Could Digital Documentation Become a Profitable Business in Egypt?

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Over the past two years since Egypt ousted Mubarak, several initiatives in Egypt have attempted to document the revolution's history on digital platforms, to facilitate public access to the available trove of digital documentation.

Reflecting the mediums of modern citizen reporting, these platforms combine data from mobile phones, tablets, mini-flip cameras, SLR cameras and computers; tens of thousands of photos, videos and testimonials of various incidents have also been collected from Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs since 2011. 

Archiving the Revolution 

Before the revolution, the process of digitizing local media had already begun, most famously with The Memory of Modern Egypt, a national digital archive launched by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in partnership with the International School of Information Science, which is working to scan and digitize its massive collection of documents, speeches, photographs, movies, audio, maps, books, essays, news, covers, currency, medals, stamps and advertisements. The Egyptian National Library and Archives has also worked to digitize its manuscripts and documents to provide universal access.   

Yet the Egyptian revolution presents a new kind of opportunity for documenting crowdsourced information, and several initiatives have cropped up since the revolution to offer different perspectives.

  • One that launched in February 2011, directly after the revolution, is the American University of Cairo's  “University on Tahrir Square: Documenting the Egyptian Revolution in the 21st century," through which university archivists are compiling information from a variety of online sources.
  • Another is “18 Days in Egypt," a group storytelling platform which launched in January 2012, after the one-year anniversary of the revolution, to document the 18 Days of the revolution leading to the overthrow of Mubarak. 
  • Qomra is another platform, driven by Egyptian youth, that aims to make political and cultural content from the revolution widely available with a crowdsourced, Wikipedia-style approach, in which users submit entries and then also vet mistakes.  
  • Lastly, Qamous Althawrah is a printed dictionary of the vocabulary used on the streets during the revolution, indexing sepcific words like, "tha-er" (rebel) and "baltaji" (a word for the thugs hired to beat revolutionaries). 

Where is the Business? 

A common characteristic of all these initiatives is that they are non-profit, relying entirely on financial grants. They beg the question, is it impossible to turn a profit in the field of digital archiving, or are the owners of these initiatives not aiming to create a new entrepreneurial sector?  

According to Mohammad Abou El Foutouh, the founder of Qomra, the startup plans to also offer its crowdsourced platform to commercial entities in sports and industrial fields that do not yet have an archive, for a fee.

One of the diffculties with this, however, is that with an entirely crowdsourced model, he can't guarantee the accuracy of the information. "This is true," he replies, "but we don’t want to exert censorship and trigger a debate between disagreeing readers; that’s why we leave the judgment to the audience.”        

Khaled Bermawi, an independent journalist and media consultant, points out that these tech companies own the only platforms that might be able to monetize this crowdsourced content, through a paywall or via ads.  

"A smart next step would be partnering with telecom companies and service providers, as content consumption on mobile phones is accelerating. The growth in this emerging sector might allow content companies to find a better negotiating position."             

Qomra has already developed software that generates a QR code for each archived page; the team then distributes posters with QR codes in downtown Cairo to invite the public to contribute to their archive. They also give training sessions on electronic archiving, mobile media, social media management and other fields, which could be monetized.

For now, Abou El Foutouh is continuing to reach out to parties that can fund the project, which is relatively small scale as it stands; since it's run by the crowd, it doesn't currently need employees, he says. Yet if he's successful, and is able to generate momentum and build a userbase, he may want to take a long-term view and consider creating revenue; after all, self-sustainability is part of the ethos of the revolution.  

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