interviewee hold the microphone.
- Be adaptable. Be flexible. Be resilient.
Carol Pogash was the keynote speaker and much of her talk centered on being flexible and adaptable – advice which is more important than ever. She has no background in journalism yet has worked as a TV anchor, news reporter, author, feature writer, editor and more. So while she is a jack of all trades, she is also a master of many and therein lies the difference. Pogash explained just how obsessed she is with her work and how this has meant she makes very few mistakes (only one in her career) and is now known for her quality reporting. While Pogash comes from an era when getting a journo job meant annoying an editor long enough to get an internship gig and eventually landing yourself a job borne from it, she is no stranger to the tough job market of today and therein lies the ‘nut graph’ of her advice: be adaptable.
- Passion is critical.
Just weeks ago the website, Career Cast deemed newspaper reporter the worst job in 2013. So if journalism is poorly paid, has little job stability, very few job openings and greater demands on journalists – why stick with it? I ask myself this question a lot and often the best answer I come up with is: because this is where my passion lies. This was also reiterated by journalists throughout the day and it was somewhat comforting to know that despite all the changes, cuts and instability – they are still passionate about what they do.
Last week I was fortunate enough to spend some time with one of Golden Gate Park’s most interesting characters- Nancy DeStefanis. In a former life, Nancy worked with Cesar Chavez and campaigned for women’s rights. Now she dedicates her time to the non- profit San Francisco Nature Education where she teaches not only the public, but disadvantaged communities, about nature in the big city.
I was there to write about the Great Blue Heron colony at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park of which Nancy was the first to discover some 20 years ago. She now runs Heron Watch- a program designed to educate visitors and school kids about the colony and more so, this majestic bird.
I am relatively new to the environmental journalism world and slowly, I am getting used to writing feature stories where the main character is a place, rather than a person. But this was an instance where the person was as much a character as the place and so I chose to interweave the life of the Blue Heron colony with that of Nancy DeStefanis. As now, when I think about it, it is hard to imagine one without the other.
You can read the story published on Bay Nature here.