Crowdsourcing platform Help Me Investigate is live – and generates its first story

View Birmingham’s parking ticket hotspots in a larger map

Today the Birmingham Post publishes the first story to come out of the crowdsourcing platform I’ve been creating – Help Me Investigate. It’s about parking ticket hotspots in Birmingham*. UPDATE: The Birmingham Mail have also published a report, from which the map above comes.

The site has only been public for a couple of weeks, and we have refrained from any launch or publicity, preferring to let it grow organically in these early stages.

But the early results have been extremely encouraging.

Although the parking ticket story is the first to appear in traditional media, it is not the first investigation to be completed on the site. One investigation was completed during the testing stage; another shortly after. Both had resolutions that might not have made traditional media, but were important to the users and, for me, resulted in the sort of engagement you want from media (more on that below).

The most exciting investigation, however, was into the long-awaited website for Birmingham City Council. That dug up what appeared to be an overspend on the website which we’re still investigating. It’s not clear whether it was a coincidence that a story on the issue appeared in the local paper the same day, but it certainly seems that the Council’s web team launched their Twitter feed that day as a result, and further stories were generated later.

Particularly  interesting was the fact that someone who had worked on the project set up another Twitter feed to give further information to the person who began it. You can read more about how the investigation developed on Josh Hart’s blog post (down at the time of writing).

And the story hasn’t yet finished – the site’s Support Journalist Heather Brooke wrote the most impressive Freedom of Information request I’ve ever seen, asking for information on the process of building the website. Just read it. We now await the results.

Engaging and social

What has also been extremely encouraging is the way the site seems to be engaging users in a different way to traditional publishing – one of the objectives of Help Me Investigate.

My own experience of the site has been this: the social dynamics involve you in issues that you might otherwise never explore. I now know things about bus deregulation, for example, that I would never have read about. It was my desire to help a friend that made me read them.

Likewise, when people help you with an investigation there’s an instinct to want to help back. This generates a feedback loop where you are each helping add little bits to the investigation as a way to thank the other people who helped you. You do more than you would alone – another of the site’s objectives.

These are still early days with small numbers of people and the site is developing continuously (we’re using an agile development approach which means it’s changing in response to how people use it rather than our assumptions). It will get better as it gets used more, and we learn more, but I’m surprised how well it’s working even at this early stage – in some ways I think the simple framing of the site to ‘Help Me Investigate’ results in work you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

This week marks the point at which we are that bit much more public, and that bit much more ‘proven’, so I expect things to ramp up a bit.

In particular, I have now started an investigation into councils and parking tickets nationally: which are the worst and best offenders? This should test how we expand the experience gained in a local investigation into a national one.

If you want an invite you can request one from the Help Me Investigate home page. I’ve also been writing about what we’ve been learning along the way on a Help Me Investigate blog. Comments, questions and suggestions very much welcome.

*You can read the back-story to the parking tickets investigation by the wonderful Neil Houston, who helped compile and analyse the data that was obtained by Heather Brooke; and by Nick Booth, who is a co-founder of Help Me Investigate along with developer Stef Lewandowski.

A PDF of the printed report can be seen here.


15 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing platform Help Me Investigate is live – and generates its first story

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  2. Conrad

    Hey Paul, love the site! Any chance of a fast track for my beta invite request (or, even better, a chance to help you guys vet them?). Another q: will there be an option to run your investigation privately (allowing selected users in?). Some investigations are not suited to public broadcast before “the bust”.

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  8. taabitha

    I tried to get the results of the 3 completed investigations, and I can’t find the results on your website. I’m told that in order to “follow” the investigation I have to “log in” but since you are in closed beta, I can’t get an account. What is the purpose of hiding this information behind a closed log-in system? I thought the whole point of this project was to crowdsource to get help with investigations AND to publicize the results. Please explain how the public benefits from this project.

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  10. paulbradshaw

    Thanks Taabitha – there should be a link to a report on the results on all completed investigations (in the description) – so you don’t have to log on to see the results. You can also read them in the Reports section – – which is open to casual browsers.

    Bear in mind we are only 4 weeks into a Proof of Concept prototype and are growing the site slowly and organically. Beyond this initial 3 month period we may open up investigations further, add new features, and implement some design features. It’s early days yet.

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