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October 2009

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Crowd Sourcing Redefining Power of the Press

by Glen Emerson Morris
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One of the most troubling issues with the decline of the newspaper industry is that the average daily no longer has the resources to adequately play one of the key roles our society has come to depend on newspapers to play; that of keeping city, state and national governments honest. It's really impossible to write a political history of the United States without substantially covering the role newspapers have played in not only political reform, but political policy itself.

With legions of the most experienced investigative journalists laid off one has to wonder if newspapers could really play the role of public watchdog anymore even if they really wanted to. Surprisingly, based on what the British newspaper The Guardian recently accomplished, newspapers may be on the verge of a breakthrough likely to change politics as we know it, profoundly and permanently.

The Guardian launched what may be the first massive crowd source project in history designed to monitor and police a large scale release of public records. British politicians under siege in the summer of 2009 for expense account irregularities collectively released an excess of 500,000 expense reports for public scrutiny. To their surprise, their expense reports got far more public scrutiny than they ever dreamed possible.


The Guardian set up a Website that made all 500,000+ expense reports available for the public to download, scrutinize, and record the results in an online searchable database. Within a few weeks all the expense reports had been examined and any suspicious results made available online. British politics hasn't been the same since.

By any standards, this was a remarkable accomplishment for any newspaper, or any other media organization, especially when you consider the math. Manually scanning 500000 reports at, say, 1 minute each will take 8,333 hours. This is 4 people working full time for a year, or 1000 people working 8.3 hours. Considering The Guardian posted the results less than two months, it would have taken 24 people working full time to produce results within the same timeframe.

Impressive as it was, The Guardian's accomplishment pales in comparison with the scale of projects currently underway by both the government and by citizen watchdog organizations.

On the government front, the Obama administration has a goal of putting as much of the government online as possible. One of their first projects, Data.gov, is a new one-stop Website for the public to find and download a variety of key government data sets. The Obama administration has also launched an IT Dashboard project designed to allow easy tracking of government IT projects. The Website just shows what projects are underway and how close to schedule the projects are, but it could easily be linked with other government databases to show patterns like a connection with campaign contributions. While the software to do this doesn't exist now, it will soon, thanks to several grassroots projects.

One of these groups, SunlightLabs, has launched Apps for America, a Website to track, reward and distribute open source applications designed to covert government data into useful information. However, they plan to go well beyond that effort. As they put it…

"The Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, DC, hopes to raise an army of web volunteers to analyze all the earmarks in government bills. The group's new Sunlight Labs transparency corps invites users to join an effort to analyze the information collaboratively. Users are presented with PDFs released by hundreds of different offices and asked to enter the pertinent information like the date and dollar amount of a request, name of the requester, description of the project, and so on. These then become part of a searchable database.”

This may surprise Congressmen who are used to the public not reading pending legislation. In fact, Congressmen aren't even used to reading pending themselves.

Sadly, members of Congress have long accepted the consequences of data overload and accept the fact that they don't have time to read all of the bills they pass, in entirety, or sometimes even at all. In some cases, this doesn't matter since Congressional aides read the bills and provide summaries that are often reasonably accurate, especially with shorter bills. The real problems come from the many bills that are largely, or completely, written by lobbyists from the industries the bills are intended to regulate. These lobbyists frequently even provide the summaries of the bills that Congressmen actually base their voting decisions on, so Congressmen often haven't got an accurate idea about what they're voting on. Even if the bills are summarized by Congressional aides, they will lack a contextual understanding of the bill.

A non-partisan watchdog organization, DownsizeDC.org, has been trying to get a bill passed in Congress that would require Congressmen to read all bills in entirety before they could vote yes on them. Voting no would be OK whether or not the bill had been read. Needless to say, the bill hasn't gotten far. These are not conditions Congress feels it could do business under.

However, within a few years many in Congress may prefer the Read the Bills Act to what is likely about to happen. Watchdog organizations are being formed now that will allow the public to accurately evaluate the content of every bill submitted in Congress regardless of the length of the document. These watchdog organizations will be both a public version of the press, and a resource for the traditional press. In the future, major news organizations will commonly depend on public watchdog groups for information much like The Guardian used its readers to analyze expense reports.

One of the big problems the media has had covering government and corporate affairs is that the vast ocean of data that both have become so excellent at generating has become so big you can hide just about anything in it. That's about to change. The media is about to have all to help they need in understanding what is really going on in Washington, and things will never quite be the same again.

It may be ironic that the same Internet technology that helped end the traditional role of newspapers is also giving newspapers the greatest power to police the government they ever had, but it's also very fortunate. Reform will never come from within Washington, just as shadows never cast light. We've been in the darkness long enough.


Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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