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.

First Sources Video: A secured transparency platform for video


The Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership is looking for ideas on how to reinvent journalism, especially on the Web. To that end, they’re running a series of challenges. The first focuses on “unlocking video“:


Video is a central part of many people’s daily news experience. But most online video is still stuck in a boring embedded box, like “TV on a web page,” separated from the rest of the page content. This offers little in the way of context or opportunities for viewers to engage more deeply.

New open video tools make it possible to pull data from across the web right into the story. Information related to the video can literally “pop” into the page. And videos themselves can change, dynamically adapting as stories evolve. The challenge is to use these tools in ways that serve the story. How can we enrich news video through things like added context, deeper viewer engagement, and the real time web? What are the untapped possibilities inherent in many-to-many, web video?

Here is my entry:

FIRST SOURCES VIDEO: A secured, open platform for crowdsourced, trusted, pseudonymized and anonymized video.


First Sources is a secured, transparent video dissemination system that can be deployed in any locale, to any degree of granularity to free not only journalists, citizens, whistleblowers and other people of conscience to act in the public interest, but governments and other institutions as well.

First Sources will enable people and organizations to securely submit video and information anonymously or pseudonymously in real-time or asynchronously from any device, to an openly accessible platform so journalists and citizens can collaborate to surface public-interest information on-demand, or that may otherwise remain submerged.

The core of this system would be the ability to transmit anonymized or pseudonymized video securely while enabling participants to issue alerts for supply and demand of geolocated news.

Later phases of the implementation would apply either real-time machine or crowdsourced translation and subtitles, and make it possible for journalists and the public to collaborate around video objects. This collaboration would include but not be limited to real-time discussion, remixing and creating contextual narrative using other openly available online resources such as status updates, knowledge resources such as Wikipedia, online news and more.

First Sources’ initial phase or iteration would be primarily enabled by Tor or a similar technology, HTML 5 video, Popcorn and Butter.


The partnerships between established and credible news organizations and the whistleblowing documents publisher WikiLeaks have dramatically reminded us of the power of documentary evidence to enable journalists to tell stories that alert and inform the citizens in a democratic society of how their public institutions operate — and of the news they don’t see. The bulk of this material is text, with notable exceptions such as the Collateral Murder video.

Waiting days, weeks, months or years for troves of text to be released poses a problem not only for dissemination of news and information needed in the present, but for consumption, comprehension and action: Humans are visual creatures.

One need only look at the movements for change boiling up across the Arab world to see the power of information, networked communications and bearing witness in person or from afar. Video is a key part of this equation.

The risk to those who would supply this video, real-time or short-term reportage and information is great.

First Sources is a secured, transparent video dissemination system that can be deployed in any locale, to any degree of granularity to free not only journalists, citizens, whistleblowers and other people of conscience to act in the public interest, but governments and other institutions, too.

First Sources will enable people and organizations to securely submit video and information anonymously or pseudonymously in real-time or asynchronously from any device, to an openly accessible platform so journalists and citizens can collaborate to surface public-interest information on-demand, or that may otherwise remain submerged.

Similarly, enlightened governments and other institutions could use such a platform to proactively release video and information to create and sustain an atmosphere of public transparency. By doing so, citizens could anonymously or pseudonymously retrieve the released video without fear of being monitored and its potential consequences.

By combining and automating the secured identity anonymizing/pseudonymizing function within the system, it helps to ensure that journalists, witnesses, whistleblowers or users of that video receive the maximum possible identity protection and minimizes the potential for reprisals.

Once deployed, the system would be openly accessible by members of the public, or a journalist could give a source a dynamically generated invitation key. This would also provide a secure channel for sources and journalists to communicate with each other.
Alerts for supply and demand of geolocated news would make it possible for journalists and the public to collaborate around video objects in real-time discussion, remix, and contextual federated narrative.

A virtual currency or scrip exchangeable across publishers using the platform could reward the public for contributing.

First Sources would bring global and national scale video-based transparency down to the state, provincial, city or even town or community level. The same kind of transparency enabled by international and national news organizations reporting on openly available original source video would be available to anyone at any level.