Tag Archives: futurism

A future history of crowdsourced reporting

During the second or third or so year of my still-brief career in what we might as well call “the news business” for lack of a more encompassing and descriptive term, I found myself jumping up and down advocating for a tool to standardize the task of gathering data from the news audience.

Crowdsourcing as a term was new, and by definition “bigger” than just “sourcing” because it could happen at scale, where scale could be thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people with the right call to action and programming framework.

WNYC’s “beer, lettuce, milk” price data gathering project was a favorite, although it appears to have been powered by a comment thread, mostly.

That was always one that stuck out in my mind, due to the quantitative nature of it. This wasn’t about asking the news audience for opinions; it was a method of gathering facts about the city and its bodegas, data that wasn’t compiled anywhere, and that made sense to bring together in one place, given the chaotic system (system?) of New York City bodegas.

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Matt McAlister has gathered a Big Important List of crowdsourced reporting projects, and he’s notably compiling a list that extends beyond traditional journalism and news organizations, as we all should.

It’s a fascinating list of projects, and a reminder that it’s not always “content” news organizations are looking to “generate” from “users,” but information, or perhaps better yet, analysis of documents or images or cities or rivers or the world surrounding them.

Again, my own interest, albeit usually from afar, in tools like DocumentCloud, is the chance to bring the audience into the reporting process by giving them an assignment. “Read a piece of this giant 1100 page budget, or campaign finance bill, or FEC disclosure, or Friday night data dump (see the classic Talking Points Memo instance here), and annotate it so we can find the important stuff quickly.”

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The fun part, naturally, isn’t in examining the past of crowdsourced reporting, but imagining the future. What does a platform to quickly spin up an instance of a crowdsourcing machine when news breaks look like? More than a map, surely, as amazing and powerful as location can be. It has to be flexible and fast and able to parse submissions into something useful, digestible, sortable so the most important information surfaces as if it were weightless.

Or are we already looking at the platform, the system, in Twitter or Facebook or Google Search or the Web itself? I don’t think I believe that. There must be more, or there must be a federated system to harvest and groom information from all these sources — not for the purpose of curation into a story or list or gallery, but for analysis, understanding, quantification at scale.

Continuing to dream of that ideal crowdsourcing platform…