Investigate Net: Microcollaboration for journalists

Investigate Net

Investigate Net MozNewsLab proposal from Saleem Khan on Vimeo. ]



Investigate Net enables journalists to surmount structural barriers to newsgathering.

It uses simple, readily available technologies to help journalists find and collaborate with colleagues anywhere.

Investigate Net home page mockup

Investigate Net home page mockup.

Investigate Net mobile mockup.

Investigate Net mobile mockup.





Investigate Net was inspired by an African journalist I met, who was unable to identify the value or uses of minerals mined in his country because the experts worked for mining interests and would not talk to him.

Research was difficult with a maximum of 30 minutes per week on a dial-up connection, and a low-end mobile phone for most of his communication.

He said these problems were widespread in Africa.

The information he sought, I could easily get in minutes. That was the seed of Investigate Net: Information one journalist found impossible to gain was easily accessible to a peer.



Journalists in one locale are forced to shelve or discontinue investigations because they cannot obtain crucial, basic information due to access, technological, financial or practical barriers.

That information is easily accessible by journalists elsewhere. Yet, it remains out of reach to isolated journalists because collaborations typically stem from personal networks and both groups are unaware of each other and their needs.



Investigate Net enables micro-collaboration among journalists on a local to global scale.

It connects journalists around the world to peer-sourced information that is otherwise unavailable, through low-bandwidth communication technologies such as:

  • a lean or mobile Web site
  • text or SMS messaging
  • e-mail



A journalist submits an information request and other pertinent information, such as keywords and privacy considerations, through a simple, mobile-friendly, Investigate Net form online, in e-mail or text message.


Investigate Net request form

Investigate Net request form mockup.


The query goes to journalists who self-identify as experts or interested in subjects noted in the request. They obtain the sought information and send it to the requesting journalist according to preferences: E-mail, text message, fax, etc.


Investigate Net e-mail inbox notification

Investigate Net notification deliveries are set by the user.


Journalists in the economic North with abundant technology or information access may also need sources outside of their networks, especially when a story leads abroad where their news outlet has no presence or contacts. It is impractical to always fly a correspondent there, so the story is shelved or killed.

Instead, Investigate Net would enable Southern journalists to become virtual field producers.



Investigate Net builds on existing technologies, tools and behaviours familiar and accessible to journalists:

  • Web forms
  • e-mail
  • text messages
  • and the reporting process.

It uses simple, form-based submissions to collect and disseminate information requests.

Investigate Net request and fulfillment flow

Journalists in the North and South can send and receive information through distributed servers. If technology limitations are a factor, requests and fulfillment can be sent and received in off-peak hour batch operations.


For journalists with limited Internet access, batch-send operations could process locally cached requests during off-peak times.

Investigate Net fits with a newsroom’s reporting workflow: Research, make calls, interview and synthesize it all into a coherent context. The outcome is information but benefits are greater.


Sketch: News story timeline

News story timeline


Fulfillment is good professional courtesy. Journalists privileged to work in the North are responsible — perhaps obliged — to help less privileged colleagues in the South.

Northern journalists realize reciprocal benefits and discover stories they may not otherwise find.

Above all, these simple information requests can help all journalists build networks and foster collaboration.



Several open source projects could be used to build Investigate Net:

  • FrontlineSMS to manage and transmit requests and answers.
  • osTicket support system as a backbone to handle and track requests.
  • Apache projects as the server and Web management platform.
  • The recently launched Investigative Dashboard portal cites collaboration as a goal and could enhance Investigate Net. (I discussed the problem Investigate Net aims to solve with Dashboard’s Paul Radu at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2007.)

Journalists can easily participate by:

  • identifying gaps in their information needs
  • helping to design request and fulfillment processes
  • testing as end-users.

Developers bring key technical knowledge to build Investigate Net. Because requirements are simple by design, it will be a quick and easy build at minimal cost.

Editorial and technical collaboration should be smooth as the system’s simplicity in scope and concept minimizes miscommunication.



Journalist participation in the North in particular is not guaranteed. It may be necessary to add incentives or game mechanics. This will be revealed in iterative testing.

Privacy and security beyond the browser connection may be needed. Tools like Tor and profile management features may address them.

Authentication occurs at a device level but does not address device sharing, or human error that grants access to a user’s Investigate Net profile. This is an issue for future development.

Services like Quora, StackExchange, WikiAnswers, LinkedIn Answers and Facebook Questions, and a range of journalism discussion lists and forums, are nominal competitors but do not address the South’s technology limitations, structural, privacy or security needs.



Investigate Net will enable and extend the capabilities and impact of journalists and news organizations:

  1. Barriers to basic and critical information will be erased, letting journalists focus on developing deeper stories instead of scraping for simple facts.
  2. News organizations will be able to better allocate personnel and financial resources, save significantly on story-related costs and improve productivity.
  3. Journalists will be better linked, fostering work and co-productions.
  4. Journalists will gain information, and in the South, income, too.
  5. Stories that would not be told, or would fall short, will gain life and momentum. You cannot report on something if you cannot meaningfully identify and understand it, or if the trail leads somewhere and you have no budget, presence or network to follow it.
  6. Deeper co-productions will stem from Investigate Net collaborations, making it possible to maximize editorial impact on a local, regional, national or global scale and drive the news agenda. A story or investigation by one news organization is easy for authorities to ignore; one covered by multiple outlets is not as easily dismissed.


Investigate Net is meant to be extensible and scalable.

It could extend to amateur journalists, commerce, rich media distribution and more.

Ultimately, Investigate Net will foster collaborations and joint investigations that tell local stories in the North and South and span the globe.


[UPDATE 08.21.2011: The video at the page linked via the Investigate Net image above has been corrected. +08.15.2011: is not the correct one but I am leaving it there for historical context, at least for the moment. A blog post on this is forthcoming. The actual Investigate Net proposal video is online.

Bridging the divide

Any technology project

should solve problems  journalists are having,

even if it’s a problem they don’t know they have.

Mohamed Nanabhay
Al Jazeera

This week’s Knight Mozilla News Lab lectures — particularly those about technology in the newsroom — resonated deeply with me. They recalled challenges I have faced in my career and mission to inspire, encourage and entice my professional peers into looking at journalism from a broader perspective than that to which they are accustomed, and in building bridges, particularly with developers. They echoed much thinking and some exposition that went into my featured post last week, about the divide between news and open development cultures.

The lectures made it clear that although there has been progress, the challenges I previously identified are far from a relic of the past.

It’s something I pursued with developers in my own news organizations with varying success: Senior managers, often traditionalists, have typically put a stop to this sort of collaboration as a poor use of time, typically because they don’t understand it.

What is now changing is that there is a realization that developers have a key role to play in enabling deeper, richer, more accessible and diverse storytelling, and that everyone in a news organization — and increasingly, outside of them, too — are potential partners and collaborators.

News process flow at MozNewsLabtO

News process flow at MozNewsLabTO


The question

How does your project take into account the need to facilitate collaboration in the newsroom (whether real or virtual), while acknowledging that team members will have varying technological skill sets?

Journalists work in a competitive environment in a way that is at odds with other fields, especially open source technology and software. Reporters in particular compete not only against external rivals, but  against peers in their own organizations. Every day, they have the challenge of making their story the top story. Deep, meaningful collaboration typically occurs only in small units, if at all.


Sketch: News story timeline

News story timeline


That is why Al Jazeera’s open approach is particularly intriguing: Releasing content under a Creative Commons licence,  and beyond that, the tools it develops, as Mohamed Nanbhay said:

Open source is important to us.

It’s important that we put back into the public domain…

[and] leverage off of each other.


I strongly believe and have long argued that this is the best approach.

The biggest limitation on technology adoption in the newsroom is journalists’ willingness to use it, which is often a function of time and skill. As Mohamed Nanabhay noted:


The newsroom is fast-paced.

There’s not always time to sit back and reflect on how we use technology.

Realtime journalists: "We sometimes had almost two minutes' time before we had to publish."

The newsroom is fast-paced.


User-friendly, simple, easy and easy-to-understand collaboration is the core of my Investigate Net tool, the thin edge of a wedge to create a collaboration culture, even for technophobes. It uses familiar skills and behaviours to fill a need of journalists everywhere: Getting high-quality, reliable information, quickly, easily and cheaply — even for journalists who don’t know it’s a problem they have.

Open source, closed mind: News technology as cultural Trojan


Few developers understand the non-technical issues that go into an open-source project.

jQuery. Khan Academy


Dilbert: Another journalism major enters the workforce. Hired journalism major to walk around flapping arms to keep motion-controlled lgihts on.

What developers and engineers think of journalists .

A common theme has emerged among the Knight-Mozilla Lab lecturers: Culture, its dynamics and how we approach it will be our hardest task.

Every lecture has focused on or mentioned culture and related issues as a key point. Among them: John Resig on open source project development, management, community, and lessons from developing jQuery.

As he talked about the challenges, I couldn’t help but reflect on how starkly the open source development approach contrasts with news culture. The former is an open, accessible framework with a bottom-up, grassroots structure. The latter is a closed, restricted framework with a top-down, hierarchical structure.


Sketch: News is a reductive process

News is traditionally a reductive process that sheds people.


Although news organizations are starting to collaborate in a more open manner, even large ones may take a token approach, asking people to submit photos or to follow social media accounts.  I have little doubt that substantive collaboration and implementation  will be an issue for many — especially those who have not experienced or don’t understand news and journalist culture. I saw and experienced it where I worked. In particular, developers were the strange, mysterious wizards who made things work but journalists didn’t know how and were suspicious or indifferent to their ideas.

However, adding Resig’s principles will strengthen my project — a collaboration tool for journalists that bridges the industrialized and developing worlds — and could help it foster a more open, connected, community-driven culture by first extending the trust journalists have for professional peers.


Sketch: Software prototype development

Open source code and prototyping add people in process.



Resig raised important points, some of which are already elements of my project:

  • Understand what your users are trying to achieve. It will help you to create a better product. I talk to journalists all the time about their needs.
  • Make sign-up as painless as possible. It would require little more than a phone or fax number, or an e-mail address.
  • Treat every user as a potential contributor. The concept behind the tool is contribution, so it should be easy to migrate that behaviour to bug reports, documentation, feature requests, etc., per Resig.

Other points require further thought:

  • Make documentation as accessible as possible. I initially thought the tool would roll out to English-speakers first but now see that may limit uptake and introduce cultural bias into its design. Full documentation will have to be in multiple formats and languages.
  • Provide places for people to ask questions. My focus was so tight on my archetypal user, I didn’t consider all channels by which users might contact me. Set-up is underway.
  • Answer questions every day. You can’t be lazy about it. Now planned: Answering support questions.
  • Have an open process. Make decisions with public input from the community. I already take community input privately. This will expand as the project unfolds.

And, hopefully, change news culture.

News culture vs. sketch culture: On Aza Raskin on prototyping


The hardest part of software

— and design in general —

is neither design nor software.

It’s culture.

Aza Raskin



Aza Raskin | MozNewsLab Lecture - Prototyping and influenceAza Raskin: Prototyping and influence.


What Aza was talking about was change.

The hardest part of change is culture.

That’s what we’re trying to do: Change culture.

Why is it so hard? We’re creatures of habit.

For journalists, the rote, ritualized, status quo culture emerged because there can be serious, costly — even dire — consequences when one deviates.

It infiltrated my approach, which I didn’t realize until Aza’s talk.


Prototype culture vs. news culture


Aza Raskin | MozNewsLab Lecture - Prototyping principles

Aza Raskin on prototyping principles.


1. You are going to get it wrong the first time.

In journalism, it’s the reason a process and culture of verification emerged in news gathering, production and delivery. But there’s a premium on getting it right the first time.


2. Finish  the artifact in a day.

Journalists do this daily: We make multiple products (stories) combined into another (newspaper, broadcast, site, etc).


3. Iterate fast. Dogfood much.

News narrows vs. branching. It typically goes through many drafts until we think it’s right. We stake our careers on it.


4. It’s a sketch, don’t fill in all the lines.

This is where traditional journalism culture breaks down. Sketch culture, prototype culture and their processes are somewhat antithetical to journalism. Or, they were.

Now, a new ethic has emerged: Process journalism is an analogue to sketching. News is reported as it happens, before the full story is clear. It’s corrected and adjusted in process.


5. You will change the problems you are trying to solve.

In journalism, we answer a question: “What is the story?” It rarely changes.


6. Plan to throw it away.

This happens every day in news but not ideally. So it did in my process.


7. Steal it [visual design].

The journalistic equivalent is plagiarism. Forbidden. Career-killer.


My approach: Aza and me

After Aza’s lecture, I realized my approach was too rooted in journalistic tradition.

One of my first "sketches": Hyper detailed wireframe.

Doing it wrong: Hyper-detailed wireframe as a first "sketch."


1. I took my news challenge submissions as the answers before moving beyond ideas.

2. I hadn’t made an artifact for want of process and technical skill.

3. I hadn’t iterated beyond my original thinking. This ruled out dogfooding.

4. My sketching was more like layering: High-fidelity sketches rather than basic ones to test ideas.


MozNewsLab: Doing it wrong 2: Hyper-detailed sketch.

Doing it wrong 2: Hyper-detailed sketch for MozNewsLab


5. Instead of changing the problem I was trying to solve, I was driving toward solving the problem I convinced myself I’d defined.

6. Although I was conceptually prepared to throw everything away, in practice, I did the opposite: I kept everything as though I was constructing something defined.

7. I didn’t reach the (journalistically heretical) point of using another’s visual design, but it’s helpful to know it’s not only acceptable but encouraged.



Based on Aza Raskin’s lecture and the resultant observations on my own process, I decided that to get the most out of the lab, I should start a new project that applies the principles, lessons — and culture — gained along the way.

So, here I go:

Sketchbook and pens:  "You have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness." Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.

"You have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness." — Johnny Mnemonic /William Gibson