Monday, March 8, 2010

Technology Solutions for Investigative Journalism

I recently read this 'Tweetifesto' at and it got me thinking about modern journalism and its challenges. The Tweetifesto made me chuckle, the gist of it being: People want deep investigative journalism, but by golly, that stuff is hard and expensive.

Well, no news there. But it did lead me to contemplate some possible advantages inherent to modern (and future) technology models that could shape the future of journalism.

The BitTorrent Protocol. I am not referring to how BitTorrent can be used for piracy, or how it's undermining old business models around monetizing data, but to the premise of the technology itself. The simultaneous sharing of bits of information between multiple trusted sources to shape the content of a large digital entity.

Investigating something is a linear process. Investigations typically have only a few brains behind them, for reasons ranging from maintaining focus to building trust between journalists and sources. An investigation is a learning process, so the more the journalists learn, the smarter they become, and the further they can push the investigation. This process usually takes many interviews and many hours of research.

Applying BitTorrent theory capitalizes on the evolution of information sharing to include non-linear sources in an efficient manner. No longer must source A lead to source B, and so on through the investigative process. Information becomes simultaneously available as more of it is shared. By harvesting a trusted network of multiple data sources, the scope of an investigation broadens significantly with the amount of data collected.

The Semantic Web. The Semantic Web is a foundation concept of the next stage of Web evolution. It is the process by which information is applied to information to give it meaning. Known as 'meta data', the concept helps put into context whatever information is being presented. For example, Jeremy Buehler is a name, where 'Jeremy Buehler' is the information and 'is a name' is the meta data. In the context of mark-up languages:

[name]Jeremy Buehler[/name]

Working with data is problematic because language applies context to information. Context is what makes some information better than other information. In order for the Bitorrent theory to work for journalism, meta data must be applied to the vast amounts of data returned from the trusted network of multiple data sources. In so doing, some information will become more meaningful than other information.

Real-time Collaboration. The Semantic Web will improve journalists' ability to gather and make relevant vasts amounts of data, however, the investigative process must be focused, responsive and validated. Using such real-time collaboration tools as Google Wave, for example, data can be prioritized and further sifted by multiple human minds. Discussions about information can be made in by-the-letter real-time, as such tools allow for the interjection of comments, questions, more data or even the assignment of tasks to individuals.

Furthermore, the product of collaboration is already in digital form. A journalist or editor would have to put the finishing touches on content to make it easily digestible. When finished, publishing the story could be a one-click effort.

Pie in the Sky? These technologies are not five years away. They're available today. Trusted networks? Social sites, Twitter, FourSquare, etc. Bittorrent? Almost everyone with a computer is aware of it, and a good many people with the theory behind it. The Semantic Web? Besides investments by database companies like Oracle to further its development, technologies such as XML have been in place for some time and there are already information standards in place for various industries. Real-time Collaboration? Some people already use it to do business, and have been for some time.

These technologies would not revolutionize investigative journalism, but evolve it. The cost of carrying out investigations would theoretically lower, while putting more meaningful information into the hands of investigators. This will be a boon to journalism and for people everywhere, but there is one not-so-small hurdle to overcome before evolution can take place.

The companies backing journalists must overcome their fixation with traditional business models, and business process models, and change.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies ( 2010.

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