Visit will include training missionaries, journalists on how to tell their own video stories

A small team of journalists from the U.S. and Canada is traveling to Zambia this week to tell the story of an organization bringing mobility to those who can’t walk, says Rick Shaw, director of Pictures of the Year International. “We’ll be pushing the envelope of storytelling,” he says, using frontier technologies to give viewers a new perspective on the plight of the physically challenged in southern Africa. The team, which includes Shaw, will combine the immersive experience of 360-degree virtual reality with the aerial perspective of a remote-controlled drone to showcase the work of Personal Energy Transportation (PET) of Columbia, Missouri. PET builds hand-cranked all-terrain wooden carts and has donated the three-wheel vehicles to disabled people in 100 countries. PET carts can maneuver over rocky terrain, unlike a traditional wheelchair, says Sarah Hill, chief storyteller for StoryUP Studios and leader of the project. 

The story behind the story

In impoverished countries, people who don’t have legs or have no mobility in their legs are often too poor to buy wheelchairs, says Hill. The disabled often resort to crawling on the ground, she says, or rely on family members to carry them.  Hill has accompanied PET to cart distributions in Guatemala and Vietnam, previously as a reporter and anchor for KOMU-TV in Columbia. Now she’s traveling to Zambia for another distribution on behalf of her new startup, which focuses on using 360 VR to bring stories alive for those who can’t be there. Wanting to also include the unique aerial perspective a drone can provide, Hill turned to Shaw, who will fly the drone, which is owned by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. A four-person production team will accompany Hill and Shaw to Africa: Sarah Redohl of Story Labs LLC, Scott Schaefer of Veterans United and StoryUP, Heidi Fuhrman of Influence and Co., all of Columbia, and Art Gajda of Immersive Media of British Columbia.

The technology behind the story

In addition to shooting traditional video, the team will attach a Freedom360 mount, which holds six GoPro cameras, to the drone. The setup will provide viewers an immersive experience that will allow them to “step inside and look all the way around” a scene, says Hill. Muhammad Al-Rawi, a University of Missouri student studying engineering, created a bracket to attach the mount to the drone. The drone will be flown at varying heights. Higher altitudes will show viewers the rocky terrain that prevents people from using traditional, nonmotorized wheelchairs, says Hill. Shots at lower heights will demonstrate what life is like for those living on their hands and knees. During previous cart distributions in Guatemala and Vietnam, Hill recalled seeing people crawling in, carried in by wheelbarrow or someone’s arms, or pushed in on skateboards. She knew this was a scene others needed to see. “Shot from the low perspective and the ability to look all the way around gives you a different sense of immersion in a story,” says Hill. “It can create a unique sense of empathy that then might correlate into a better understanding of these individuals’ challenges.”

An experiment

The team spent the past few weeks in Columbia testing the equipment. Shaw says the successful test flights have been encouraging for the team since he’s not sure what to expect with the new technology, especially in an unfamiliar place. “Yes, combining all these new technologies is all a roll of the dice and yet we look forward to seeing what this technology can do to advance journalism,” says Shaw. The video will be available later this year on the StoryUp website. (Watch RJI’s website and social media channels to learn when the videos are available.) Wearing Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift headsets will provide a more immersive experience for the viewer, says Hill. However, this technology is not required to view the video.

Teaching others how to be storytellers

Hill’s team will also help local missionaries and journalists tell their own stories by training them on how to shoot video and share content on social media. JES Holdings donated iPads to Hill to use during training sessions. The iPads will be left in Zambia along with Google Cardboard devices. “If they had the ability to tell some of their own stories, that might translate into greater awareness about some of the challenges that they’re facing,” says Hill.

Editor’s note: Members of the team will be blogging and sharing updates throughout the trip — October 24 to November 4 — as long as they have an Internet connection. Check out Sarah Hill’s social media channels to follow along. 

Missouri Drone Journalism program

The trip to Africa is the RJI drone’s first assignment. Once it returns to the U.S., the drone will be used for teaching and research projects as part of the Missouri Drone Journalism program, a collaboration between the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism; College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; College of Engineering; and RJI.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has placed strict restrictions on flying unmanned aerial vehicles, University of Missouri faculty members believe drones have storytelling potential for journalism, such as reporting on natural disasters. Instructors are continuing to explore the technology — within the FAA’s rules — and teach students how to fly them correctly and safely, says Rick Shaw, director of Pictures of the Year International. Shaw also helps teach a drone journalism course.

Jennifer Nelson-Pallikkathayil  
Senior Information Specialist


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