Citizen-generated data in journalism

By Zara Rahman

A couple of weeks ago, Tin and I had the opportunity to join Latin America’s biggest gathering of news nerds: the MediaParty, held annually in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and organised by HacksHackers Buenos Aires. It brought together around 5000 people to share what they’re doing with technology and data within the broad context of journalism and storytelling.

There was one major theme that I observed throughout the event, during the multiple keynotes, workshops and conversations with other participants: how to involve the reader. In the journalism world, this kind of focus can have many different labels – citizen journalism, citizen engagement, crowd-powered journalism, eyewitness media. Within the context of the DataShift, many of these approaches could be described as citizen-generated data.

Turning readers into contributors

Take, for example, Hearken: an “audience-driven platform enabling newsrooms to engage the public throughout the reporting process”, presented by co-founder Jennifer Brandel. Essentially, the platform makes it easier for newsrooms and their ‘audience’ to communicate and send feedback while a topic is actually being covered. They call this public-powered journalism.

There are a couple of things that I really appreciate about this platform. Firstly, that it’s modular. Similar to the Poplus components, which are modular bits of software aiming at solving various civic tech needs, this system appears to let the user pick and choose which components are most useful for them.

Secondly, it’s providing a concrete way for readers (or should we now call them contributors?) to really influence journalism in their local area. It’s taking the idea of reporters asking on social media for tips on interview questions, or leads when covering a certain story, and systematising it. The “curiosity” module allows people to ask questions about their local environments, and allows reporters to see what their audience are actually interested in. Whether the concrete questions are answered or not, that form of engagement does a lot for the average reader’s relationship with the media – it establishes trust, and allows the reader to concretely feel like their local newspaper is just that – their local newspaper.

In Argentina itself, La Nacion Data have been pioneering a similar kind of engagement for a while now with VozData; a microtasking platform which allows readers to digitise public documents. It’s an interesting way of both getting their readers engaged and involved in a story, as well as turning otherwise unuseable public documents into a database that journalists can actually work with.

Impressively, they built their own open source tool, Crowdata, to create VozData – which, ideally, will be reused by other media outlets to do the same thing, thus improving the tool’s functionalities. As proof for the need of this kind of tool, just two days ago someone posting to the data-driven journalism mailing list asked for precisely this kind of platform, to allow volunteers to fact check and validity-check public data from Hungarian local governments.

Crowd-powered journalism

Another project that caught my eye was ProPublica’s upcoming Crowd-Powered News Network, which Amanda Zamora spoke about. She had some great concrete suggestions for turning readers into ‘community’ – a group of people who contribute back to stories, sometimes with really crucial pieces of input that can (and have) hugely influenced investigations.

As with the other projects in this space, ProPublica’s efforts to get people to contribute  investigative reporting has a much larger social impact than might initially be observed. In some cases that Amanda described, until some of these investigations took place, the people affected had had very few opportunities to actually tell their stories to someone outside of their own personal network, and have them be listened to and acted upon.

From journalism to advocacy

Linking this back to the work of civil society or advocacy: media outlets engaging in this kind of work provide insight into the kinds of social justice problems that a population is facing, and potentially identify valuable audiences or contributors for campaigns. For some, these investigations have provided the sole viable option for people to get justice for discrimination that they faced, and ultimately, push for social change to prevent it from happening again. I feel that civil society could potentially step in at this point – by getting the people identified through investigations to stay engaged in that particular social issue; or by connecting their desire for justice for their own problem to a broader cause.

I came across a good example of this kind of collaboration last week: Amnesty India are partnering with women’s zine The Ladies Finger (which, I have to confess, is one of my favourite sites), to address the issue of women reporting sexual violence to the police. Amnesty India has produced a website called  Ready to Report, which informs women of their rights when reporting sexual violence incidents to the police. In partnership, the Ladies Finger are asking women for their experiences of reporting sexual violence to the police, and producing a series of blog posts based on these experiences. In my mind, this is an excellent collaboration strategy, engaging readers, providing an outlet for people to share their stories, and most importantly, informing other readers about their rights in this sphere.

I’d love to see more similar connections being made both on a strategic level and a technical level between the work that is happening in the journalism community together with civil society – in particularly civil society work on data. I hope to connect more journalistic initiatives to the work that we’re doing with DataShift projects in our pilot countries, too. In the meantime: a big thanks to the prolific organisers, participants and friends for a fantastic event. We’ll be back next year!