From August 12 through 22, Pilot New Media provided unprecedented coverage of the pilgrimage of 500 pilgrims from the Archdiocese to World Youth Day Madrid through various social media accounts, Flickr.com photo sharing, and the website WYDMadridBoston.com. We used a variety of technologies to provide live, real-time updating from wherever we were, as well as more traditional posting from our hotel base.
While we outlined our plans in previous posts, we’d like to review how it all worked out and whatever lessons we might have learned for the future.
To review, there were two people providing the coverage: Photographer/videographer George Martell and Writer/Producer Domenico Bettinelli. George’s equipment included: Canon 5D Mk ii and a Canon 1D Mk IV, EyeFi Compact Flash Cards, two MiFi devices rented from XCom Global with SIM cards for using on Spanish mobile networks. Dom worked primarily with an iPhone and an iPad and both used MacBook Pro laptops.
For most part, the technology worked. The XCom Global MiFis were a real find. (A MiFi is a device that connects to a mobile network, like a cell phone, but which is a Wifi hotspot that allows computers and other Wifi-enabled devices to connect through it.) XCom rents their MiFis at $15 per day for an unlimited amount of data, which is an astounding savings over what you would pay AT&T or Verizon or European carriers for an international data plan. In fact, it’s such a deal that we had to ask multiple times whether we understood correctly that it’s unlimited data. (Yes, it is!)
The particular MiFis generally worked well although by the end of the week, we had trouble keeping one of them charged. (XCom provides a backup battery to give extra life on-the-go. For the amount of data we pushed through it each day, we definitely needed both plus the backup battery.) Our only glitch was self-inflicted. In an effort to change the WiFi hotspots from open to secure—because every time someone in our group saw the MiFi they’d hop on with their smartphone and kick us off (there’s a five device limit per MiFi)—we reset both MiFis simultaneously. This caused the SIM cards to lock, requiring a PIN to unlock them. Since this happened on the first Saturday and XCom customer service is not open on the weekends—a very big flaw—we were stuck on Monday afternoon. (XCom is located in San Diego and thus 9 hours behind Madrid.) Luckily, someone else in our group had rented a MiFi for their use and we were able to borrow it until then.
Another caveat with the MiFis was that they apparently don’t charge when you’re using them, even when they’re plugged into the wall so being able to switch from one to another is useful, although after a long day you could have both needing a charge. (Our hotel room often had every outlet filled with devices of one kind or another being charged.)
The MiFis were so important not just so we could go online with our laptops in our hotel room, but to use another key piece of technology, the EyeFi Compact Flash cards for the cameras. The EyeFi cards are not just photo storage devices like a typical Compact Flash card. They also include both a WiFi function and a GPS function. In short, they let you take a photo and then, if a WiFi hotspot is nearby, have the photo automatically uploaded to your computer, your smartphone, or to a website, which is what we did in our case, sending them to our Flickr.com account. As a professional photographer, George will take many shots of the same subject but the EyeFi allows him to tag which particular shot he wants to send.
This has revolutionized our coverage of breaking events and allowed us to encourage the families and friends of our pilgrims back home to follow along with the pilgrimage in real-time. As our pilgrims walked the streets of Avila, Toledo, or Madrid, people 3,600 miles away could see what they saw within a couple of minutes. Now, some of this amazing ability depends on EyeFi’s computers routing the photos as they come in and this where we suffered another glitch, albeit not a debilitating one. After we solved the MiFi problems, George noticed his photos weren’t uploading. He made numerous calls to EyeFi and eventually they discovered a problem with their computers and were able to reset the cards remotely and everything worked fine from there.
Speaking of Internet access in the hotel room, it was not up to the standards we expect in the US and we were fortunate to have the MiFis. Our hotel required us to enter a username and password that was specific to each user and could only be used on one device, which is no good when you have a laptop, an iPhone, and an iPad that you use regularly and in rotation. When the MiFis weren’t working, I was lucky to find a nearby open hotspot that I could jump, but it was often unreliable. When we were out and about, it was even more difficult and we spent a lot of time in Avila trying to find a restaurant that had WiFi and then had a very long lunch there uploading our photos.
Our preference on Flickr is to organize the photos as much as possible into sets and collections with proper captions and tags and locations. It helps in letting people find the photos, but also in telling the story behind them. At the laptop, we just use the Flickr website through the Internet browser, but that doesn’t work so well on an iPad. For that we turned to an iPad app called Flickr Studio. While there is an official Flickr app, that one is mainly concerned with browsing and basic uploading of photos, while Flickr Studio gives you nearly all of the functions of the whole Flickr site, including creating sets and assigning photos to them, as well as tagging, captioning, and geotagging them. This was an invaluable piece of software, but with a few caveats. First, inexplicably there doesn’t seem to be a way to add sets to a collection. We created a new set for each day of our trip and then added the set to our collection of photos for the whole trip, but there was no way to add the new set to the trip’s collection from Flickr Studio. I would have to either create the set from my laptop in the morning or wait until we returned to the hotel room. Second, there was an apparent bug that cropped up sometimes when editing the metadata on a photo that wiped out all the data and set the photo’s view setting to “private” and thus not visible to anyone. On the plus side, the batch processing feature was a huge help and the ability to edit the metadata was fantastic. If I had a feature request—besides the two issues discussed above—I would love for it to have support for TextExpander touch, a text-expansion utility. It would allow me to add repetitive text—like a copyright notice—to every description using a small snippet of text that auto-expands to the full text.
We had also planned to use a few other iPad apps to blog remotely, including the WordPress app and Blogsy for iPad. The problem was that we used a custom theme for WYDMadridBoston.com from WooThemes and neither app allowed us to access the custom elements of the theme, including the Google Maps integration. In addition, the photo used to illustrate each blog post needed to be cropped to a specific size and I didn’t have an app that would let me crop with accuracy. Thus, blog posts had to wait to be posted until we were back in the hotel. However, we were able to compose the posts and take notes using Simplenote, which is both an iOS app and a web service. We would type into Simplenote, the note would get synced to the web service, and later on our Mac, we would open NvAlt, a Simplenote desktop client, and copy-and-paste from there into our WordPress blog in the web browser. It would be nice to find an app that would allow more flexible use of all the features of WordPress themes, but for now this works.
Another part of our media coverage was providing on-the-spot reporting for The Good Catholic Life, our radio show that airs weekdays at 4 pm on Boston’s Catholic radio station, WQOM 1060AM. Our task was twofold: (1) Record and upload audio from at least one of Cardinal Seán’s catechesis sessions for English-speaking pilgrims so that it could be discussed in one show and (2) Appear live on the air to report on what was happening at World Youth Day. For recording audio in the field we used the Zoom H4N, which is a very nice stereo digital recorder. It includes both an 1/8” microphone port as well as the standard XLR port for microphones. For recording Cardinal Seán we connected it to a wireless lavalier microphone that the cardinal wore as he spoke. This eliminated the echo we’d otherwise encounter from recording in a big church. The downside of the Zoom is that it takes forever to start up each time/ You can leave it running on pause between recordings, but then you wear down your batteries quickly. But within those limitations, it worked fine.
For the live broadcasts, we used Skype, which we use for all our remote guests. We find the video—even though it’s never broadcast or recorded—gives the host and guest a more natural conversation. Our experience using Skype over the MiFi from our hotel room was very good. For audio, we connected a handheld XLR microphone through the Zoom, which was then connected to the Mac via USB. That audio was great and there was hardly any stuttering in the video. However, when we tried to broadcast the next day from a hotel meeting room, which had lots of drops and stutters. Evidently there wasn’t a good mobile signal to the MiFi from there.
In the end, despite any glitches and ad-hoc patching, we heard from many pilgrims, their families, and other people who followed along that they loved what we produced. Our Flickr photos received in one week, nearly 200,000 views. That almost as many views as we had over the previous three years with more than 6 times as many photos. Our website had 6,600 visits from more than 3,100 unique visitors. The numbers and the appreciation speak for themselves.
We’ve learned some lessons and the next time we do something like this we’ll apply them. We’re sure there will also new hardware and software and techniques by then that we’ll be able to take advantage of as well. We look forward to trying them out too.