Online Crowd Sourcing – getting the public to do our work for us?

Today’s post is based on last week’s Online Journalism lecture, particularly Susan Hetherington’s discussion about “crowd sourcing”.

Robert Niles from the Online Journalism Review says “crowd sourcing”, in a journalism context, is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story.  It’s an old source (2007), but I think the definition is still relevant.

A more recent definition might be this (from this short video) – “Crowd is sourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks to an undefined large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.”

Either way, crowd sourcing involves, from my understanding, recruiting people from, say, the general public, to help provide information on a large scale, or help on a task that may be too overwhelming for a single journalist (or team of journos) to manage on their own.

Susan pointed out that this isn’t a new idea – the video above mentions that the original Oxford dictionary was, in fact, crowd sourced.  “Readers of the English language” were invited to send in words and definitions and they received six million responses.  However, it took 70 years to produce the first edition.

At this point, I had flashbacks to a certain episode of Blackadder III (thanks BBC for putting up a couple of clips).

Nowadays, online crowd sourcing can certainly speed things up.  Former BBC journalist, and now journalism educator, Professor Alfred Hermida, says Web 2.0 technologies (so social media etc) create an “infrastructure that allows geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to connect and collaborate over the Internet without any central coordination.”  He says crowd sourcing allows journalists to “steer the audience by asking for data, analysis or help to cover events or issues.”

What can we crowd source?

Hermida says crowd sourcing can be broken down into three broad layers.  Each of these layers, to me, seems to be an increasing scale of reader involvement in the process of gathering and creating news.

1. General Observation – Hermida says this involves collecting data from people about things     they come across in their daily life and then aggregating the information.  Here, the news organisation is “tapping into the eyes and ears of its audience”.

A very local example which springs to mind is Quest newspaper’s “Magpie Map”.  Readers can tweet the location of dangerous, swooping magpies (#magpiemap) and it’s collated into one large map.  A very basic example of crowd sourcing, but still very handy for those whose journeys to public transport are plagued by swooping birds this time of year.  It also uses Google maps, another handy online journalism tool!

2. Breaking news – audiences are asked to send in their photos, video or eye-witness accounts.  Hermida uses the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the 7/7 London bombings as examples – I think we can update that list with the recent(ish) Queensland floods, Christchurch earthquake or  the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle-East last year.  Any breaking news will work (I think), if a journalist needs to bring various strands of information together (e.g. the ABC’s coverage of the dispute earlier this year over Brisbane’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Musgrave Park).

3. Investigative journalism – readers help to analyse information, “crunch numbers or pore over documents.” Essentially, large amounts of information (that would be too big for a journalist to work with on their own) are turned over to readers and they can go through and highlight anything that seems important.  Journalists then need to collate these (potentially) mountains of crowd-sourced information (probably a big enough task in itself).

Both Hermida and Susan Hetherington used The Guardian’s experiment with crowd sourcing in investigating British MPs’ expenses claims in 2009 (which appears to be ongoing even now).  By all accounts, this use of crowd sourcing seemed pretty successful, with a massive reader response.  Have a look at that last link, from the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Michael Andersen, for some useful hints for a successful crowd sourcing experience (all lessons learned from The Guardian).

On the other hand, other attempts to crowd source have gone horribly wrong for the news organisations in question.  In 2011, a large number of Sarah Palin’s emails were released – the New York Times tried to use crowd sourcing to gather information and determine if there was anything interesting.  The response was not what they had expected.  Here, the way the New York Times went about it landed them some criticism, with readers essentially complaining they were doing the journalists’ work for them.

I think David Zax’s comments (from the link above) are pretty valid, particularly point one – know your audience.  In my opinion, what made The Guardian’s so successful was that they were asking readers to do something they had a semi-personal connection with – going through the expenses of their own elected MPs.  By comparison, I doubt the majority of Times readers had that same connection with Sarah Palin, particularly at a time long after she was in the running for Vice-President.

At the end of the day, I think crowd sourcing has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool.  However, as Susan Hetherington reminded us – crowd sourcing is only as good as the crowd itself.  Journalists will get garbage information or information that has not been independently verified.  We still need to do our own checks and balances, because let’s face it.

For each genius that helps us, we’ll probably get a few Baldricks.



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