Activism covered: how Greenpeace's web team told the story of an oil rig shut-down
On Thursday 2 September four Greenpeace activists shut down the Stena Don deepwater drilling rig for 40 hours after outrunning the Danish navy, breaking through the security cordon and scaling the rig’s legs. The rig is owned by Cairn Energy and is located in Arctic waters off the coast of Greenland.
Greenpeace covered the action live from its ship, the Esperanza, with a steady stream of blogs, tweets, video and audio and supported by a small web team back in London. Web producer James Sadri tells Because It's Good how they did it.
Tell us about the Stena Don action
It was part of Greenpeace’s Go Beyond Oil campaign, which we started in earnest after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil industry is chasing the last drops of oil in deeper and deeper waters, and we want to highlight that.
So with our digital media coverage we needed to bring people along with the activists and get them to take action at home.
How did you plan the digital media coverage?
Digital media presents us with a challenge because it changes our priorities. Greenpeace has been taking direct action for decades, but now we’re very much aware of the need to embrace digital media to bring supporters along with us.
We spent a lot of time planning before the ship left three weeks ago because we wanted to lower technological barriers as far as possible.
We didn’t have much time, just weeks really to think about how best to convey our message. Our challenge was to link what would be going on in the Arctic with people at home who could put pressure on politicians.
How did it work?
We had a web producer, Lisa Vickers, on the ship. She was blogging and getting photos and footage out. We were aiming to get images out quickly to a variety of outlets such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook, so we used a gateway called Pixelpipe. Lisa emailed the content to one email address, and it was then relayed to the social media outlets.
We gave training sessions in social media to the activists. We wanted as much live footage as possible, so they were wearing helmet cams and had a couple of hand-held cameras.
There is a playoff between having a state-of-the-art camera and the speed at which you can get footage onto a laptop. If the camera was too complicated technologically we would never have got the pictures of the ship. So we compressed the files on the ship before sending them.
We used a live CMS service called ScribbleLive, which has a voicemail function that allowed people onboard ship to call a number on a satellite phone to record a live account of what was happening. That audio could then be added straight on to the live update feed – no internet connection needed.
Blogs are great, but when you hear a voice over a crackly phone line with the sea outside it adds excitement to the coverage.
What challenges did you face?
The internet connection was affected depending on where the ship was. In some waters there was constant access for half a day, but the further north and closer to the Arctic Circle the ship went, access became a lot less reliable.
We had ambitious plans to do a lot more streaming. Ustream facilitated our stream. They were very helpful, but it is more tailored to conferences because it was developed for the commercial world. It’s just not designed for the lower bandwidth that was available to our ship in the Arctic.
We worked hard for a couple of days really trying to get streaming in just below the bandwidth threshold. In the event, we had an hour-long web stream that only died in the last 15 seconds.
There was a lot of communications coordination on the ship’s side, telling everyone at certain times to stop using the ship’s communication systems so we could prioritise sending videos. There were 35 people on board, and outgoing messages include not only messages to supporters but also to planners and decision-makers on land.
What did you learn?
The importance of being flexible in our expectations, of what we can deliver with a variable internet connection. And the best thing is being able to link our activism directly to our supporters and followers online.
Also, an understanding of the difficulties of having to plan all this in an environment of relative secrecy. Lots of people want to know what we’re doing. It’s quite a challenge to develop websites on a USB stick.
Our supporters sent 20,000 emails to the head of Cairn Energy, and we know that more than 10,000 of those came from the UK. So we were more than happy with the results.