Local Citizen Microreporting

A couple weeks ago I applied for a grant from the Knight News Challenge for creation of a microreporting infrastructure — an idea I’ve been batting around for about a year now but haven’t had time to implement (check out, for example, this ghost town).

Not sure if I’ll get the grant or not, but here’s hoping.

The idea is actually pretty simple. A corps of volunteer microreporters report news and gossip as it happens through text messaging or email. Those microreports of one or two sentences are posted in real-time to a common site where they can be community rated and commented on.

The idea is partially informed by a thing I’ve noticed at Blue Hampshire: occasionally posting a small skeleton story on a site filled with insiders generates a really full story via people volunteering information in the comments.

So in the world of microreporting, if you witnessed an accident (or more likely the aftermath) you might write

Motorcyclist down on West st. In front of T-bird mini mart. Ambulance and cops arriving. Looks like skidded out in turn? Not sure. Traffic routed thru tbird lot.

Which is on its own is worth something — if you were worried about someone who is late, for example you could check the site, and if you are going somewhere you could make sure you avoid West St.

But the real benefit would come with user comment and ranking. If it’s an important story, readers would push it to the top. If multiple reports come in, readers would be given a facility to group the reports. But most importantly, people could correct and expand on the stories. A reader listening to the police scanner could fill in details. If someone a day later heard something about the accident, they could add it. A person familiar with that intersection might also comment about whether there was a pattern of such things.

Assuming people did this non-anonymously, under their own names, a reporter or blogger could look at the original microreports plus comments and with a couple calls for verification very quickly put together a story.

Such a system would allow the reporter or blogger to focus on story selection, verification, and storytelling rather than the more mundane work of finding and assembling the smaller pieces from which such stories are composed.

I’m not saying this would always be the case — obviously there will always be a place for traditional source-building and investigative journalism. But for local stories in small towns, which are written on ever-shrinking budgets, the efficiency gained with such a system might make it possible to continue to provide the coverage which helps to hold small communities together. And that, to me, makes this an idea well worth trying.

Help me out with my proposal

There’s a story that Will Robinson tells, perhaps apocryphal, Â about a student that took their first draft of a paper, and posted it to Wikipedia. After a week or so they took it down, newly edited, fact checked and sourced.

Well, maybe this will work, and maybe it won’t, but I’m involved in writing an academic technology vision statement (along with compratriot Jenny Darrow), and I couldn’t help but think of that story. Why labor in the dark when so many people smarter than me read this blog?

So I’d like to invite any of you that read this and have ideas about what an Academic Tech Vision document should look like to comment over at:


The password is highway61. You can upload your own idea of a vision plan, or comment on ours. The idea is, if this is sucessful, to create our plan in a way that is a testament to net-enabled methods of creation.

And it it fails… well, I think it’s a noble act to attempt to eat your own dogfood. So we’ll soldier on. But I really do invite all the people that stop by here occasionally to comment or post their own idea on the wiki… that crowd includes, but is not limited to, Stephen Downes, Jon Udell, Jim Groom, Martha Burtis, Andy Rush, Leigh Blackall, Bernard Lunn, Royce Robertson, Richard Nantel, Jeff McClurken, Artichoke, Nils Peterson, Harold Jarche, Scott Wilson, Jerry Slezak, Gardner Campbell, Bill Fitzgerald, etc. (sorry I don’t have time to link all those names).

Actually looking at that list of people who have commented or linked here, I’m suddenly struck by how blessed this blog, at less than six months old, has been. It’s kind of overwhelming, really: you get any two people from that above list together, and you probably have a brain trust. Three and it’s a think tank.

So let me add that whether you help Jenny and I out with comments or not, I’m really just stunned how gracious people have been with their comments and links to date, and grateful.

So maybe see you over there? (And if you want to sport a link to the project and invite your own friends to help, as always, very much appreciated…)


password: highway61

(The best address to reach me at is caulfield.mike@gmail.com if you have any questions. And yes, after I get this done, I WILL finish the Pecha Kucha project.).

The proposal I’d like to write

So we’re about 20 hours into this week, and so far I’ve spent over 10 of those hours on drafting an academic technology plan for my institution.

I have trouble explaining why it’s so hard to draft, but perhaps if you’ve ever tried to tie a policy document into the greater fabric of policy documents at your college or large corporation, you’ll understand. What seems to be happening is I’m coming at this downward, from the broad objectives of the college, and then trying to fit my thinking into that framework. Like all policy documents, it has to be a bit of a magic trick — I have to show how the aims of the college have led to this approach to technology the whole time.

But of course, my understanding of technology doesn’t really descend from the aims of the college. It comes from a lifetime of solving problems using computers and networks, from ten years of applying technology to “academic” problems, and from political blogging, where it’s become really apparent to me that even in areas where problems are not technical that a creative orientation to technology can quite literally allow students to change the world.

So here, completely off the top of my head, 15 minutes before the meeting where I will present my tortured institutional draft of the AT plan — here is what I would *like* to it to say:

We’ll use technology to help students and faculty to change the world. Sometimes that means pulling together people to colloborate and solve a sticky problem. Sometimes it means providing a service that no one has thought to provide. Sometimes it means setting up a Learning Management System to automatically import a student roster so that a professor can spend that time with students instead of Excel. Ultimately if you can show us an interesting problem, we can tell you how technology and network thinking can address it better. The more it would improve the world relative to the effort required, the higher it goes in the queue.

We’ll graduate students who think creatively about technology and loose processes. Today’s world belongs to the systems analyst, the person who understands that a loose process is as much a machine as a tightly programmed circuit board. The person that understands where it makes sense to encode a process in a circuit board, and where it makes sense to encode a process in a short verbal agreement. The person that knows how to evaluate a process as a whole, and swap out the defective or inefficient bits, and improve what they do incrementally. Our students when confronted with a task won’t ask where the application is that can do it for them — they’ll assemble new and old technologies in front of them, like a chef reverse engineering a recipe. And they’ll start to mix.

We will bring our own institution (and our learning) into the Networked Age. The Information Age has been supplanted by the Network Age. And while that network is technology-mediated, the ramifications of this transition exceed technology. Students will graduate into jobs that don’t exist yet. They don’t need facts. They need to learn to use the network to learn. We’ll stop teaching them in ways they will never encounter again, and embrace our mission of showing them ways to learn which they can use over their lifetime. This means more wikis and less lecture halls, more Just-in-Time learning, more distributed knowledge. What they need is on the network. Let’s show them how to get it.

Well, time’s up —  Have to head to this thing now. That’s not complete, but it’s amazing what you can write in 15 minutes if you start from the direction you entered the issue. And it’s amazing how many hours it takes to write against the grain….

Networked Learning and Distributed Reporting

If I go often to the well of what’s going on in the Politics 2.0 and Reporting 2.0 space, it’s because few areas are going through such a radical high stakes change.

Not change in a political sense, mind you. Much of the change going on is a rather frantic bid to make sure that new technologies don’t erode existing power structures both in media and politics. But the stakes involved and the very real wakeup call received by the establishment in 2006 has led to a situation where the political space is ahead of the curve in use of new technologies and organizational principles.

So it’s no surprise that we see a glimpse of the new world of work today from Huffington Post’s Off The Bus group of reporters (disclosure: I’m one of those reporters).

It was a normal subject they covered today: Sen Obama’s campaign did a massive door-to-door operation this past weekend. The average coverage of this would be to send a reporter out to one of the 40-odd cities where this canvassing was taking place.

Off the Bus had a better idea: since they have dozens of reporters already in these locations, why not ask them all to stop by their local event, and get some basic information about the canvass — people involved, why they were there, basic turnout numbers, doors knocked on, general level of commitment of people talked to.

It was information a local person could gather in about 30 to 60 minutes, both by talking to the organizers and tagging along for a couple door-knockings. And since the people tagging along were local, they could put the information in context.

Off the Bus set up a Survey Monkey form, and mailed it out to any of their reporters who could spare the half hour. One blogger was responsible for compiling the data and putting it together, but the data was made available to all involved (in fact, the raw reports were made available to the general public).

And what was the result of this? Well, it was a mixed bag. The reporters were in many places stonewalled by the Obama campaign. Where they did tag along though, they found that for the most part support for any candidate was far softer than what polls have shown, and that people as a whole are tired of talking about the Iraq war.

Briliant? Groundbreaking?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But look at the mechanisms and philosophy on display: radical transparency (in making all reports viewable), distributed tasking, use of simple online tools such as Survey Monkey, multi-literate reporters taking video, writing copy, all coordinated through a Google group, and done at almost no cost — because the reporters are already in place…

This is not just the future of reporting. It’s the future of our networked world. In fact, it’s the present already in many industries where need for the coordination of people with different specializations exists.

Do our students know how to work this way? Are we teaching them?

I’d argue that projects like UMW Blogs do just that, showing people through that ecosystem of Google Reader, WordPress, and MediaWiki the power of the network.

(and you can add any of my previous endings here — you know the screed. Why in the world would we send kids out into the networked world with a BlackboardTM understanding of life?)