I had the privilege of interviewing the founder of Crowdvoice, Esra'a Al Shafei. Esra'a is a Digital Activist and her company CrowdVoice is a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world by crowdsourcing information.
CrowdVoice brings together the global community with the topics they care about and want to follow.
Check out the video below to get an idea of what Crowdvoice is about.
Hi Esra'a, thanks for joining us on YHP, how are you doing?
I'm fine thanks, busy as usual! Thank you for asking.
Can you quickly give us some background information about yourself before we move on?
Sure. I'm the founder of Mideast Youth, which is a network of websites whose mission is to amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change throughout the Middle East and North Africa. I have been running this organization for about five years now, and I currently live in Bahrain, where I'm from.
When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I always knew that I wasn't going to end up working for anybody, because I am really bad at following orders. All I wanted was to keep creating news things and I found that my passion was the internet and working on web products. So I spent years just working on these concepts and ideas that I always had, and I put together a great team who help me turn these ideas into a reality. It's an extremely rewarding and educational experience.
Tell us about CrowdVoice and how the idea came about?
As digital activists who have been running grassroots initiatives for years, amplifying voices of dissent proved increasingly difficult. We thought that perhaps the popularity of sites like Twitter and Facebook might make this easier, but it partly added to our frustrations, as the information spread throughout these services was overwhelming and disorganized. Organizing the content was time-consuming and with more information it kept becoming more difficult to stream what was worth reading and what wasn't.
We needed to improve the way we were receiving and sharing news with our members and readers, and we felt the best way to do so was to involve an open community that could submit pieces of news that grabbed their attention and which they wanted to share. We created CrowdVoice to address this very need, because the tools already available to us were increasingly insufficient. We realized that apart from organizing the content, it was also important to diversify sources, as it's crucial for people to constantly be exposed to various perspectives on a particular issue.
The idea of CrowdVoice was simple: to quicken and organize the dissemination of assorted information and current news. CrowdVoice also became a way for us to document items such as protest videos in countries like Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, etc. Each day these pages get updated with new videos, photos and articles about these protests so that people have a better way of discovering eye witness accounts and dissident voices.
Let's talk a bit about your faith, what lies behind your passion for free speech through the internet, what's your motivation?
I'm a Muslim and I used to be much more outspoken regarding my religious views, but then I started to keep these views mostly to myself as I realized that it only distracted me
from the many issues that deserve more attention. I'm mostly focused on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities who face systematic discrimination and abuse in the Middle East, especially as much of the oppression is done in our name as Arabs or Muslims.
For this reason I felt compelled to speak up about these causes that don't receive a sufficient amount of attention in the region and beyond. Because of how often governments would intimate such marginalized communities into silence, I became incredibly passionate about free speech advocacy and we launched platforms to amplify and multiply these voices.
But doesn’t free speech always offend?
Of course, but challenging your own views and allowing yourself to be offended is the only way we can move forward into becoming more progressive, open and transparent societies. When censorship is in place, there is no chance of a real and honest education, or awareness about some of the worst crimes of our times, and this is incredibly threatening especially to future generations if we do not take a serious stance now fighting for this basic right to knowledge and information.
What would you say has been the hardest part of running the site?
The most difficult part is moderating the content. Sometimes there's an excess of information that we have to swift through and ensure its legitimacy before it gets approved.
Ok, can you get more granular on the problem CrowdVoice solves for individuals?
Sure, I will do this with an example. Let's say you heard of some protests in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. You had no idea where to get information on this protest, except for one article on Reuters and one blog post somewhere. In a way, you don't feel very close to the issue, because all you read is some text about the protest. Once there's a page about it on CrowdVoice, you are able to see a wide range of photos, videos, blogs and other links about this protest which will allow you to visualize it and understand the issue much better, in a single place. Here is an example for Syria: http://crowdvoice.org/protests-in-syria
Here is another about the opposition movements in Iran: http://crowdvoice.org/opposition-protests-in-iran
As you can see, you have a wide range of items to select from. You can also filter what items you wanted to see by video, link, or images, or you can also go through some tweets about this issue.
Because of these features, CrowdVoice became useful not just to any individual who wanted to learn more about these movements, but also useful to journalists who are using the tool to discover new content that may not have come across. Some journalists from the Guardian and LA Times for example used the site to discover videos about the protests in Bahrain.
How is the startup being funded so far?
I funded the prototype of CrowdVoice using the funds I had saved up from freelance work, and recently we received a grant to improve the product from the Omdiyar Network, which we are very grateful for.
What would you say was probably the most difficult part of starting the business?
I would say the most difficult part is sustaining it financially. We toyed with multiple business models for the site, but we feel that it works best when it's completely open and free, without any kind of sponsorship and advertising. It's also open source, so anyone can apply and repurpose the tool for their own sites.
Tell us some of the key lessons you've learnt so far on your journey as an entrepreneur?
The most important thing is being patient and having persistence. There are so many ideas out there and the only way to make sure that your message is heard is by being creative and unique in your approach.
What can we be expecting from you in the future?
One of the sites that I run is Mideast Tunes, which is a platform for underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social change. We are completely revamping this site into something much simpler, slicker, and better designed. It's going to come with a variety of mobile applications as well, which we are extremely excited about.
What advices can you give to entrepreneurs out there looking to get involved in this industry?
Take risks. People only succeed because they took risks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, most of my ideas failed and I accept that. I just get up and do it again. If no one else wants to fund your idea, find a way to build it yourself. Once you have a working prototype, pitching it becomes much simpler. The only thing you need is to believe enough in your idea to make it happen.