If you have ten minutes today, click along to Katine: it starts with a village. With this project The Guardian is doing something very special indeed with crowdsourcing, interactive storytelling, and journalism itself.
Launched over the weekend, Katine appears to be a new approach to “the annual appeal to focus attention on worthwhile causes during the pre-Christmas giving season”. Editor Alan Rusbridger explains:
“Would it be possible to find a way of dramatising an issue so that it held attention beyond Christmas, even for as long as three years? Of connecting the ideas, goodwill, resources and expert knowledge of 15 million readers around the world and focusing them on one problem? Would it be possible to do all this in a way which avoided the classic trap of creating a temporary oasis in a desert? Of doing something both sustainable and replicable? Could there be a model for using web-based technologies – and the power to link and harness people – that could be developed by other western communities, whether businesses, schools or towns? “
Rusbridger identifies three things that a newspaper/website can do as part of this. The first and third are familiar: raising awareness and therefore increasing pressure; and reporting, contextualising, and analysing. But it’s the second thing that is significant, innovative, and worth watching:
“it can involve a huge community of readers and web-users around the world and find ways of linking them in to what we’re doing. We’ll need money obviously. But, just as importantly we need advice and involvement. Among our readers are water engineers, doctors, solar energy experts, businessmen and women, teachers, nurses, farmers. We absolutely don’t need a stampede of volunteers, but we would like a technical know-how bank of people who are prepared to offer time and advice. We’ll let you know how to get involved as we go.”
In other words, crowdsourcing – but not crowdsourcing as seen so far in newspapers, where the focus is on asking readers to help gather or analyse information for a story: this is crowdsourcing to help address the actual issues identified by the story.
Even more creditable, this is a story which does not normally make the pages of most newspapers, as Rusbridger notes:
“Most western journalists periodically scratch their heads about how to keep some subjects fresh, including poverty and climate change. The big picture is known; the facts change little from day to day. Such subjects are at once the biggest news of our times – and not news at all.”
The website itself – http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine – is impressive, with a virtual village, short films by the GuardianFilms arm, audio, and a number of blogs “where Guardian writers and film-makers, Amref staff and, eventually, the people of Katine, will write about their experience of the project. It will also be a place for debate about the wider development issues Katine raises“. (Interestingly, there is also a clear attempt to paint a fuller picture of Katine than just ‘suffering Africans’, with pieces on local music and style).
The Guardian are making a habit of thinking outside the box with technology and editorial: Islamophonic and Many Questions were refreshing takes on podcasting; and commentisfree did the same for blogging; but Katine, for me, has the potential to be a truly international experiment in taking crowdsourcing to a new level.
But here are my caveats:
- There is currently no clear link to this promising crowdsourcing element. If you’re going to announce it, allow people to at least sign up for an email alert to tell them when the facility is up and running. Don’t say “We’ll let you know how to get involved as we go” on the expectation that your readers will keep checking back to the website like a faithful dog.
- On a related note, although the site as a whole has an RSS feed, the interactive map promises to be updated as the project goes on, but asks readers to “please visit now and come back every week or two to follow the updates and get to know your favorite characters, places and stories.” This may be a weakness of Flash, but some creative thinking would surely prevent the need for people to set themselves a reminder.
- A Twitter/mobile alert would be good to keep the issue on people’s agenda.
- Finally, some lovely video but it’s not embeddable. If one aim is to raise awareness, then you should be allowing people to place your video on their blogs.
Of course I only say these things because I want this project to succeed. If this doesn’t give you faith in the power of journalism, nothing does.