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From alpha users to a man in Angola: Adventures in crowdsourcing and journalism

Yesterday’s Media Standards Trust data and news sourcing event presented a difficult decision early on: Whether to attend “Crowdsourcing and other innovations in news sourcing” or “Open government data, data mining, and the semantic web”. Both sessions looked good.

I thought about it for a bit and then plumped for crowdsourcing. The Guardian’s Martin Belam did this:

Belam may have then defied a 4-0 response in favour of the data session, but it does reflect the effect of networks like Twitter in encouraging journalists – and others – to seek out the opinion or knowledge of crowds: crowds of readers, crowds of followers, crowds of eyewitnesses, statisticians, or anti-government protestors.

Crowdsourcing is nothing new, but tools like Twitter and Quora are changing the way journalists work. And with startups based on crowdsourcing and user-generated content becoming more established, it’s interesting to look at the way that they and other news organisations make use of this amplified door-to-door search for information.

The MST assembled a pretty good team to talk about it: Paul Lewis, special projects editor, the Guardian; Paul Bradshaw, professor of journalism, City University and founder of helpmeinvestigate.com; Turi Munthe, founder, Demotix; and Bella Hurrell, editor, BBC online specials team.

From the G20 protests to an oil field in Angola

Lewis is perhaps best known for his investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson following the G20 protests, during which he put a call out on Twitter for witnesses to a police officer pushing Tomlinson to the ground. Lewis had only started using the network two days before and was, he recalled, “just starting to learn what a hashtag was”.

“It just seemed like the most remarkable tool to share an investigation … a really rich source of information being chewed over by the people.”

He ended up with around 20 witnesses that he could plot on a map. “Only one of which we found by traditional reporting – which was me taking their details in a notepad on the day”.

“I may have benefited from the prestige of breaking that story, but many people broke that story.”

Later, investigating the death of deportee Jimmy Mubenga aboard an airplane, Lewis again put a call out via Twitter and somehow found a man “in an oil field in Angola, who had been three seats away from the incident”. Lewis had the fellow passenger send a copy of his boarding pass and cross-checked details about the flight with him for verification.

But the pressure of the online, rolling, tweeted and liveblogged news environment is leading some to make compromises when it comes to verifying information, he claimed.

“Some of the old rules are being forgotten in the lure of instantaneous information.”

The secret to successful crowdsourcing

From the investigations of a single reporter to the structural application of crowdsourcing: Paul Bradshaw and Turi Munthe talked about the difficulties of basing a group or running a business around the idea.

Among them were keeping up interest in long-term investigations and ensuring a sufficient diversity among your crowd. In what is now commonly associated with the trouble that WikiLeaks had in the early days in getting the general public to crowdsource the verification and analysis of its huge datasets, there is a recognised difficulty in getting people to engage with large, unwieldy dumps or slow, painstaking investigations in which progress can be agonisingly slow.

Bradshaw suggested five qualities for a successful crowdsourced investigation on his helpmeinvestigate.com:

1. Alpha users: One or a small group of active, motivated participants.

2. Momentum: Results along the way that will keep participants from becoming frustrated.

3. Modularisation: That the investigation can be broken down into small parts to help people contribute.

4. Publicness: Publicity vía social networks and blogs.

5. Expertise/diversity: A non-homogenous group who can balance the direction and interests of the investigation.

The wisdom of crowds?

The expression “the wisdom of crowds” has a tendency of making an appearance in crowdsourcing discussions. Ensuring just how wise – and how balanced – those crowds were became an important part of the session. Number 5 on Bradshaw’s list, it seems, can’t be taken for granted.

Bradshaw said that helpmeinvestigate.com had tried to seed expert voices into certain investigations from the beginning, and encouraged people to cross-check and question information, but acknowledged the difficulty of ensuring a balanced crowd.

Munthe reiterated the importance of “alpha-users”, citing a pyramid structure that his citizen photography agency follows, but stressed that crowds would always be partial in some respect.

“For Wikipedia to be better than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it needs a total demographic. Everybody needs to be involved.”

That won’t happen. But as social networks spring up left, right, and centre and, along with the internet itself, become more and more pervasive, knowing how to seek out and filter information from crowds looks set to become a more and more important part of the journalists tool kit.

I want to finish with a particularly good example of Twitter crowdsourcing from last month, in case you missed it.

Local government press officer Dan Slee (@danslee) was sat with colleagues who said they “didn’t get Twitter”. So instead of explaining, he tweeted the question to his followers. Half an hour later: hey presto, he a whole heap of different reasons why Twitter is useful.

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MediaShift: What’s the future of cit-j photo agencies?

As we’ve documented on Journalism.co.uk, the citizen journalism photo agency, Demotix can boast numerous high profile photo-sale successes during recent global news events. Its industry recognition has grown fast since launch in September 2008, as it forms various collaborations with strong media brands.

But what do the experiences of earlier cit-j photo agencies signify for the chances of Demotix’s future expansion and financial growth? That’s what MediaShift’s Mark Glaser asks in a lengthy blog post published yesterday. He looks to Scoopt, the agency that shut its doors in February this year.

Scoopt, co-founder, Kyle MacRae casts doubts on Demotix’s future: “I’d say their chances of acquiring significant volumes of content with commercial value – where value is largely driven by timeliness – are slim to zero,” MacRae tells Glaser in an email.

But Turi Munthe, Demotix CEO would argue that his model is very different from Scoopt’s.

Full post at this link…

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Frontline Club: The media and anti-terrorism laws 7pm GMT

Watch the Frontline’s event on the media and anti-terrorism legislation here, at 7pm tonight:

Here’s the run-down from the Frontline Club:

[also see Marc Vallée’s blog]

An ‘On The Media’ discussion in association with the BBC College of Journalism

How concerned should photographers and journalists be about anti-terrorism legislation that came into force earlier this year making people taking pictures of the police potentially subject to fines or even arrest? A mass picture-taking event outside Scotland Yard organised by the National Union of Journalists earlier this year reflected widespread concerns that section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act would extend powers already being used to harass photographers.

Under the Act eliciting, publishing or communicating information on members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ is subject to a 10 year maximum sentence.

The Home Office has insisted that the Act does not target the press but the number of photographers and camera crews who claim they have been prevented from taking pictures has increased.

On the other side of the lens there is growing evidence that Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) are not only collating information on protestors and campaigners but also photographers and journalists who report on demonstrations.

The emergence of video footage following the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in April demonstrates how significant images can be.

Claims by Val Swain and Emily Apple that they were unlawfully arrested during the Kingsnorth Climate Camp has again put the spotlight on the issue of police surveillance at demonstrations. And also raises questions about the status of citizen journalists in the eyes of the police.

How much of a challenge to the freedom of the press photographers, freelances of citizen journalists – to bear witness during protests could Section 76 become?

Panel: Peter Clarke, former head of counter terrorism for Scotland Yard

Marc Vallée is a London based photojournalist who is currently working on a long-term project to document political protest and dissent in modern Britain

Turi Munthe, CEO of Demotix, a citizen-journalism website and freelance photo agency

Angus Walker, UK editor, ITV News

Moderator: Margaret Gilmore is a freelance writer and broadcaster and senior research fellow with the leading independent think tank, RUSI, where she specialises in homeland security, covering terrorism and Olympic security

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Demotix photographer arrested in Iran will not face further inquiries

Last week we included news that a Demotix contributor had been arrested in Iran in a blog post about the cit-j agency’s content from Iran.

Now an update from Demotix commissioning editor, Andy Heath:

“In these difficult days, it’s good to have some positive news to report from Iran.

“We’ve just heard that the Demotix contributor who was arrested last week by the Iranian police will not face further inquiries and has had his camera returned to him by officials. You may that he was told he could be charged as a spy and potentially executed during his arrest, so this news comes as a great relief to him and – I’m sure – everyone involved with Demotix.

“It’s too early to tell if this is an example of a relaxation of press restrictions in Iran or if, as seems more likely, this particular photographer was fortunate.”

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Cit-J agency photographs from Iran make front page of NYTimes… twice

Further to our round-up of Demotix activity from Iran, here are two front pages from the New York Times, both featuring images from the pro-am agency’s contributors.

Demotix images have also been published by the Telegraph, El Pais, Wall Street Journal, ABC.es, and syndicated by Reuters, AFP and EPA to other outlets around the world.

“The bravery of our Iranian reporters has been astonishing. They are defying their government and risking their safety to tell their stories to the world, and we are delighted to be able to help them make their voices hear more loudly,” said Demotix commissioning editor, Andy Heath. “Demotix exists for moments like this.”

nyt1

nyt2

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How Demotix’s contributors have covered Iran election protests

A quick update on the work of pro-am photo agency and news site, Demotix, during this week’s election protests in Iran.

  • On Wednesday Demotix reported that one of its contributors had been arrested. Andy Heath, the site’s commissioning editor, told Journalism.co.uk it is believed the contributor will appear in front of a judge tomorrow [Saturday] and that Demotix is currently seeking more information.

Turi Munthe, its CEO and founder, has made numerous media appearances in which he talked about the use of citizen media during these protests, including the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, BBC News,  and the World Service. Reuters are also featuring Demotix content.

Munthe said: “In terms of sales, we have also hit a milestone. Reuters is syndicating our content all over the world. Yesterday [Wednesday] we were the lead image on the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s website (see below).”

“Iran is experiencing events not seen since the 1979 Revolution. Demotix was set up precisely to cover and report this kind of event, and we have been at the very centre of the storm.”

wsj

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Latest Demotix deal sees widget on Telegraph website

A quick update on Demotix, the pro-am photography/video site. This week saw the launch of its image widget on the Telegraph site. It currently sits underneath the Telegraph TV box and above an advert on the right of the world news page. Le Monde, Lebanon’s Future News, and the Himalayan Times of Nepal already carry the widget.

demowidget1

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Demotix: Images of the Guatemalan tweeter arrested for causing ‘financial panic’

Guatemalan twitter user ‘Jeanfer’ was arrested and accused being causing ‘financial panic’, because of opinions posted on Twitter, reports Demotix user Surizar. Demotix, the citizen journalism site, hosts images showing ‘@jeanfer’ aka Jean Anleu Fernández. Full post at this link…

Read the background to the story over at Mashable.

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‘Meta-reading’: the generational differences in consuming news

Turi Munthe, CEO and founder of the citizen journalism site, Demotix, shared an interesting thought with participants of the Voices Online Blogging Conference on Monday. The young Demotix interns consume news differently from the way he does. He elaborated to Journalism.co.uk after the panel.

‘Meta-reading’:

“There is a generational split, but not in the way everyone imagines. It’s much more recent than that,” he said. People only ten years younger – he is in his 30s – consume news differently from the way he does, Munthe told Journalism.co.uk.

The interns in the office (‘who play a hugely important role: they’re regional editors and they get properly stuck into what we do’) read slightly differently, he said.

“They are getting the Twitter feeds, and the blog posts, and the Facebook messaging and the free papers, and everything else, and are very happy with it. Much more happy with it than I am.”

“Essentially, they process information differently. It’s a ‘meta-reading’. It’s not about individual brands. They are fully aware of all the back-stories of all the stories they’re getting,” he says.

It’s a ‘degree of sophistication,’ he said, ‘which reads the interests behind the news as an integral part of the news’.

“This is something I had to learn. They’re constantly reading two things: what the information is, and who’s saying it – and it’s completely part of the story. Just as when I was doing history A-Level [you were taught to ask] ‘which is the source, who’s the source, why are they saying it?'”

“They get it. I think they are learning it as they are consuming it.”

Entering an era of ‘social knowledge’:

Munthe also believes that we are moving into an era of ‘social knowledge’.

For a long time, he said, theorists grappled with the dilemmas of post-structuralism and post-modernism, where the absolutes of the earlier part of the 20th century were abandoned. But they were not sure how to answer questions about society and ‘truth’, without returning to those absolutes, he said.

Now, with the advent of the web, a ‘social knowledge’ is emerging, via the spread of online information and idea-sharing, which Munthe believes is ‘the real founding for how we understand ideas,’ he explained.

“People read as sophisticatedly as they do because they’re know they’re getting their news from George, or from Johnny, or from Jack Lean or whoever it is.”

But, Journalism.co.uk asked, doesn’t that exclude a huge number of people who aren’t participating online? Munthe maintained not.

“I have a feeling that this meta-reading is not elitist,” Munthe answered. His real concern, he said, is the ‘radicalisation’ of online news.  “If you’re the kind of person who is only ever going to watch Fox News, who is ‘properly rightist’, there’s no need for you to encounter any view but your own,” he says.

Journalism.co.uk reported live from the Voices Online Blogging conference 2009. Follow @journalism_live on Twitter for updates from media events.

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Event – Voices Online: Blogging Conference today

Journalism.co.uk is attending the Voices Online: Blogging conference today. Speakers at the event include Mark Jones, global community editor at Reuters; Demotix’s Turi Munthe; political blogger Guido Fawkes a.k.a. Paul Staines; and Andrew Sparrow: senior political correspondent for the Guardian and recent Orwell Prize blogging nominee.

The full agenda for the day is available at this link.

Follow updates on Twitter @journalism_live and via the hashtag #voicesconf.

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