Tag Archives: citizen journalism

The photographer’s role in the age of citizen journalism: grab the guy filming on his mobile

The Guardian reports on the AP photographer whose image dominated the front pages today. The following passage on how he returned to his office with a member of the public who had filmed it on his mobile phone passes by without remark:

“The adrenaline was running by now. So I turned [the flash] on and took five pictures. I realised they were important and I saw another guy shooting video on his phone.

“So I got him into a taxi and we went back to AP’s offices in Camden.”

Worth noting.

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GameChanger: providing tools for citizen sports journalism

It is hard to imagine that a sports-crazed country like the US would have any dearth in sports reporting. However, while professional and major college sports get covered no end by traditional media, sports leagues and user-generated sites alike, high school and minor college sports remain largely uncovered, an issue that is being exacerbated by declining revenues.

This was one of the reasons that inspired Ted Sullivan, a former minor league baseball player and a graduate of Harvard Business School, to ease the pain of parents, coaches and fans of youth sports, literally,  by launching an application that is making the process of scoring simpler, and allowing for easier distribution of stats from the field.

“An entire category of content called real-time sports doesn’t exist for what is the enormous majority of athletic events happening everyday, whether that is organized sports from the small college level or high school and youth sports,” says Sullivan.

Having not only played the sport, but also having coached at a downtown little league in Manhattan, Sullivan understood the challenges of scoring baseball manually. Earlier this year, along with co-founder Kiril Savino, he launched GameChanger, an iPhone application that transmits data in real time from the field. Using the tool, scores and stats, as they happen, can be tapped into an iPhone by coaches, fans and parents. This is translated into a “gamestream” that appears on the Gamechanger site instantaneously so fans can access live updates, box scores, and play by plays.

Balls, strikes and hits are recorded using the tool’s menu options, and players are tracked by dragging and dropping names. In addition, a coach or scorekeeper can create a team’s schedule, roster and lineup. There is also a provision for fans to add to the stream by posting comments or uploading photos and video.

“I believe in the mobile device as a great data collector,” says Sullivan. While mobile devices are useful for content consumption, the very nature of smart phones prompts something more than passive viewing by the user. And this makes them ideal vehicles for data gathering and delivery.

So GameChanger provides an application to the community surrounding a team, which, in turn, allows the community to provide data from the field to GameChanger. In other words, it is crowdsourcing with organized content gathering.

Each team can have more than one hub based on how many people choose to use the app for scoring, but Sullivan assures me that the tedium of score-keeping restricts it to few, very avid fans or parents, thus reducing potential imposters or error-prone score keepers. Besides, GameChanger makes baseball scoring easy enough for anyone with a basic understanding of the sport, thus alleviating the need for extensive experience or in-depth knowledge.

“The key piece here that needs to be stressed is that this business doesn’t work if we aren’t providing a huge incentive to the person that is using the application and collecting the data for us for free,” says Sullivan. He explains that manual scoring takes an average of 45 minutes to an hour per game; factor in several games per week stretched over an entire season, and therein lies Gamechanger’s incentive.

Lisa Winston attests to this over at the MLB Blog, bemoaning the fact that an app “so brilliant and simple” wasn’t available when her daughter played in the little league.

All the content that is collected is available on the GameChanger site. While some content is free, more detailed information, such as play by plays, requires a subscription. Sullivan believes that the data is exclusive and time sensitive enough for people to be willing to pay for it. For a fee, a simple html code also allows local news sites to pull data from GameChanger’s database in the form of widgets. Profits are shared with news partners.

Potential other uses in journalism?

If such an application can make data gathering, analysis and distribution easier in the case of simple scoring of a little league game, could it find potential in other, more complex issues? Such as election results, exit polls or the statistics of climate change?  With the popularity of crowdsourcing, citizens are being entrusted with more and more complex tasks in areas such as citizen science and E-governance. Such a foolproof application would increase participation and minimize error.

While projects like WNYC’s crowdsourced maps have successfully used their Web sites as data collectors, the content obtained from the public in such cases has been relatively simple, such as the number of cars on a street, or the price of milk at a grocery store. In these and similar such exercises, the task of making sense of the data or painting the bigger picture has been that of a journalist, perhaps rightfully so.

But if data-specific applications could be designed to maximize contributions from the public, it would perhaps make citizen journalism more relevant and valuable while reducing the workload on news organizations. It’s debatable if it will work for areas more serious than sports or entertainment, but, if anything, such weighty topics could use applications that would make information gathering easier.

What I expect at news:rewired — and what I hope will happen

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 11.23.20Next Thursday is the news:rewired event at City University London, which is being put on by the good people at journalism.co.uk. I’ll be on hand as a delegate.

All of the bases will be covered, it seems: Multimedia, social media, hyperlocal, crowdsourcing, datamashups, and news business models.

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Combating the digital divide in the developing world with mobile phones

Last week, the Guardian reported on a few promising citizen journalism projects in Africa that use mobile phone technology effectively to not only communicate with people but to also allow the audience to contribute to newsgathering. As opposed to the excessive – and even frivolous – growth of smart phone applications in the Western world, mobile phones in developing countries, which are nowhere near as sophisticated as ones in America and Europe, are being used as a reliable proxy for high-speed Internet access to perform basic functions, such as paying grocery bills and delivering medicines. Cell phone companies have bought into this as well, developing cheap, reliable phones with ease of use and practical functionality.

The Ushahidi crowdsourcing project that the Guardian article elaborates, is perhaps one of the best known and most successful mobile journalism exercises in Kenya. Ushahidi–which means “testimony” in Swahili–attempts to gather as much information from the public as possible and then verify this collected data with the help of computer and human confirmation. Launched during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi has since been implemented worldwide — from monitoring unrest in the Congo, tracking violence in Ghaza, to reporting on the Indian elections earlier this year.

The project allows people to contribute in the form of simple text messages, photos and video delivered through smartphones, or reports submitted online; this is posted in real time to an interactive map, accessible directly through smart phone technology. This information can also be converted to formats that are readable in various communities by news organizations in developing countries. The technology itself is open source, so anyone can help enhance and develop it. In order to verify the accuracy of information obtained in the case of breaking news events, Ushahidi has also launched the Swift River Project, which helps voluntary participants worldwide to separate good information from ‘noise,’ or in the team’s own words, in “crowdsourcing the filter.”

Basically, the way it works is that once the aggregated data comes in through multiple streams, be it Flickr, Twitter, or Ushahidi, people can go in and rate the data – the information is thus verified by the sheer power of numbers, as in any crowdsourcing project. In addition, the information is filtered through machine-based algorithms to confirm accuracy. Ushahidi used a similar method to track the Indian elections earlier this year through VoteReport.in. In India, “moblogging” or microblogging, made possible through the explosive popularity of cell phones, has been growing for the past few years. Sites like smsgupshup.com and Vakow.com – Indian versions of Twitter – allow people to disseminate 160-character messages to groups, enabling amateurs to deliver personalized, customized news through sms messages. This makes up for the relative lack of interactivity from mainstream Indian news organizations.

Cell phones as tools for information dissemination are particularly valuable in countries like Zimbabwe where radio transmission is often blocked. Text messages can allow an uninterrupted flow of information in such cases. The Guardian‘s Activate 09 project sends out headlines to tens of thousands of citizens in the Southern African country through sms messaging. In addition, the paper has been crowdsourcing ideas from its global audience on the different methods available to reach thousands of people during breaking news events.

The Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit, has partnered with Google and a Uganda-based telecommunications provider MTN, to answer important queries sent in by residents via text messages; questions range from clarifications about deadly diseases to agricultural problems. In Kenya, RSS feeds from the Internet are fed into mobile phones to educate and inform people, and text-to-speech tools that convert sms messages into audio files are helping the visually impaired. Some Western companies are encouraging Kenyans to take part in crowdsourcing projects in return for micropayments. Citizens perform small tasks such as transcribing audio and tagging photos for small sums of money. The BBC is now providing English language learning capabilities in Bangladesh through cheap audio and SMS lessons through a partnership with mobile service providers.

Despite the availability of hi-speed Internet access in Western countries, the versatility of the cell phone as a vehicle for citizen journalism is very special indeed. The ability of a phone to provide real-time, on-the-ground coverage is undisputed, whether you see an unusual occurrence on the street on your way to a mall in Los Angeles or witness a riot in a displaced community in Darfur.

Taking cues from Citizen Science

One rap against citizen journalism is that there is always a possibility that it isn’t accurate or credible. Unmonitored, unmoderated blogs can get it wrong. Well, so can traditional journalists, but with blogs, it’s harder to hold someone accountable, and erroneous information is that much trickier to retract.

Would it help then, to look for ideas in a field where inaccuracy is barely tolerated, if at all? The media should be able to tap into crowd wisdom for credible content if, as Dan Schultz notes, “members of the scientific community, a professional group that arguably maintains higher standards for verification than journalism, are trying to harness the crowd in the same way that we are.”

Citizen science has been effectively used in one main way – collection of data, which is then used by scientists for contextualization, analysis and consolidation with experiments and previous scientific literature.

Be it recording the dates of Spring’s first lilac blossoms, or counting the number of eggs in bird nests, citizens are contributing in meaningful ways, so scientists can then then use this for more specialized tasks, like assessing the information thus obtained to study the impact of global warming or the influence of human activity on wildlife.

Perhaps, the closest counterpart to this use in journalism is something akin to WNYC’s crowdsourced project to track price gouging in New York City or the Shropshire Star’s map of fuel prices. In both these exercises, citizens were not expected to do much more than report their daily observations.

Since scientific research usually requires a high level of education and training, the tasks get divided neatly between professionals and dabblers. As Schultz points out, in the case of science, “professionals have bigger and better things to do; it doesn’t make sense for a PhD to use a million-dollar telescope to look at something that a hobbyist could view using a thousand-dollar one, especially when there is so much of the universe left to unlock.”

This is not to say that such a clear definition would not work for journalism. In fact, citizen journalism pioneer Jay Rosen has often said that division of labor is essential for crowdsourced journalism projects. In WNYC’s case, citizens were responsible for collecting information that was put together in a story. In more complex investigative projects, the public is given the task of perusing documents, as is happening with The Guardian’s investigation of the MP’s expenses scandal.

Another idea would be to outsource so-called “fluff” journalism to the public (self plug warning). Many sites are already implementing this, by allowing citizens to post blogs and articles on lifestyle and recreational topics. Schulz suggests hyperlocal content as one such department where citizens can often do a good, if not better, job than reporters.

One of the main problems is that unlike scientists, journalists–irrationally or not–are in constant fear of being replaced by amateurs. Hence, they seem more hesitant to solicit citizen help. The fact that journalists are losing jobs, however, has more to do with the lack of revenue-generating mechanisms on the Internet than it has to do with bloggers posting content online. In fact, by recruiting audiences to act as eyes and ears for news organizations, the latter would actually save costs and be able to divert resources toward more specialized reporting.

Secondly, in the case of scientific crowdsourcing or citizen science, there is a distinct classification of contributors and their scope of contribution–as identified by what professionals, amateurs and citizens can do. This leads to a clear division of labor, which is not quite possible in journalism, at least in the way it is being practiced right now. While there is no doubt that journalism needs a special set of skills and training, it’s not rocket science, quite literally.

Amateurs contribute toward citizen science in significant ways by performing unspecialized tasks. In the case of bloggers, on the other hand, short of traveling to a war zone (with some exceptions) they are pretty much doing–or attempting to do–what professional journalists routinely do.

The solution is not to curb bloggers and independent journalists, however. It is to produce the sort of in-depth, high-quality journalism that makes newsroom journalism “special.” In order to have clear-cut division of labor, professionals merely have to offer a product that makes use of the creativity and resources that are available to them. And in the process, they can implement projects that involve the lay public so the latter can do what they do best.

The Revenge of Lilliput: Former-SPCK Bookshop Campaign blog passes 150k visitors

20090824-spckssg-news-blog-past-150k-pageviews-screenshotThis morning the SPCK SSG News, Notes and Information campaign blog passed a total of 150,000 page views since it was established in June-July 2008.

This is a story which is an excellent example of both investigation by a network of people, and campaigning blogging. It shows how a coalition of individuals can make a significant difference. You can read a brief outline on the blog’s introductory page.

The blog is about the mismanagement and destruction of a chain of 25 Anglican bookshops, which have been around since the first half of the 20th Century, by two brothers based in the USA, J Mark – who is a lawyer – and Philip Brewer. They took over control of the Bookshops from the SPCK charity with the promise of maintaining and improving the business back in 2006. They used a charity called the “Society of Saint Stephen the Great” (SSG) as their vehicle.

Since then there has been a saga of “shenanigans”, including sackings by email, bullying of staff, “Cease and Desist” attempts to suppress straight reporting, creation of half-a-dozen business entities to confuse everyone, a fake attempt in the US at putting the core charity into bankruptcy (declaring only liabilities not assets) where the court has no jurisdiction anyway, and much much more, which I will be describing in some detail in a series of podcasts.

I (along with many others) helped promote the new campaign site in summer 2008 when Dave Walker the blogger doing the existing reporting (75 posts in about 18 months was one of several threatened legally by Mark Brewer; here is an example of the style of letter used – this one was published by Sam Norton. An instant archive of these deleted posts was of course established within days on the blog Open Debates not Libel Threats .

20080827-philip-brewer-of-spck-aircraft-for-sale-1-small1There have also been some lighter moments, such as the lawyer running a chain of religious bookshops being instructed by the Court to take remedial education in bankruptcy law and legal ethics, and the discovery that his brother possesses a private “hobby” aircraft painted in “Trotter Trading” yellow, which was maintained at charitable expense . However, the core objective is to make sure that the mismanagement of the chain is scrutinised, and the miscreants brought to book.

The campaign blog now has nearly 250 articles, and has received 2500 comments. Here are the visitor statistics from the WordPress stats module. You can see the initial surge, and how interest has been maintained at around 10k page views each month.

20090824-spckssg-news-blog-past-150k-pageviews

Though very respectable, this is not a huge amount of traffic, but a successful niche campaign does not need a huge amount of traffic – and it could even be a distraction to receive many more comments than we do already.

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Newspapers: turn off your RSS feeds

Update, 2 days later: Paul lets me guest post here (ie I wrote this, not him). It was going fairly well until I wrote this post … You can read my climbdown here

The latest subscriber figures (see table below, and first published in my blog’s newspapers category) show that, apart from a couple of exceptions, it’s time for newspapers to turn off their RSS feeds – and hand over the server space, technical support and webpage real estate to an alternative, such as their Twitter accounts.

(You can read some of the defences of RSS here and here)

The table below shows that only 3 of the 9 national newspapers have an RSS feed with more than 10,000 subscribers in Google Reader.

And most newspaper RSS feeds have readerships in the 00s, if that.

melanie-phillips-rssDaily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips has just 11 subscribers to her RSS feed (maybe there’s hope for the UK population yet …).

Despite having virtually no users, the Mail churns out 160 RSS feeds and the Mirror 280. All so a couple of thousand people can look at them in total.

The other papers are just as bad. And while the Guardian has a couple of RSS readers with decent numbers (partly because Google recommends it in its news bundle), it has more feeds than there are people in the UK … Continue reading