the kdmcinfo weblog

Featured Fellow: Basetrack's Teru Kuwayama

Teru Kuwayama during his embedding in Afghanistan

Last year, Teru Kuwayama (Mar '10) launched a project to engage people with the decade-long war in Afghanistan, something that he has largely seen become an abstraction for the American public.

As Kuwayama wrote during the project's launch, it was really about the fundamental, literal question: "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"

The idea was elegantly simple: Embed veteran journalists with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine regiment, capturing what it's really like to be in Afghanistan. Photos were taken with iPhones, news reports were aggregated from various sources, tweets were sent out by Marines themselves —— Basetrack, as the project was soon called, provided an unflinching and intimate glimpse into conflict that technology couldn't allow us until now.

Funded by a 2010 Knight Foundation News Challenge grant, Basetrack gained attention and a dedicated community quickly built up around it. In February, however, the Marines abruptly disembedded him and his team for fear that the project could threaten the forces' operational security. In the words of one Marine Corps officer, according to Kuwayama, Basetrack "got too big, too fast, and we couldn't control it."

The military subsequently determined that it was not a security threat, and has in fact asked Kuwayama back to do Basetrack 2 with a new battalion, realizing that the opportunity of connecting the war to people back home was too great to pass on. With content partnerships with PRI's The World and other publications, Kuwayama's success building a movement around what's happening in Afghanistan is a testament to the incredible power social platforms can have in uniting people with issues confronting our country.

"What I do can loosely be called 'journalism,' but it often more closely resembles what the military might call 'psy-ops' or 'systems administration,'" Kuwayama recently wrote to me. "I'm still committed to the incredibly messy intersection of military operations, state failure, population displacement and environmental catastrophe."

Relying upon platforms and analytics he discovered at one of our workshops, Kuwayama says his approach to engaging communities hasn't necessarily been strategic, but rather a fundamental recognition of supply and demand.

"If the polls indicate that most Americans don't care about a distant war, then that narrows your target field," he wrote. "Identify those that care, and see if you can use them to get to the rest. Social media makes that possible in new ways."

Photos of Afghanistan by Basetrack's Balazs Gardi. Images courtesy of Basetrack. Slideshow created with flickrSLiDR.

Kuwayama credits digital platforms for enabling the social components needed to create the Basetrack community.

"That's why the project is called Basetrack —— it doesn't literally mean that we track military bases, it means that every digital particle that we release is simply a starting point, or a baselayer," he wrote. "It's where the reporting begins, not where it ends."

Kuwayama has always been focused on the idea that Basetrack is a beginning. Basetrack itself was meant to establish a proof of concept and a pilot for others to replicate and advance, according to the TED Fellow.

"The ultimate goal is to render myself irrelevant in the process, so I can go on to do something that has nothing to do with war or disaster," Kuwayama wrote.

His four-year-old daughter has grand plans for them to open a pizzeria. Maybe, hopefully, one day he'll get to be the chef, and she'll be the waitress. That's his pipe dream, he says.