Nick Davies: Data, crowdsourcing and the ‘immeasurable confusion’ around Julian Assange

Investigative journalist Nick Davies chipped in with his thoughts on crowdsourcing data analysis by news organisations at this week’s Frontline Club event. (You can listen to a podcast featuring the panellists at this link)

For Davies, who brokered the Guardian’s involvement in the WikiLeaks Afghanistan War Logs, such stories suggest that asking readers to trawl through data for stories doesn’t work:

I haven’t seen any significant analysis of that raw material (…) There were all sorts of angles that we never got to because there was such much of it. For example, there was a category of material that was recorded by the US military as being likely to create negative publicity. You would think somebody would search all those entries and put them together and compare them with what actually was put out in press releases.

I haven’t seen anyone do anything about the treatment of detainees, which is recorded in there.

We got six or seven good thematic stories out of it. I would think there are dozens of others there. There’s some kind of flaw in the theory that crowdsourcing is a realistic way of converting data into information and stories, because it doesn’t seem to be happening.

And Davies had the following to say about WikiLeaks head Julian Assange:

We warned him that he must not put this material unredacted onto the WikiLeaks website because it was highly likely to get people killed. And he never really got his head around that. But at the last moment he did a kind of word search through these 92,00 documents looking for words like source or human intelligence and withdrew 15,000 docs that had those kind of words in. it’s a very inefficient way of making those documents safe and I’m worried about what’s been put up on there.

He then kind of presented the withholding these 15,000 documents as some kind of super-secret, but it’s already been released (…) The amount of confusion around Julian is just immeasurable. In general terms you could say he’s got other kinds of material coming through WikiLeaks and there’s all sorts of possibilities about who might be get involved in processing it. Personally I feel much happier pursuing the phone hacking, which is a relatively clean story that Julian’s not involved in.

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