Four crowdsourcing lessons from the Guardian’s (spectacular) expenses-scandal experiment
Okay, question time: Imagine you’re a major national newspaper whose crosstown archrival has somehow obtained two million pages of explosive documents that outed your country’s biggest political scandal of the decade. They’ve had a team of professional journalists on the job for a month, slamming out a string of blockbuster stories as they find them in their huge stack of secrets.
How do you catch up?
If you’re the Guardian of London, you wait for the associated public-records dump, shovel it all on your Web site next to a simple feedback interface and enlist more than 20,000 volunteers to help you find the needles in the haystack.
Your cost for the operation? One full week from a software developer, a few days’ help from others in his department, and £50 to rent temporary servers.
Journalism has been crowdsourced before, but it’s the scale of the Guardian’s project — 170,000 documents reviewed in the first 80 hours, thanks to a visitor participation rate of 56 percent — that’s breathtaking. We wanted the details, so I rang up the developer, Simon Willison, for his tips about deadline-driven software, the future of public records requests, and how a well-placed mugshot can make a blacked-out PDF feel like a detective story.
He actually offered SIX lessons. Here they are in a gist:
1. MAKE IT FUN. Willison lured the readers by making it feel like a game. The Guardian’s four-panel interface — “interesting,” “not interesting,” “interesting but known,” and “investigate this!” made categorization easy. And the progress bar on the project’s front page, immediately giving the community a goal to share. He added the Guardian’s mugshots of each MP to their pages in the database, which gave a personal element. “You’ve got this big smiling face looking at you while you’re digging through their expenses.”
2. MAKE IT COMPETITIVE. Willison posted lists of the top-performing volunteers. “Any time that you’re trying to get people to give you stuff, to do stuff for you, the most important thing is that people know that what they’re doing is having an effect. It’s kind of a fundamental tenet of social software. … If you’re not giving people the ‘I rock’ vibe, you’re not getting people to stick around.”
3. LAUNCH IMMEDIATELY. Before Parliament released its records Thursday, Willison’s team thought they might be able to postpone their launch to Friday if necessary. When they saw Thursday’s newsbroadcasts, they realized they’d been wrong. The country’s imagination was caught. “It became quickly clear on Thursday that it was a huge story, and if we failed to get it out on Thursday, we’d lose a lot of momentum.”
4. USE A FRAMEWORK. Willison’s project was built on Django, the custom Web framework “for perfectionists with deadlines” that he and Adrian Holovaty created for the Lawrence Journal-World. Other frameworks and languages would have worked, too. “You absolutely could build this in Ruby on Rails or in PHP,” Willison said, but “as far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely Django’s sweet spot. This is absolutely what Django is designed to do. Once I had a designer and a client-side engineer working on the project, I could really just hand it over to them and I didn’t have to worry about the front-end code any more.”
5. HAVE SERVERS READY. As well as the Guardian’s first Django joint, this was its first project with EC2, the Amazon contract-hosting service beloved by startups for its low capital costs. Willison’s team knew they would get a huge burst of attention followed by a long, fading tail, so it wouldn’t make sense to prepare the Guardian’s own servers for the task. In any case, there wasn’t time. With EC2, the Guardian could order server time as needed, rapidly scaling it up for the launch date and down again afterward. Thanks to EC2, Willison guessed the Guardian’s full out-of-pocket cost for the whole project will be around £50.
6. SAVE COSTS. Willison used open-source, freely available software that anyone else who might want to imitate them could use.
“When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz returned to his company to put it back on track – as Dell had done a year before – the two chiefs compared notes. Now the coffee empire has opened its version of Dell’s IdeaStorm at MyStarbucksIdea…
“The Starbucks discussion is fascinating. Various caffeinated customers in a hurry suggested that they could encode their standing orders and credit on to cards so they could wave them like London’s tube/bus Oyster cards upon entering, putting their order in and charging them automatically, which would allow them to skip (and shorten) the line. Others suggested separate lines for simple orders of brewed coffee. What the customers were really telling the company was that the length of its lines is a problem. But note well that they didn’t complain about this. Instead, they came up with solutions. It’s a sign of the gift economy online. Customers are willing to help. They want to be partners.
“The top suggestion at MyStarbucksIdea as I write this – with 53,000 votes and 600 comments – is loftier: to bring cafe society to the cafes. “Use the power of media and wireless new media in particular to foster a sense of conversation about the arts, current events, etc,” one customer proposed. An enthused commenter responded: “Great conversation will also renew the image of Starbucks as being not only a coffee community but also a global community where humanist ideas and great artists, writers, comedians etc could also attract a lot of people and turn Starbucks into a cultural, humanist hub!” Sounds like the Guardian, with extra froth.
“I would love to see this platform for mutual engagement also taken to government. I’m not suggesting we transform parliament into an online forum. But why shouldn’t constituents share their good ideas and use the organising power of the internet to gather movements around them? When I blogged this thought, Salesforce’s Benioff chimed in, calling it a ‘killer idea’ but cautioning: ‘Salesforce Ideas is a democracy, as the saying goes, red in tooth and claw. But you have to invest in a conversation – it’s not going to work unless there’s a real back-and-forth.’
“The prime minister’s office, working with MySociety, has made a start on such a digital democracy at petitions.pm.gov.uk, where citizens have submitted more than 29,000 petitions since 2006 (half rejected as duplicates or for legal and other issues), drawing signatures from about four million people.
“But the real question for companies and institutions is how willing they are to let their constituents into the process of doing their jobs. Can customers help design products? Can citizens write legislation? Can readers suggest stories newspapers should cover?”
Everywhere is a glossy travel magazine made up entirely of contributed photos and short pieces by visitors to the site. Published contributors get paid and you can even download the PDF version of Issue 1 and Issue 2.
Every month, the editors select the best articles and photos (based on their editorial team and a system of voting on their website) and lay out a new magazine. This is brilliant for a number of reasons, but most specifically the costs they save on hiring a staff of writers and paying their expenses is put into the production of the magazine which is every bit as professional and beautiful as any other travel magazine likely to be on your coffee table…it will be interesting to see if this model of a completely user generated magazine could work in other industries. Is this unique to travel because of the passion people have for writing and photography in this category, or could it work for any industry?
The three sites aggregate other community sites, set a platform for diverse voices to be heard, and become greater than the sum of its parts.
She warns however that news organizations need to be wary of thinking they can draw a community under their fold and brand without renumeration:
“Remember, though, there is no free lunch. News organizations that think citizens will freely contribute to their citizen journalism pages need to think again.
“While citizen journalism may well be a new form of volunteerism – something baby boomers do when the finish coaching their kids’ baseball teams – it’s a fragile dynamic.
“There must be a high degree of equilibrium, a balance between the giving and the getting, in these initiatives. Money is not the only motivator. People contribute for a reason – either because of a personal passion, to effect change, to learn something, or even to get smarter about technology.
“Be clever in juicing that equilibrium. If you have to pay the high school that uploads the most robust content on your hyperlocal sports site, like the Orlando Sentinel does, consider it an investment in your info-structure.
“Use your Big-J journalists where they can really add value. Professional journalists should focus their expertise and skills on doing investigations, identifying trends, building databases, holding public officials accountable and articulating the master narratives in their communities.
“Ultimately, the marketplace will decide what is news. News will be whatever adds value in a noisy information landscape, whatever helps people get their jobs done, whatever imparts wisdom, and whatever elicits gratitude.
“To figure this out you also need some new players in your info-structure. They include:
1.“Can do-ers” instead of those who whine about what they can’t do.
2.Computer programmers who will be the architects of searchable databases or news games in your info-structure.
3.Collaborators, people who have the sensibility to see the possibilities of working together instead of moving into kneejerk competitor mode.
4.News analysts who will trawl incoming information looking for Big-J opportunities. Minnesota Public Radio uses these para-journalists to analyze information coming in through its Public Insight Journalism network.
5.Tribe expanders. Journalism in the future will come from many places. We should contribute to the momentum of the best and most responsible efforts and recruit them for the info-structure.
For those who embrace these challenges, there is cause for a great deal of optimism.”
Regina McCombs of startribune.com:
1. Deadlines: Make sure you’re not publishing once a week (or once a day), but updating as news happens.
2. Blog. Link to student blogs. Allow comments on articles and respond to the comments.
3. Publish Flickr (or other photo) feeds of campus events.
4. Do any multimedia you possibly can: podcasts, audio stories, video, whatever you can.
5. Study local news sites, watch what they’re doing, decide what you like or don’t like.
6. Produce some multimedia to have on your resume, even if it’s a personal project.
7. Find a local mentor at a newspaper or TV station, or network with others learning it.
8. Get more community oriented, include user ratings, tagging and reviews like you see on our vita.mn site.
9. Learn video
10. Learn to adapt. Commit to life-long learning. Live with certainty of uncertainty.
Work she’s most proud of: A People Torn: Liberians in Minnesota.
Her must-read blogs:
Others to watch out for: AndyDickinson.net, Broadcast & Podcast Gadgets, Common Sense Journalism, Getty Images News blog, Inside Online Video, Journalistopia, Multimedia Evangelist, Multimedia Reporter, News Videographer, NewspaperVideo — Chuck Fadely’s blog related to the list, Online Journalism Review, Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog, What the Duck, the X degree, yelvington.com