On the day that Parliament released MPs’ expenses in their ‘official’ form, I was hawking around on Twitter trying to find a good way to crowdsource analysis of the documents (this was before The Guardian’s crowdsourcing tool went live).
Central to the problem was that the expenses were presented in search-unfriendly PDFs. So I was looking for a place people could upload those PDFs and post comments, tag and annotate them.
Scribd was the obvious option: you can comment and tag – but not annotate. After a number of responses on Twitter (in particular Jen Michaels’ suggestions and Marcelo Soares, who had converted Brazilian parliamentary salaries from PDF to Excel with Able2Extract), I had one from Fred Howell of A.nnotate.
A.nnotate was indeed an ideal candidate – however, the website charges for use, which made it redundant for crowdsourcing purposes. But I was feeling cheeky…
“Perhaps you could let users do #mpexpenses for free as a great bit of PR?” I asked.
Fred saw the potential. Within a couple of hours he had twittered back:
“Put a list of all #mpexpenses pdfs for free shared online annotation at : http://a.nnotate.com/beta/mpexpenses/”
So credit to Fred – and the power of Twitter. Had The Guardian not created their tool, we had hacked together our own platform within hours – and there lies lesson #1: the power of the web to enable people to mobilise very quickly. It also brought to mind something I said to a group of people at an event the same day: don’t obsess with the tools – the networks are more important: because through the networks you should be able to find someone who knows the tools, or how to use them.
The Guardian meant Fred’s efforts were – this week – to no avail. But in the longer term, I know who to turn to if I need a bunch of PDFs annotated – as will anyone else who saw those tweets. And anyone reading this blog post will know about A.nnotate too. So there is lesson #2: it wasn’t the PR of ‘delivering a message’ but simply ‘doing a good turn’, which in social media is the best PR there is.
But I still wish there was a free online PDF upload service that did annotation.