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Home » Featured, Focus, Headline

Help me investigate

Submitted by on January 19, 2012 – 12:35
The HelpMeInvestigate team: Stef Lewandowski, Paul Henderson, Heather Brooke, Nick Booth and Paul Bradshaw. Photograph: Kate Beatty at podnosh/Some rights reserved

The HelpMeInvestigate team: Stef Lewandowski, Paul Henderson, Heather Brooke, Nick Booth and Paul Bradshaw. Photograph: Kate Beatty at podnosh/Some rights reserved

“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.

To con­clude

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

http://www.crowdsourcing.org/site/help-me-investigate/helpmeinvestigatecom/8103)

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