Drones, maps and social networks: how SA’s media has used tech to report on the #CapeFire

Cape Town fire

The fire sweeping across Cape Town’s Southern peninsula has dominated South African headlines for three days now. A number of factors, including the scale of the blaze and limited access to the areas affected by it, have seen the country’s media houses bring together a number of technologies and tools in their reporting efforts.

While none of the technologies used are alien to South African media, the way they’re being used suggests that newsrooms are reaching a turning point. Whereas before these tools might have been viewed as novelties to be used just for the sake of it, in this instance they’ve been used to complement more traditional coverage.

The fire, which started in the early hours of Sunday morning above the seaside suburb of Muizenberg, was fueled by strong winds and hot temperatures (Cape Town reached 42-degrees on Tuesday) and grew to cover an area of more than 4 000 hectares. While officials claimed to have the situation broadly under control for much of Tuesday, fresh winds overnight saw the fire flare up, destroying a number of properties. Houses in the suburbs of Noordhoek, Tokai, Steenberg and Hout Bay have all been evacuated at various points over the past couple of days.

Even if you’ve spent a number of years in and around the Cape Town area, it’s difficult to conceive just how big an area that is and how devastating the effects of the fire were.

Enter the drones

Close up photos of burned out vegetation and high-up helicopter shots can convey the latter. But as we’ve already noted, there are areas affected by the blaze which people can’t access and you can only get so low while filming from a helicopter.

News 24’s decision to shoot drone footage from one of the burned out areas therefore makes a lot of sense.

Drones can get closer to the action and cost a hell of a lot less than repeatedly finding someone to take you up in a chooper.

The Naspers-owned news organisation was fairly, and justifiably, conservative in the way it used the drone. “News24 filmed in areas that were not currently experiencing fire so as not to interfere with the ongoing firefighting efforts,” it said in an editorial statement.

Of course, people have been suggesting that drones could be a significant weapon in the newsroom’s armory for some time now. As well as natural disasters, they’ve been used to cover protests around the globe.

As News24 notes though, it was only really able to grab the footage because the flying of drones remains largely unregulated in South Africa.

“Currently there are no regulations in place to enable and regulate operations of UAS in South African’s civil airspace. In accordance with the Civil Aviation Act, 2009 (Act No. 13, of 2009),” it says.

Mapping the devastation

Another thing that’s difficult to comprehend about the fire is the size of the area impacted by it. Tell someone the inferno destroyed more than 3 000ha of vegetation — as it had by early Tuesday — and they most likely won’t comprehend what they mean. You could provide a little more context by telling them that a hectare is roughly the same size as a rugby field. But that also falls apart a little when you try and imagine 3 000 rugby fields.

It makes much more sense to explain it visually, in a context that people can understand.

One of the cooler attempts we’ve seen at doing exactly that comes from EyeWitness News (EWN). It’s built a simple mapping tool which allows people to see how large an area the fire would cover in relation to their own neighbourhood.

Here for instance is the area the fire would’ve covered if it was centered around Grayston Drive in Sandton:

EWN Fire tool Sandton

The tool also pulls through the latest stories EWN’s published about the fire, providing the dual benefit of keeping people informed and driving traffic to other stories on the site:

EWN Fire tool

Staying social

Social media has been a mainstay of South African reporting, even among traditional media houses, for a little while now. The Oscar Pistorius bail hearing for instance turned some journos into rockstars because Twitter was the most immediate way of accessing information from the courthouse. The way it’s been used during the fire however illustrates how effectively it can be used to report on a single event affecting multiple areas.

Both EWN and eNCA have been pretty good in this regard:

The former uses a single reporter account, accessible to all of its journalists. Their 140-character reports are individualised by reporters tagging their tweets with their signatures:

ENCA meanwhile has been retweeting its own reporters’ dispatches from their various positions around the fire as well its own updates:

Twitter’s most powerful use however has been among the public at large. It is they who have taken and shared some of the most dramatic images and it is they who have provided some of the most immediate updates on the supplies needed by those battling the blaze.

Yes, there have also been cases of people spreading misinformation but that can often be the case during a natural disaster. For the most part however, the firefighters seem to have been given the supplies they need when they most need them.

Where to next?

Ultimately, the reporting around the Cape Fire doesn’t offer too many glimpses into the future of the South African media. It does however show that the wider industry has become more comfortable with using and integrating a wide variety of technologies into its reporting efforts.



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