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A Former Apache Helicopter Pilot Built an App to Crowdsource War Reporting

Wednesday, August 12, 2015  
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Jerry Godwin alongside a Cobra Attack helicopter he once piloted / Credit: Courtesy of J. Godwin


Jerry Godwin is a man who has personally witnessed the influence of the media in a way few can imagine. As a Purple Heart recipient, former aviation officer and apache helicopter pilot deployed to support combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Godwin says he witnessed an obvious “disconnect” between what is happening in conflict areas and what is reported by traditional media outlets. Now, at the age of 51, the UMd Smith School of Business alum has become a startup entrepreneur to disrupt the conflict reporting business.


“I always wanted to be a pilot. Always. My mom still has pictures of me as a little kid wearing a flight suit and building model planes. I never imagined I would build an app startup,” Godwin told DC Inno.


In September 2014, he launched Vox Report, a dedicated publishing platform for grassroots video reporting while also working full time with the Montgomery County government as a manager for a program called the Business Innovation Network. The Innovation Network, funded by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Fund, specializes in helping local, early stage tech companies realize their full potential.



 Godwin (right) with former CIA director and decorated four-star general David Petraeus


At a base level, Vox Report enables users to record one to four minute videos with a smartphone or small camera. Content is shared within a public Vox Report forum that categorizes content based on the geography tagged in the video, its author and the subject of the video. While pictures can be uploaded the emphasis is entirely on video.


The video publishing platform makes it so reports can be easily shared via social media, email or even through a text message. Video can be viewed directly in the iOS/Android app or from the startup’s website.


“I would see news reports about Iraq on traditional media outlets and say to myself ‘I was just out there on that operation or in that part of the country and that's not what's going on.’ I grew up in Latin America—my father was in the U.S. Foreign Service—and remember many news/political events that didn't get the proper coverage or even any coverage. As I thought more and more about this problem, I knew there was an opportunity to build a platform,” said Godwin.


User video “reports” are unfiltered, unedited, directly published and Vox Report is not affiliated with any news organization.


Godwin, who developed and currently manages Vox Report on his own, said that before he took the plunge to finally create his “dream” app he had no coding experience. “I basically researched and self-taught myself everything,” he told DC Inno.


After months of trial and error coding and spending hours reading whatever helpful material he could find, Godwin built a beta version of Vox Report. Over the span of six months, he added and edited features to the app while sharing it with close friend to see what they thought of the experience.


Today, Vox Report has over 10,000 users worldwide, Godwin said, and the vast majority of user growth has come in just the last three months.


The startup founder and app developer said that learning to do it all “wasn't easy.”


In the beginning, he had two other individuals working on Vox Report who had coding experience but their enthusiasm and commitment to the project waived.


“The reality was that we didn't get past the 2nd or 3rd Saturday morning meeting. At that point, I realized that If I wanted to make Vox Report a reality, I would basically have to do it myself. So I bought books and learned. I periodically would have someone take a look at what I was doing but it took about a year and a half to ramp it up. I did the work on evenings and weekends,” he said.


Godwin, a bronze star recipient who spent two years flying an apache helicopter through combat zones in Iraq, jokingly said that though he lacked free time during Vox Report’s development process it at least “kept him off the streets” and “out of trouble.” 


Credit: Courtesy of J. Godwin


“Its hard for reporters to cover a whole country or issue. It’s physically impossible. Crowd sourcing of information and news is what's needed and Vox Report provides that,” he explained Vox Report’s active, newsfeed-style forum displays video reports as they are uploaded in realtime, allowing other users to comment on the video and even provide complimentary content based on their geography. While specifying the area/region of origin for a video is important, a user must enabled GPS location permissions to have the service automatically capture the information.


An assignment section of sorts helps guide users around specific events that are occurring in different countries around the world.


Godwin said that Vox Report has gained the most traction in Venezuela and Ukraine, where political conflict, instability and repression of the media has contributed to a lack of unbiased, quality information.


It’s all about getting a unique, undiluted “street view” of specific events, Godwin told DC Inno. And those videos have already captured incredible events in Ukraine, including military aircraft fly overs, ceasefire violation reports, combat damages from inside hostile territory and even interviews with citizens and separatist soldiers.


When I asked Godwin where he would like to take Vox Report in the future, he smiled and spoke eagerly about the potential of “democratizing the news” and scaling it globally. “As is evident, things are pointing more and more toward video and crowd sourcing of information on mobile platforms. Anyone can report their story via their smartphone or small camera and quickly share it to the world … I am [also] working on a revenue sharing model that would allow users to make money from their reports.”


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