Inside the Website: Making Media to Accompany Inside Disaster

When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, Canada’s PTV productions was ready to shoot film and make an extraordinary website.

27 mins read

Five hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, the email arrived in my inbox. The subjectline was short and to the point: “We’re going.” This was day one of Inside Disaster, an ambitious multi-platform documentary project about humanitarian relief in disaster zones. As the project’s interactive producer, my job was to launch the Inside Disaster website and prepare for incoming reports from Haiti from our Web field director, Nicolas Jolliet, who would be working alongside the documentary crew.

The documentary’s director and producer,a,Nadine Pequenez had spent more than a year negotiating unprecedented access to the International Red Cross’s Field Assessment and Coordination Teams (FACT), elite disaster managers drawn from more than 70 countries with experience in relief, logistics, health, sanitation and more.

With producers PTV Productions and lead broadcaster TVO on board, the film had been green-lit in September 2009, with the understanding that the documentary and Web crew would be following the Red Cross FACT on their next major natural disaster response. On January 12th, after four months of waiting, planning and false alarms, that day had arrived.

Launching the Haiti blog was the first big step in creating the interactive component of Inside Disaster, which would eventually include a wide-ranging educational website about humanitarian work and the earthquake, as well as a first-person simulation that would use documentary footage to allow users to “experience” the disaster’s aftermath from the point of view of a journalist, survivor or aid worker.

For me, it would become the opportunity of a lifetime, combining my love of research, storytelling, global issues, technology, team-building and social activism. By the time it launched, the Inside Disaster interactive would involve more than 30 collaborators from Canada and Haiti, cost close to half a million dollars and win multiple educational and gaming awards.

But that wouldn’t happen for a long, long time. On January 12, 2010, I was as close as you could come to having no idea what I was doing.

In Canadian media production, interactive storytelling is the shiny new kid in town. Funders lavish attention and money on it, traditional media producers eye it with interest and suspicion, and everyone is covertly Googling to find out just what exactly “interactive,” “multi-platform,” “mobile app” and “SEO” mean, let alone mean to their work.

Although my background is in traditional documentary production, I began shifting into the world of online video and communications in 2005, creating advocacy and political campaign videos, leading outreach campaigns for non-profits and soaking up the technological “geek-speak” of my new colleagues as fast as I could.

From the beginning, I’ve been enthusiastic about the Web’s potential for documentary filmmakers: reaching previously untouched audiences, building an online community around projects, finding innovative uses for the 99 per cent of footage that never make it into the film, collaborating and interacting with the audience in new and interesting ways.

But when I was approached by PTV Production’s Andrea Nemtin to lead the interactive production of Inside Disaster, I hesitated. I thought the film sounded fascinating. I was dying to test the project’s online potential. But I had no experience leading a project of this size, scope and budget. And I’d be a fraud to act like I did.

In the end, though, the content and the opportunity were too good to pass up. So I decided to jump in feet first and do what all good fraudsters do: fake it till you make it. Needless to say, I learned a lot along the way.

Just like in traditional media production, every interactive project needs a Big Idea to get it off the ground. With Inside Disaster, I had to come up with ours before I knew when or where the film would actually take place. So I focused on the three things I was sure of in those early days.

I knew that humanitarianism was a hot topic in news, schools and popular cultureand that this, in turn, had created a growing community of students, job seekers and donors who were keenly interested in it.

Secondly, I knew it was more important for me to use technologies that would make it easy for users to find and share our content online than to be technologically innovative. So I didn’t want to distribute our videos through “our own version of YouTube.” I wanted to use YouTube.

Finally, I knew that the natural disaster we’d be filming, whenever and wherever it might take place, would only be a major news story and generate interest online for a short period of time.

This last realization led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that our Web project could be relevant or perfect, but it couldn’t be both. The educational content that I wanted for the site would take months of research and production to create. But the disaster we were “waiting” for could occur any day. Should we launch fast, or wait and be better?

In the end, we realized it was crazy to send a Web producer to the field during one of the biggest news stories of the year, but not post and share that material until months after the fact. Rather than choose between relevance and research, I decided we’d do both and launch the Inside Disaster website in two phases.

The first phase was a quick-and-cheap WordPress blog that would launch the sameday that the disaster occurred. Our plan was to use it as a platform to share photos, footage and reports from the disaster zone, while raising awareness about the upcoming documentary series. On the outreach level, our goal was to develop a mailing list and a community around the site, make connections with other like-minded sites and establish our presence on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter.

The second phase would begin when the crew returned home with hundreds of hours of Web and documentary footage. We wanted to combine this content with top-tier academic research to create a big picture, educational look at the humanitarian response to the disaster.

This part of the project would also include detailed information about humanitarian work—the history of the field, the types of jobs available and the skills they required, as well as a first-person “simulation” that would allow users to make decisions from the perspective of an aid worker, survivor or journalist on the ground.

Unlike its precursor, the phase II content wouldn’t have an “expiry date”: we were going to stack it with tools, resources and perspectives that would be useful long after media and public interest in the initial disaster had receded.

Together, these two phases made up the Big Idea we pitched to the funders: combining documentary photo and video with top-tier academic research to create the definitive interactive resource on humanitarian aid today, and how it would be applied after the Haiti earthquake.

We knew what we wanted to create. But first, we had to find the team to do it.

My first and most important job was finding the Web field producer, who would travel with the crew to the disaster zone but ultimately work independently from them on the ground. This was no simple task: we needed someone who was comfortable shooting, taking photos, recording sound, writing, editing and troubleshooting tech issues in an unpredictable post-disaster environment. The candidate would also need to speak multiple languages. And get along with the crew. And be ready to drop everything to depart on a moment’s notice.

“I am your man!” came the enthusiastic e-mail reply shortly after we posted the job. I’d never heard of Nico Jolliet, but the Swiss-born shooter/director/musician did appear to have everything we were looking for: he had lived and made films all over the world, was a prolific writer, spoke three languages and loved shooting, editing and working with local musicians to create original soundtracks. He was OK with the pay and ready to drop everything as soon as the call came.

We hired Nico and never looked back: he would ultimately fill about eight key roles throughout both the first and second phases of the project, including co-directing, editing, and creating an original soundtrack for our first-person simulation, Inside the Haiti Earthquake.

From there on, the rest of the project team began coming together. Finding freelancers who were keen to work on the project wasn’t difficult because we were offering a rare opportunity in today’s media landscape: the chance to work with compelling, meaningful content that would reach a global audience.

One of my first steps in the hiring process was to create an advisory board for the project, a mix of academics, tech thought leaders and humanitarian workers. Our advisory board, composed of people I deeply admired, vetted content as we produced it and connected me with some of the project’s key talent.

My goal in hiring was to be surrounded by an experienced, tech-savvy team to balance my own lack of knowledge. At the same time, I had a strong creative and technical vision for the project. I needed collaborators who would be able to tell me whether these ideas were feasible, then refine them and make them their own.

For the educational website, I found those collaborators in Spencer Saunders and Kirk Clyne, young veterans of the Toronto interactive scene who had established themselves with innovative approaches to marketing and education projects. I clicked with them immediately because we were enthusiastic about the same things: prioritizing story over technology, making it easy to search and share content across the Web, using Flash technology sparingly and integrating excerpts from the documentary material throughout the site.

The team was rounded out by Michael Gibson, a “serious game” expert who came on board early as the writer and co-director of what would become the first-person simulation.

Judging by Michael’s experience, I knew he was the one to lead what seemed like an impossible task: use footage and stories from Haiti to create a Rashomon-style script that would allow users to experience the aftermath of the disaster from three conflicting points of view: that of a journalist, a survivor or an aid worker.

Over the following months, our team expanded into a talented motley crew of mid-career and established programmers, designers, writers, researchers, artists and interns, from both Canada and Haiti. Of the 30-plus people who collaborated on the Inside Disaster interactive project, only two had ever worked together before.

For a first-time interactive producer, this was a huge risk. But somehow, the team clicked: the younger members of our team knew they were getting the chance to burnish their resumes with a high-profile project, and the more established ones were happy to be working with content that made them proud.

January 15th. The crew had been in Haiti for 48 hours, and Web producer Nico Jolliet had just turned up on Skype for the first time.

[15/01/10 4:38:09 PM] Nicolas Jolliet:
Taking photographs while running, talking
and smoking, have you tried that?

[15/01/10 4:38:09 PM] Nicolas Jolliet:
I am learning to smoke with the mask on
my face.

[15/01/10 4:38:09 PM] Nicolas Jolliet:
You can’t smell the death, but it gets you

Typing fast, he gave me a précis of their experience so far: the crew was living off crackers and cans of tuna. They were sleeping outside for safety, but aftershocks and cries in the night meant that no one was getting any rest.

Still, Nico sounded good: the Creole he learned over eight years living in St. Lucia was making it easy to talk to people. That morning, he had met and hired a young guide, Stanley, to help him navigate the city. They had started their day at the Hospital General, surrounded by a football field of bodies decomposing in the sun. From there, they crossed town to try to find Stanley’s family, and Nico filmed the reunion. On the way back to the Canadian embassy, Nico and Stanley came upon a food distribution site where the crowd was turning on a major humanitarian agency for handing out spoiled nutritional crackers filled with “bugs and worms.”

It had been a long day in Port-au-Prince, but Nico’s work wasn’t even close to done. He still had to write a cogent blog post that would bring these stories to life, edit a three-minute mini-documentary to accompany the written piece and edit the best of the hundreds of photos he’d taken that day. Then, sitting on the roof of the Canadian Embassy, he’d wait to catch a passing satellite connection that would allow him to upload the material. Sometimes, this would take until 1 or 2 in the morning.

On my end, I’d be waiting for that ‘ping’ on the Skype connection that told me that Nico was online and ready to transfer files to me. As the files downloaded, we’d fill each other in from our different worlds—he’d tell me stories about how things were going on the ground, and I’d tell him about what was being reported in the news about Haiti that day. Once the download was complete, Nico’s work would be done for the night, and mine would begin.

I’d read and edit Nico’s blog while I uploaded the new video to YouTube. Then, I’d watermark each of the photos with the Inside Disaster URL, geo-tag them and upload them to Flickr. All of our photos and videos were carefully titled, tagged and captioned with names, places and what was depicted in them. I wanted to make sure anyone who was searching for this type of content would be able to find it. Finally, I’d post the blog to the Inside Disaster site, with the Flickr images and YouTube video embedded throughout the text. The whole process would take between one and two hours; throughout the crew’s month in Haiti, we repeated this cycle almost every night.

The next day, we’d begin a process of outreach and distribution that would fill most of my days and nights. The key to our approach was simple: we’d give away our content to anyone, under a Creative Commons licence, as long as they’d agree to attribute our work and use it for non-commercial purposes.

To that end, I spent a lot of time getting in touch with news agencies and blogs, offering them our photo, video and written content to repost on their sites. In doing this, we went from being a website that didn’t exist on January 11th to having our video content on The Huffington Post, the,, Global Voices, The Real News, NowPublic and every Canadian news network. Our photos were used on news sites across the Web, personal blogs and even fundraising posters for Haiti—all with attribution and links back to us.

By giving our content away through other sites and platforms, we reached thousands of people that would never have been exposed to our work if it had been “locked down” and only accessible through our website. In the first month, our 30-odd videos were viewed almost 20,000 times on YouTube, our 150 Flickr photos over 4,000 times, and through targeted outreach and advertising, we built a 4,000-strong Facebook group.

Even within the vast Internet, strong, meaningful content is rare. I knew that with Nico’s work, we had it, and believed it was worth going the extra mile to make sure people knew about it. When you’re making content with public funding, one of the best measures of success is showing that the people who paid for it—and even more around the world—are actually using it.

As soon as the crew arrived home, I began to combine Nadine Pequeneza’s 100-plus hours of documentary footage with Nico’s photo and video shot as the visual basis of both the educational website and the first-person simulation. Nadine was incredibly generous in sharing both her time and the very best material she and her crew had shot in Haiti. We’d pull her into meetings that would last for hours, asking, What different kinds of humanitarian jobs do you show in your footage—can we use all of them for our Careers section? Can you give us your best footage of the Red Cross distributing water? Shelter kits? Medicine? Do you remember the time codes?

As a documentary director, I had to wince: here I was, asking another filmmaker to hand over huge portions of her footage, including several climactic scenes, to re-edit and repurpose for the website which, by the way, would launch several months before the film’s TV premiere. But as an interactive producer, I rejoiced—I truly believe that this kind of cross-platform collaboration creates buzz, finds audiences and expands the lifespan of great documentaries. And with Inside Disaster, all of these things have happened.

Throughout the spring and summer, the project buzzed ahead. Spencer and Kirk led the design and programming of the educational website, while Michael and Nico worked with PTV’s talented in-house developer and designer to conceptualize and build the first-person simulation. We had three researchers—one devoted to Haiti’s history, politics and culture, one focused on humanitarian issues, and a visual researcher tasked with finding public-domain images for the site. Our Haitian fixer, a young university student named Emmanuel, became our weekly correspondent for the blog. In August, Nico returned to Haiti for 10 days to record additional footage and original music and narration for the simulation.

As I write this, it’s been almost three months since we launched the site to gratifying acclaim. I no longer feel like a fake and a fraud in the interactive space, but I still have a lot to learn. And I hope some of what I picked up will be useful to others plodding along similar paths.

Think about your audience. Go to the places they go to—don’t wait for them to come to you.

Giving content away for free is better than hoarding it away and not making money off it, either.

Lead a broad talent search and be open to applicants you’ve never heard of—new talents are emerging as quickly as technologies are advancing.

Don’t be intimidated by geek-speak, but don’t hire anyone who can’t explain their work to you in a language you understand. Learn the language, bit by bit, just like you learned about lenses, shooting and sound when you started in film.

Love and cherish your documentary collaborators. They are the only ones who know all the footage, all the stories; their work makes your work possible. Set aside time and money for them.

And in the end, remember: the success or failure of an interactive project depends largely on the same elements as any other creative work; if you can make a film, you can do this. You need a Big Idea that will inspire your funders. You need a great team. You need to know and think about the tools you’re going to use to create the thing. And you need to get the word out about your work.

Most of all, you need to be working on a project that inspires you and your team. That certainly was the case with Inside Disaster. It’s been gratifying to see our content and stories spread through educational, gaming and humanitarian communities around the world, and hear people’s reactions to it. At the same time, the depressing, almost insulting pace of Haiti’s reconstruction puts the humanitarian response, let alone our modest documentation of it, into real-world perspective. All we can do is make our best work, with documentaries and websites.

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