Zeega is a new platform for documentary storytelling that was selected as a 2011 Knight News Challenge winner. It’s being developed right here in Cambridge and I talked to Zeega co-founder and media artist Jesse Shapins about what Zeega is and what it hopes to do. First of all, from the Zeega website (www.zeega.org), a basic definition:

“Zeega is an open-source HTML5 platform for creating interactive documentaries and inventing new forms of storytelling. Zeega will make it easy to collaboratively produce, curate and publish participatory multimedia projects online, on mobile devices and in physical spaces.”

Jesse explained to me that he and co-founders Kara Oehler and James Burns envision Zeega as a framework that lets people produce interactive documentaries by pulling together original content with text, photos, audio, video, maps etc. from online sources. Zeega is intended to be a very open system – right now it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of documentaries users will make, since what’s exciting about the platform is its potential to develop uninvented formats. As well as using internet content, Zeega will be looking for ways projects can work with the physical environment – using tools like SMS and receipt printers to connect with audiences.

The Zeega team is trying to get at these new ways of documentary storytelling by building a creative community that brings together storytellers with skilled programmers and designers. The platform will be developing based on the needs of media makers, so that journalists, filmmakers, radio producers and scholars can make the link between “it would be amazing if we could do this but I don’t quite know how” and “that’s easy.” Zeega aims to let users create the experiences they want for their audiences, giving them the tools to go beyond their own technical limitations.

Jesse and his co-founders are interested in working with people with rich ideas, who are thinking about story independently of a single format. With Zeega, they’re exploring how authorship can mean creating stories collaboratively, using existing materials. The author/producer, instead of creating and editing all of a project’s content, has to think about how to structure the ecosystem of the story.

Zeega is based at the metaLAB (http://metalab.harvard.edu/), an experimental research unit for innovation in arts, media and humanities at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/) at Harvard, (where Kara Oehler is also a Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow for 2011-2012). Surrounded by resources like the Center for Civic Media at MIT, the Public Radio Exchange, the Association for Independent’s in Radio and Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Jesse Shapins expresses excitement about the rare combination of public media, educational institutions and non-profit technology clustered here in Cambridge. He calls it “the most exciting place” for interactive documentary right now.

This fall, Zeega will be putting out an open call for pilot projects (around 6-12) – ideas for interactive documentaries that will take place across multiple platforms.

One pilot is about the people of the town of Ashland, MA, where the Nyanza dye factory created disastrous chemical pollution. The Ashland project was initiated by local artists Dan Borelli (who grew up in Ashland) and Gavin Kroeber, and will involve a library exhibit and interviews with the town’s residents, for starters. Jesse sees the potential for many more New England stories like this one; in an area with such a strongly-imagined regional identity there’s the opportunity to look for the narratives that fall outside of the dominant one.

Zeega wants to work with pilot ideas whose producers have a strong sense of the story content and ideas about how it might play out,  but who haven’t yet finalized the format (they should also have some support already in place). They’re also looking to hire a Director of Projects and Community Partnerships (http://zeega.org/happenings/)

Relevant Links:

Mapping Main Street (http://www.mappingmainstreet.org/), a collaborative documentary project
Sensate, “a journal for experiments in critical media practice” created with the help of Zeega. (http://www.sensatejournal.com/)
Processing, an open source programming language that’s one of the inspirations for Zeega. http://processing.org/
Looking at Los Sures, a UnionDocs Collaborative Production (http://www.uniondocs.org/looking-at-los-sures-a-preview-of-the-2011-uniondocs-collaborative-project/)
A multi-year project which combines radio, film, interactive media and performance to expand upon a 1984 documentary film about what was once one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods.

– Nellie

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