The Future of News: Mobilizing the Masses to Write the First Draft of History

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post since February when I presented Ushahidi to BBC, CNN, UK Guardian and Channel4 in London. A session we just had at Foo Camp East made me realize it’s high time I write this.

The idea I pitched to CNN et al. was as follows: use a dedicated Ushahidi smart phone app that allows anyone to be a real-time iReporter. You download the app and allow CNN to know your location (although you can decide whether that’s within a 10-mile, 1-mile, 100 yards etc radius). As the CNN newsroom gets wind of a new potentially news-worthy incident, they just press the “red button”.

This red button sends out a message to all mobile iReporters within, say, 100 yards of where the incident took place asking them to take a quick picture if they happen to be just around the block. These users—turned volunteer CNN citizen journalists—can then be mobilized to report in near real-time. They could send in geo-referenced pictures annotated with comments and video footage of unfolding events.

I think this kind of app would appeal to many would-be citizen journalists. It costs nothing, just download to your smart phone so that if you ever find yourself at the right place at the right time then you know your breaking news picture may make it to CNN. There could be additional incentives like the number of reports you’ve submitted to CNN following a request. In other words, you could turn this into a quasi-competition or game. Yearly awards could be given out.

Ideally, you’d have a dozen citizens respond to the red button call, scrambling to be the first on site to take the picture, or to be the one who takes the best picture of the incident. This would allow CNN to triangulate the incoming information, possibly creating a Photosynth product updated in real-time. Comments (ie, captions that come with the pictures) could also be cross-validated for reliability purposes. Here’s a 3D rendering of Venice using Photosynth:

One other use-case for this Ushahidi mobile app would be for users to submit pictures/reports without being solicited by CNN. In fact, more often than not, these mobile iReporters are likely to be the first to break the news of an incident to CNN—rather than the other way around. Once an iReporter does this and CNN receives the geo-located picture, they can press the red button to mobilize other would-be iReporters to the scene.

This is why I love citing the Ushahidi article that my New York Times colleague Anand wrote up earlier this year. The screen shot below from the Ushahidi-Haiti deployment literally illustrates the reasoning behind Anand’s question: “Will the triangulated crisis map be regarded as the new first draft of history?” The beauty of crowdsourcing is that it opens the floodgates of information. This means more and more witnesses can capture evidence of the same historical events unfolding. In other words, there is overlap and the triangulated map becomes possible.

The key word for me in Anand’s quote is “draft”. History is now a draft, not a finished product, but a work in progress—and one that is now written (and corrected) by the crowd. Anand adds, “They say that history is written by the victors. But now, before the victors win, there is a fresh chance to scream out, with a text message that will not vanish.” I’d go even further and say that the crowd can now be the victors by being  mobile iReporters.

Think of these smart phone apps as the “seismographs” for crises. This allows users to form a veritable real-time, real-space human sensor web—or as Secretary Clinton describes it, “a new nervous system for the planet.”

Of course there are liability issues with mobilizing the masses to write the first draft(s) of history. So disclaimers will be necessary. For example, do not try and cover a story if this places in you physical danger or psychological harm. You’d probably have to give up all rights to the picture/text you submit, but at least you’d have your name credited on CNN.

Patrick Philippe Meier

6 responses to “The Future of News: Mobilizing the Masses to Write the First Draft of History

  1. Just thinking aloud here….

    Taking this post and your thought about the difficulties of falsifying crowdsourcing together, I wonder if “the people” may not be threatening to oppress themselves through some sort of crowd-sourced panopticon. I don’t want a government that “sees everything.” By the same token, I don’t want “everyone” to “see everything” either. Either one, it seems to me, is a recipe for disaster.

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  6. Great idea. But I wouldn’t have recommended it a year ago in Massachusetts, a civilian was trying to record an arrest by Police. It violates State wiretapping laws if audio and video are used by a citizen in ANY device. That law is falling apart after several cases where the DA refused to prosecute and 1st Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a case. Currently before State Legislature is a bill to overhaul its Wiretapping laws (hang on, could get worse, not better), which were instituted in 1968. But some states still have antiquated laws on their books, namely Illinois – so be careful.

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