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 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
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.
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.
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
- text messages
- and the reporting process.
It uses simple, form-based submissions to collect and disseminate information requests.
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.
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:
- Barriers to basic and critical information will be erased, letting journalists focus on developing deeper stories instead of scraping for simple facts.
- News organizations will be able to better allocate personnel and financial resources, save significantly on story-related costs and improve productivity.
- Journalists will be better linked, fostering work and co-productions.
- Journalists will gain information, and in the South, income, too.
- 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.
- 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.