Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Guardian of Crowdsourcing

The Guardian continues to amaze with its dedication to participatory journalism and crowdsourcing.

Its latest is a tool to track the expenses of its members of parliament, following the MP expenses scandal. A few days after its main competitor) breaks the string of stories resulting in skyrocketing circulations, the Guardian decides to compete with what it does best.

Certainly not the most mind-boggling experiment in crowdsourcing ever undertaken, but the idea is phenomenal in its simplicity. All the Guardian has really done with this project is rent server space and put up a whole list of public records on its Web site. It has created an easy interface for people to provide the information it needs and left the rest to its audience.

Nieman Lab picks out the best aspects of the project – everything from the simple interface, the progress bar that assesses progress, the contributor ratings, and the mugshots of the smiling MPs (I’m not kidding!) has contributed toward increasing participation. It's all about making it more user-friendly and engaging.

The response has been huge with 20,000 people participating in the effort and 160,000 pages analyzed. While the early stages of the project are more about making deductions and pointing out anything that may be suspicious or erroneous, as my co-blogger at the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Bradshaw points out, the fun part will be the overlays and mashups that emerge from the data, which will be the actual stories.

Of course, it helps to have the sort of involved readership that the Guardian has. Newspapers have tried similar databases before. A couple years ago, the Washington Examiner started WECAN, a huge database of public records with a similar idea, and the Gannett’s Democrat and Chronicle posted a similar list of government documents on its site, both with little or no participation from the audience. It didn’t help that the sites’ editors didn’t follow up or pursue the project to any great magnitude.

However, what really, really helps such projects catch fire is an inflammatory story of epic proportions - that's the sort of thing that stimulates a great deal of interest. Simon Willison, the project’s programmer, reinforces this by stating how important it was to kick this off on Thursday when the story was all over the airwaves, as opposed to Friday as it was initially planned.

In the past, Talking Point Memo has perhaps had the most success in crowdsourcing this sort of story when it released Department of Justice documents following the Bush Administration’s US attorney firings scandal. Skilled blogger though Josh Marshall is, what really piqued reader interest was the huge controversy behind it.

The Guardian has already proved the high level of enthusiasm of its audience with its Katine project where its Web site managed to attract readers who offered to donate not just ideas and information, but also resources such as books and bicycles to Ugandan children, services in the form of medical help from doctors, and infrastructure for the implementation of solar power – all this quite literally originated in the comments threads of the Katine blog.

Most of this initially happened with the weight of the Guardian organization, no doubt, but the paper has to be lauded for its continued interest and effort in the area. It has a surprisingly long history of such exercises, dating back to the early 2000s.

Well before the existence of social media tools, it started an investigative report on bribery charges against a Saudi Arabian arms company with the help of amateurs to help professional journalists through its Web site.

News organizations should really be doing a lot more to seize on such opportunities. The audience won't contribute its valuable time and effort for just about anything, but occasionally a story comes along, which begs to be crowdsourced.