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EGYPT: Capturing voices with Twitter and a cellphone

John scottJohn Scott-Railton, a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA, decided to try Twitter for the first time last week.

Moved by the rising tension in Egypt and their lack of Internet access, from his tiny, windowless office at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, Railton has been calling Egyptians on mobile phones, and then tweeting out their words in 140 characters.

The Twitter account is @jan25voices.

Sample tweets, some of which include recordings of his calls, include:

Egyptian Voices: Girls whose mothers wouldn't let them out. Now out. Protesting. With their mothers. http://twiturm.com/tqva5

Egyptian TV (Ch1): 'Helwan: bread shortage. Lines at bakery two hours after curfew.' #Jan25 #Egypt

Egyptian Executive taking speedboat on Nile to protest: "World, please stay with us."(Recorded Call) #Egypt #Tahrir http://twiturm.com/9d786

When Railton first heard that Twitter and Facebook (and eventually Internet access) had been blocked in Egypt, he thought it could ruin the protests.

“I thought about what I could do. I have a lot of contacts in Egypt. And so I started calling Egyptian people I knew on mobile phones,” he said.

When he heard that mobile phone access was being cut off, he collected landline numbers.

Railton, who speaks English, French and beginning Arabic, has spoken to as many people as he can so far, including many grandmothers and aunts who have stayed at home while their kids protest in the streets.

He says of the project he started: “I wanted to unsilence.”

He also felt that satellite coverage wasn’t truly capturing all the voices of individuals.

“It’s interesting to see a young generation, who have been written off for being too materialistic and too interested in the West, take a real interest in changing their own country. It’s these young people with cellphones and their articulate English, who found the power to say no. I wanted people to hear their voices,” he said.

When asked about Internet access and whether he believes it is part of a people’s human rights -– a topic that has been widely discussed since the Internet was cut off in Egypt –- he said, “Any society that has a means of communication and uses it as an integral part of their society, that is speech. If you cut it off, you do them harm. You are fundamentally robbing them of the ability to communicate. It’s a shackling.”

What seems like a true public service and certainly an effort in citizen journalism has captured the attention of many who long to get firsthand accounts.

How long will he keep up the calling? He said, “As long as the Internet block exists, I’m going to find it very difficult not to do this.”

Railton has making and taking all the calls on his own BlackBerry. “It’ll be very interesting to see my phone bill at the end of the month. People tithe in different ways.”

-- Lori Kozlowski
twitter.com/lorikozlowski

Photo: John Scott-Railton. Credit: UCLA Public Affairs.

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