Blog | May 17, 2017

Launching our new open source digital storytelling tool

Since Global Witness published its first report in 1995 a lot has changed in how people consume information and read our investigations. Back then email was a niche way to communicate and the fax machine was a key part of Global Witness’s set up.

The explosion of internet use over the last 20 years has of course changed all of that. In some countries in which we work such as Myanmar much of this increase has come on very rapidly in the last 5 years.

This presents us with an important opportunity to reach and engage communities with our investigations that we’ve never had before, helping to sharpen the impact of our campaigns and make sure that when we document injustice it really is witnessed globally.

The backbone of Global Witness’s work has always been our investigations, but as times change we need to adapt our tools for getting our message our. This is why we’ve been working hard to evolve our website in ways that cater for communities that we need to reach and in way that brings alive the stories we tell. These audiences include policy makers and politicians in metropolitan centers, but also civil society groups and members of the public who may be accessing material on our website on slow internet connections. This is particularly important in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo where the average internet speed is 15 times slower than that in the US.

This is where Longform comes in. Longform is our new open-source tool for longer journalism pieces and investigative reports produced at Global Witness. We have just launched the first story that uses it, a photo essay called “Cursed Treasure” about the plight of the people of Myanmar’s Kachin State and their troubled relationship to the dirty and lucrative jade trade. At the end of 2015 we exposed how military elites and drug lords have ransacked the most valuable jade reserves on the planet, at the expense of the local population. This tells some of the human stories behind the jade trade and the role it plays in Myanmar’s deadly ethnic conflict .

Read the full photo story on Longform here.

We built Longform in response to requests from our readers and campaigners in collaboration and with support from MIT Media Lab, the Sundance Institute and NAMAC. It was built by Torchbox on top of the Wagtail CMS.

Here are some of its key features...

1. It’s mobile friendly. In the past, and like many other NGOs, we’ve tended to publish our reports as PDF files. While these have the advantage of being easy to download and print, they are almost impossible to read on mobile. These days when we launch investigations in countries like Cambodia, Myanmar and Honduras the number of visits from mobile can often exceed 50%, climbing as high as 70% within that country.  We therefore designed Longform so that it would work seamlessly on mobile. 

2. We do not want bandwidth to be a restriction on who can read our investigations. In a number of places where we work such as Myanmar internet speeds are on average around one quarter of that which they are in the United States. We have therefore made available a text-only low-bandwidth version of all content created in Longform that is easily to access and share. This version is also easy to print in black and white.

3. It’s easy to navigate longer pieces of writing and has its own referencing system. Longer pieces on the web can sometimes be difficult to navigate. Therefore, we’ve created an intuitive navigation system that lets people jump to different chapters and sections of an article or report. In addition, we’ve introduced an interactive footnoting system so that we can apply the same rigorous standards of referencing to our web publishing as we do for print.

4. Social sharing is easy. Social sharing on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has been a part of our website for a number of years now, but we’re now working to support sharing on services like WhatsApp to make mobile sharing as easy and frictionless as possible.

5. It’s open source. We know we’re not the only organisation to face these kind of problems. We want other human rights organisations facing similar challenges to benefit from the investment we have made in the technical development on this project. Longform is built on top of the open source CMS Wagtail and the source code is available here from which it can be deployed.

This is just the start for us. We’ve built Longform so we can extend and improve it based on feedback we receive and we would love to hear from you and your experience using it. Please check out the story here and take 5 minutes to give us your thoughts via this survey.


  • Sam Leon

    Head of Data Investigations