What happens when video content is streamed from sites around the globe, broadcast live over the Internet and viewers are given the means to become participants? For 12 hours on World Refugee Day 2009 the answer was, powerful content, calls for change, and the formation of a persistent community comprised of individuals from around the world. The broadcast demonstrated the potential for low-bandwidth live video and Internet broadcasting in bringing the plight of refugees directly into the homes of individuals worldwide. With live chat, real-time social media aggregation, and the ability for viewers to insert themselves directly into the live broadcast feed, World Refugee Day Live 2009 turned a disparate group of viewers into a community of participants, and motivated them to take greater action in advocating for those in greatest need.
VSee Lab Incorporated, based in Mountain View, California, is a leading provider of software-based videoconferencing applications whose customers include IBM, Shell, Cisco Learning, and NASA, and Yahoo. VSee’s unique software allows for high quality live video and audio feeds that use a minimal amount of bandwidth, as well as offering features such as application/desktop sharing and fully encrypted connections. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and VSee CEO and founder Milton Chen saw an opportunity for VSee’s technology to greatly expand the impact of World Refugee Day by making accessible to anybody with an Internet connection the unique experiences and circumstances of individual refugees across the globe directly into the lives of viewers, and providing a means of live interaction between the two.
After almost 60 years of refugee assistance and protection UNHCR has become one of the most respected advocates for refugees worldwide. On 20 June UNHCR observes World Refugee Day to try to raise public awareness about the hardships faced by refugees worldwide. However, until World Refugee Day 2009, there had been no online component to the events that take place in major cities worldwide. The lack of an online presence greatly limited the level of global participation and made UNHCR’s goal of worldwide action and awareness significantly harder to achieve.
As one of the most disenfranchised groups today, refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) often have no voice in the larger world. Publicizing their situation is challenging, due to their geographical remoteness and the sheer scale of the issue. Nobody can deny that refugees are among those who are in the direst circumstances of need, but there is a tendency for “refugees” to be used as a singular term—for the individuality of these displaced people to be downplayed, hindering the recognition of a shared humanity that is necessary for social change. World Refugee Day Live (WRD Live) is a joint project between UNHCR and VSee Lab Incorporated that seeks to use the power of live video and the global penetration of Internet connectivity to bring the faces and stories of everyday refugees into the homes of individuals around the globe.
Thanks to a partnership between VSee, UNHCR, i-Activism and a number of generous partners, the abstract potential of an exciting technology and the core mission of a humanitarian organization was combined, resulting in World Refugee Day Live; a live Internet broadcast event, consisting of a website where live video from sources across the globe was broadcast for 12 hours on World Refugee Day 2009, and social networking tools that allowed viewers to became participants in a meaningful and organically-formed community. Through real-time media including a live chat room, Twitter feed, and the ability to download and use VSee to contribute to WRD Live’s content stream, participants experienced a personal connection with refugees across the globe.
WRD LIVE Diagram (enlarge)
Ease of Implementation
The technology used in the production of WRD Live is striking in its simplicity. Webcams connected to laptops running VSee streamed live video from refugee camps and other locations around the globe directly to headquarters in Mountain View. The streams were mixed using Wirecast and event partner LiveStream provided the Internet broadcast technology. Live chat was provided by Chatroll, and a custom application was used to aggregate Twitter and Youtube comments about the event. The result was an event with immediately compelling content and multiple channels of real-time viewer participation, requiring a capital and time investment significantly lower than traditional broadcast television events.
Significant Viewer Impact
The 20 June WRD Live broadcast rapidly captured the attention of viewers. Thanks to the real-time chat and social networking components of the site, these individuals quickly evolved into participants, some of which used their webcams and VSee software to participate in the live video broadcast, creating content which ranged from interviews to musical performances and contributed to the strong emotional connection that made the event so powerful. Less than a decade ago, a live broadcast event of this length, complexity, and geographic range would have required the capital and experience of a major television network. WRD Live demonstrated that VSee's low-bandwidth video technology, Internet broadcasters like LiveStream, and realtime social networks have reduced dramatically the barriers to creating a global live broadcast event. The potential for effecting social change through such events is great, and we hope that WRD Live is only the first of many events of its type.
"In all my years at NBC, this was one of the best live shots I've seen." -- Ann Curry, acclaimed NBC international news reporter, on watching the live message from Rahma and Annette in Chad
"I've been in this business a long time, but have seldom been so moved..." -- Greg Millar, visionary UNHCR fundraising officer, at the conclusion of Saturday's event
"I just sang live for Refugee's Day! So powerful... I'm speechless." -- Belo Velloso, Brazilian singer, who sang to refugees in Colombia and again to the web audience
"wow that was way more powerful than the recorded version of the song" -- linkie from live chat, on seeing Belo sing to Colombia
"It's times like this that the 'International community' really lives out its meaning!" -- Guest983 from live chat, 6 hours before event start