Twitter on ice: Q&A with The Guardian’s @AlokJha about his trip to the Antarctic

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Guardian’s science and environment correspondent, Alok Jha, spent Christmas with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), reporting live and following in the footsteps of the perilous expedition undertaken in 1911 by the great explorer Sir Douglas Mawson.

His original plan was to send an article and photos each day, as well as two videos per week. And he was to send Tweets and Vine videos through his Twitter account, @AlokJha, using the hashtag #spiritofmawson. Little did he know that his modern-day adventure would supply its own dangers after the expedition ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, became trapped in heavy Antarctic ice.

With the ship stuck, reporters around the world started tweeting with Jha and other members of the expedition, hoping to get updates on their situation.

On December 27, University of New South Wales professor Chris Turney (@ProfChrisTurney), reported that the crew was OK after a failed rescue attempt by a Chinese icebreaker:

While the ship was apparently not in danger, the scientists continued to conduct their research as they waited, communicating via Twitter with everyone following the story.

The trapped researchers and journalists were even interviewed during the CNN New Year’s Eve special with @andersoncooper and @KathyGriffin.

After eight days on the ice, passengers on the Shokalskiy were lifted to safety via helicopter and delivered to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis. On January 7, the Shokalskiy and the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, also trapped after its rescue attempt, were both freed from the ice.

Just before Jha’s trip took this dramatic turn, we asked him to talk about the expedition and how he’s used Twitter to document and share his amazing journey.

Why did you decide to embark on this expedition?

We wanted to retrace the steps of the great British-Australian Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson. He led the first AAE in 1911 and spent two years on the ice, collecting valuable scientific information and mapping the eastern part of the continent for the first time. He also had one of the most horrific treks across the ice of any of the explorers of the heroic age — losing two of his colleagues on a 500km trek into the interior of the continent.

Only very few people will ever come here, so we wanted to show as much of it as possible. And, crucially, as much of it as possible in real-ish time.

How do you use Twitter and Vine as reporting tools?

Twitter is a great way to bring people with us. The articles and videos we create for the paper take a long time to produce and we want to keep people engaged as much as possible. Twitter and Vine are a good way to quickly share things we see on our travels — quick opportunistic photos and videos of animals or scenery that you know people would like to see and share. Twitter and Vine have also become very good ways of sharing the things we can’t include in the limited space we have in an article in the paper. Twitter also helps us gauge responses to the articles and other things we produce.

What is your technical set-up? How do you stay connected with limited Internet connectivity?

We’re using a BGAN satellite connection for laptops. We have a basic one ourselves that we can use to file text occasionally but the advanced HDR system Chris Turney brought can create WiFi hotspots as well. I’ve been posting Vine videos by connecting the iPhones and sending a few at a time. Satellite connections on a moving ship are often quite hard — every time the ship changes direction you can lose the connection. We tend to connect for short periods to do a quick upload/download and then we’re offline again.

I’ve also set up my sat phone to update my Twitter account using text messages, which has been useful in places where connecting on the BGAN hasn’t been practical for time or cost constraints.

The big technical issue we face is the cold — batteries run down very fast when the temperature drops. A full laptop charge can disappear in an hour or less so you have to be quite efficient in everything you’re doing. Also, being efficient is good because the sat connections only work from the top of the ship, which is a very very cold and windy place to be in Antarctic waters.

You can follow @AlokJha, @ProfChrisTurney, @loztopham, @gdnantarctica and the #spiritofmawson hashtag; you can also read more about the expedition at The Guardian.

Do you know of other innovative uses of Twitter? Write to [email protected].