Alan Rusbridger made some interesting comments on crowd-sourcing during the recent Hugh Cudlipp lecture. The Guardian has been at the forefront of harnessing the potential power of its readers, not just to read the news but also to help make the news. He said:
The last year has seen us crowd-source tax-avoidance – the internal Barclays documents that can (after a legal fight) be found on Wikileaks and whose publication undoubtedly led to changes in legislation and attitudes to corporate tax avoidance.
It began with a traditional piece of investigation by David Leigh, followed by participation and analysis by people who really understood this world. It was classically an example of “our readers know more than we do”.
The Guardian has made the most of its readers’ knowledge and resources, in stories like the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, examining Tony Blair’s complex tax affairs, and trawling through MPs’ expenses forms for further revelations.
Of course, the Guardian has also benefited from audience participation in other ways, such as the Trafigura affair, but their moves towards active crowd-sourcing are really promising. Rusbridger added:
These examples show how – so long as it is open to the rest of the web – a mainstream news organisation can harness something of the web’s power. It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do.
When the MPs’ expenses records were finally released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian built a tool to allow readers to help sift through the huge amount of data, which led to stories like this. It was a big step, taking this kind of work out of the hands of reporters and putting it into the public domain, and one that other media organisations were struggling with too. But this actually just ties in with other trends towards collaboration in sites like Help Me Investigate. As Paul Bradshaw commented on his Online Journalism Blog:
This isn’t ‘citizen journalism’: it’s micro-volunteering. And when you volunteer, you tend to engage.
It wasn’t without hiccups. There was a huge amount of information to work through and, as with all projects, enthusiasm dipped after a while. This was the state of play on the site today:
But in many ways, the more important story was the second MPs’ expenses project. It was launched to much less fanfare but, with lessons learnt from the first attempt, has been a better example of how crowd-sourcing can actually work. One of the development team, Simon Willison, explained how they tried to improve the second project:
The reviewing experience the first time round was actually quite lonely. We deliberately avoided showing people how others had marked each page because we didn’t want to bias the results. Unfortunately this meant the site felt like a bit of a ghost town, even when hundreds of other people were actively reviewing things at the same time.
For the new version, we tried to provide a much better feeling of activity around the site…
Most importantly, we added a concept of discoveries—editorially highlighted pages that were shown on the homepage and credited to the user that had first highlighted them.
Clearly, these are works in progress. As with any new tool, it takes a bit of experimentation to see how they will work in practice. But that is why the second Guardian project is, in many ways, more promising than the first. It shows that given a relatively manageable amount of information, some clear goals, and with a layer of editorial control to manage the project, a group of engaged readers can make for a much better news story.