BBC pioneers mobile web reporting from epic boat journey

Our journey across Bangladesh on board a small pleasure cruiser converted into a floating newsroom changed in both direction and purpose when cyclone Sadr struck the country just after the halfway point.

For me, what was pioneering about the trip was not just the collaboration between the different BBC journalists packed together on the boat – including 17 language services, BBC World television and the Asian Network – but the use of the internet to get the stories out.

Rather than just sending copy back to the team at the BBC website at Television Centre, we used a combination of mobile phone and the Bangladesh 3G network to file our locations on to a Google map, our updates into the messaging site Twitter and our pictures into the photo-sharing site Flickr.

The last of these was particularly satisfying. Rather than be constrained by the limits of a picture gallery (10 at the most, if you’re squeezing them in) or waiting on an editor to have the time to check, crop and upload each image, we could put our pictures up, have a quick proof on board the boat and then send them live.

And there were amazing images captured, too – a police station being taken down brick by brick before being washed away; a child driving a herd of emaciated cattle across a river.

These pictures were so extraordinary and so eye-catching, that we found traffic to the Flickr stream to be as high as 80 per cent of that coming to our special BBC website. Using the site in this way lent an immediacy to the stories.

Each picture caption became a mini story in itself, giving us the scope to flesh out the reason why one island is almost entirely populated by children, or how it felt to have the whole boat bombarded by a huge swarm of moths.

Of course, it was in the aftermath of the cyclone that our approach really proved itself. By that point I had left the boat along with a number of others to return to the UK, being replaced by my colleague Alastair Lawson.

Alastair’s stories were incredibly affecting. His pictures included one woman who had seen three of her sons fatally blown away. She clung with her teeth to the fourth, the youngest, as sheets of corrugated iron flew past her head.

For me, the affecting thing was the contrast to the usual way disasters are reported – especially in a country like Bangladesh – when the media only arrive in the aftermath. But having spent the previous two weeks meeting people and seeing how desperately vulnerable they were, I really appreciated the full impact. I knew that most of those I had met would have been affected in some way; some of them would be dead.

Instead of continuing north as planned, the Boat Journey instead turned south to the worst-affected areas, now with a different purpose – to bring to light the full impact of the devastation and the desperate need for aid.

Day after day, our pictures, our texts and our diary pieces brought to light new stories of both tragedy and resilience after both the cyclone and the mass media’s attention had moved on.

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