In the penultimate part of the serialisation of research underpinning a new Help Me Investigate project I explore the qualities that successful crowdsourcing investigations shared. Previous parts are linked below:
- Part 1: Investigative journalism; conceptualising Help Me Investigate
- Part 2: Building the site
- Part 3: Reflections on the Proof of Concept phase
- Part 4: The London Weekly case study
- Part 5: What are the characteristics of a crowdsourced investigation?
What made the crowdsourcing successful?
Clearly, a distinction should be made between what made the investigation successful as a series of outcomes, and what made crowdsourcing successful as a method for investigative reporting. This section concerns itself with the latter.
What made the community gather, and continue to return? One hypothesis was that the nature of the investigation provided a natural cue to interested parties – The London Weekly was published on Fridays and Saturdays and there was a build up of expectation to see if a new issue would indeed appear.
The data, however, did not support this hypothesis. There was indeed a rhythm but it did not correlate to the date of publication. Wednesdays were the most popular day for people contributing to the investigation.
Upon further investigation a possible explanation was found: one of the investigation’s ‘alpha’ contributors – James Ball – had set himself a task to blog about the investigation every week. His blog posts appeared on a Wednesday.
That this turned out to be a significant factor in driving activity suggests one important lesson: talking publicly and regularly about the investigation’s progress is key to its activity and success.
This data was backed up from the interviews. One respondent mentioned the “weekly cue” explicitly. And Jon Hickman’s research also identified that investigation activity related to “events and interventions. Leadership, especially by staffers, and tasking appeared to be the main drivers of activity within the investigation.” (2010, p10)
He breaks down activity on the site into three ‘acts’, although their relationship to the success of the investigation is not explored further:
- ‘Brainstorm’ (an initial flurry of activity, much of which is focused on scoping the investigation and recruiting)
- ‘Consolidation’ (activity is driven by new information)
- ‘Long tail’ (intermittent caretaker activity, such as supportive comments or occasional updates)
Hickman describes the site as a “centralised sub-network that suits a specific activity” (2010, p12). Importantly, this sub-network forms part of a larger ‘network of networks’ which involves spaces such as users’ blogs, Twitter, Facebook, email and other platforms and channels.
“And yet Help Me Investigate still provided a useful space for them to work within; investigators and staffers feel that the website facilitates investigation in a way that their other social media tools could not:
““It adds the structure and the knowledge base; the challenges, integration with ‘what do they know’ ability to pose questions allows groups to structure an investigation logically and facilitates collaboration.” (Interview with investigator)” (Hickman, 2010, p12)
In the London Weekly investigation the site also helped keep track of a number of discussions taking place around the web. Having been born from a discussion on Twitter, further conversations on Twitter resulted in further people signing up, along with comments threads and other online discussion. This fit the way the site was designed culturally – to be part of a network rather than asking people to do everything on-site.
The presence of ‘alpha’ users like James and Judith was crucial in driving activity on the site – a pattern observed in other successful investigations. They picked up the threads contributed by others and not only wove them together into a coherent narrative that allowed others to enter more easily, but also set the new challenges that provided ways for people to contribute. The fact that they brought with them a strong social network presence is probably also a factor – but one that needs further research.
The site had been designed to emphasise the role of the user in driving investigations. The agenda is not owned by a central publisher, but by the person posing the question – and therefore the responsibility is theirs as well. This cultural hurdle – towards acknowledging personal power and responsibility – may be the biggest one that the site has to address, and the offer of “failure for free” (Shirky, 2008), allowing users to learn what works and what doesn’t, may support that.
The fact that crowdsourcing worked well for the investigation is worth noting, as it could be broken down into separate parts and paths – most of which could be completed online: “Where does this claim come from?” “Can you find out about this person?” “What can you discover about this company?”. One person, for example, used Google Streetview to establish that the registered address of the company was a postbox. Other investigations that are less easily broken down may be less suitable for crowdsourcing – or require more effort to ensure success.
Momentum and direction
A regular supply of updates provided the investigation with momentum. The accumulation of discoveries provided valuable feedback to users, who then returned for more. In his book on Wikipedia, Andrew Lih (2009 p82) notes a similar pattern – ‘stigmergy’ – that is observed in the natural world: “The situation in which the product of previous work, rather than direct communication [induces and directs] additional labour”. An investigation without these ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ (Weinberger, 2002) might not suit crowdsourcing so well.
Hickman’s interviews with participants in the Birmingham council website investigation found a feeling of the investigation being communally owned and led:
“Certain members were good at driving the investigation forward, helping decide on what to do next, but it did not feel like anyone was in charge as such.”
“I’d say HMI had pivital role in keeping us together and focused but it felt owned by everyone.” (Hickman 2010, p10)
One problem, however, was that the number of diverging paths led to a range of potential avenues of enquiry. In the end, although the core questions were answered (was the publication a hoax and what were the bases for their claims) the investigation raised many more questions. These remained largely unanswered once the majority of users felt that their questions had been answered. As in a traditional investigation, there came a point at which those involved had to make a judgement whether they wished to invest any more time in it.
Finally, the investigation benefited from a diverse group of contributors who contributed specialist knowledge or access. Some physically visited stations where the newspaper was claiming distribution to see how many copies were being handed out. Others used advanced search techniques to track down details on the people involved and the claims being made, or to make contact with people who had had previous experiences with those behind the newspaper. The visibility of the investigation online also led to more than one ‘whistleblower’ approach providing inside information, which was not published on the site but resulted in new challenges being set.
The final part of this series outlines some conclusions to be taken from the project, and where it plans to go next.