Amanda Michel, the Director of Distributed Reporting at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news agency, explains to IBM’s Transparent Text symposium, how her newsroom is using crowdsourced reporting. She explains that most people think crowdsourcing is useful for reporting efficiently. That’s true, she explains, but it’s also very useful for:
– dynamic quality control (assessing the quality of government information)
– accessing novel information you couldn’t find otherwise
– increasing the accountability in journalism.
One of ProPublica’s major projects is tracking stimulus spending, particularly transportation spending, which is intended to create lots of jobs very quickly. There’s information on recovery.gov, but not sufficient information to answer the questions ProPublica was asking: “How many contracts have been awarded? How many are out to bid? How many projects are underway?”
Michel led a team in a “stimulus spotcheck”. They conducted a statistically valid sample of government transportation projects that involved stimulus money, then invited individuals to help them track down the current status of that project. There were two intentions – track how stimulus spending was being deployed, and see how easy or hard it is to get this information from local sources. ProPublica was able to conclude that 30% of projects had started, 66% had been awarded a contract, and 76% had been put out to bid, implying an “impending gusher of construction spending” coming online this fall, a finding that would have been difficult to discover any other way.
Another effort led by Michel focuses on “data dumps”, mass disclosures of information. Her project at Huffington Post, Off the Bus, crowdsourced reporting on campaign finance reports. She’d observed that reporting on these reports usually led with a horserace story (“who’s ahead in fundraising”), then stories on “unique expenditures” (think John Edwards’s $400 haircut) and then, six weeks later, stories at the state level. Michel’s project focused on speeding up the unique expenditure stories, dividing documents and looking for stories. One of her participants found a fascinating story about Christian activists accepting money from Mitt Romney for positive online coverage.
Another Huffington Post story used crowdsource techniques to develop short profiles on 800 superdelegates. Michel explains that these techniques aren’t magic – they require very careful planning and supervision. But when done well, they’re reporting that “involves readers while maintaining standards.”