Help me investigate
“There are two millions ways to do it in the wrong manner, but one million to do it in the good manner” uses to say Peter O’Donnell, associate editor for European Voice. Helpmeinvestigate.com is definitely a good way to do investigative journalism.
In a world carried by the information and communication technologies (ICT), it is more and more difficult to be innovative. But it is not necessarily needed to invent a new gizmo; there are several ways to surf on the ICT wave. One of them is to be innovative in the way of using it. Helpmeinvestigate.com (HMI) can be taken as a valid example, at least for the United Kingdom even if the information that contribute to cover the issues come sometimes from abroad.
Open Source and Crowd Source
The Open Source, sounds familiar for free programs users like Linux, or Open Office, the former LibreOffice. An Open Source project is, in brief, a concept where lots of developers build little pieces to contribute to one huge program, too large to be built by only one person. And this in a free manner that is, without licence or copyrights on the parts composing the masterpiece. Crowd sourcing works similarly but instead of algorithms for a computer program, the pieces are information or tips that the mass of people from all around the world gather and share through an online platform. This kind of information concerns everything, like the last app for a smartphone to get free Wi-Fi Access everywhere or a hint in a business management. It is like outsourcing for the companies but instead of manufactures, these are ideas. HMI is a website conceived by Paul Bradshaw in 2009 where information like data, documents, etc. is gathered. Like the parts of a program or the tips for the smartphone users, but in this case, in order to make investigations on questions of public interest. Paul Bradshaw is a part– time Course Leader at Birmingham City University, in UK and works as a consultant and trainer with media organisations. “He runs loads of interesting innovative things”, according to Diane Kemp senior lecturer at the Birmingham School of Media. Diane Kemp also adds that “HMI is a really intelligent, journalistic use of social media. It uses some of the ideas of crowd sourcing, but in a more specific way. It’s had some successes in that people within a community have managed to gather information and use that to campaign in their locality. It’s open, it doesn’t purport to be factual in that people are encouraged to check and question the information they’re given. All these seem to me to be examples of intelligent net usage”. The project has also won some awards like Multimedia Publisher of the Year in the NUJ’s Regional Media Awards, and the “Best Investigation” in the Talk about Local/Guardian Local awards.
The community and information
Paul Bradshaw and his team have shown though HMI platform that information is everywhere, and can be shared. Helpmeinvestigate.com has a very simple and sober layout. The website has two main links: “Investigate on something” and “Help others investigate”. The first link redirects the user to more specific sectors of investigation, like health, welfare, education or also public money spending. The other one invites him or her to specify the topics in which he or she can contribute to the researches. According to Paul Bradshaw, “the most important area is the challenges”. It is a section on the website that breaks down the investigations into series of small questions in which people can get specialised. That illustrates the crowd sourcing side of the project in the way that it allows every contributor to focus on a well-determined topic. Another practical aspect is the agenda of an investigation that allows the user to see how the question evolves. Actually, the website runs like a blog daily updated.
The national impact
So far, HMI has achieved several investigations of public interest. The first achievement had been to force the council of Birmingham city to “to reveal the spiralling cost of its website”, according to the article of Ana Blackaby journalist for the Birmingham Post. It has been revealed that the website came out three years late for a cost of £2,8 million (€ 3,26 million). Other examples of the investigations reached are the localisation of the worst parking places in the UK, the average cost of UK weddings and the annual cost of education for an English taxpayer or also the cost of scrapping speed cameras.
To give a more recent questioning, a request by the blog user ‘Neurobonkers’, web master of the homonym website, shows a manner to ask for information to people who want to give a contribution on such kind of public interest topics. The person recently posted “I am looking for post mortem data on deaths caused by capsaicin (pepper spray). I intend to analyse the data for links to the involvement of stimulants (particularly pseudoephedrine, methamphetamine and cocaine)”. And this is only one example among a lot of different matters and requests.
The cost of the information
There is an aphorism that says “If we give one dollar to one another, at the end of the exchange, all the people will have the use of one dollar, if we give one idea to one another, in the end, all the people will have the use of two ideas”. If the idea is info, this highlights the importance of the sharing of information. Although the launching of the project had been supported by Channel 4’s 4iP (4 innovation for the public) fund and Screen West Midlands fund, it is now entirely voluntary. That enforces its Open Source character, where all the participants are taking part by sharing their information in a free way.
Helpmeinvestigate.com is nowadays a completely free platform where the community as well as professional journalists carry public interest questions. The blog form does not request any investment but time. It started as local project and now deals with issues all around the UK. The idea is interesting because it is simple and can be transposed easily through other communities or countries, especially through social networks. Beside the fact that it is a functioning idea officially rewarded, it promotes free information, it makes a good use of the TIC and, the most important, it is accessible to everyone.
References on Open Office and Crowdsourcing• BERNARDI, Paolo – Presentation OpenOffice vs LibreOffice – Linux day 2010 – University of Perugia (youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAGAHJzlw_4 – Ita) • Crowdsourcing.org — (http://www.crowdsourcing.org/document/4sqwifi-uses-foursquare-to– show-you-nearby-wifi-locations-and-their-passwords/8760 and