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The good citizen journalist

Will citizen publishing of digital information trump online news?

Digital platforms are popping up everywhere. Much attention focuses on social media services like Facebook where millions of citizens, young and old, are publishing their stories. But digital media platforms are making it possible for people to analyze data and apply it to solve economic and social problems. In the days of printed news and today’s online news, publishers aim to provide stories that give citizens information they need to decide whether to take action. Networked journalism is becoming familiar as are events like Wikileaks when secret information is dumped into the public sphere. 

But something bigger is happening. Digital platforms are supporting efforts by governments to be more transparent by making digital information accessible to people who can remix it and make it meaningful for action. In the US, the Open Government Initiative aims to promote transparency and citizen engagement and to release data for entrepreneurs to develop. In the UK, the government is launching the Open Data Institute. This will let entrepreneurs reconfigure public data on weather, transport or crime to build commercial businesses and stimulate economic growth. Government funding will train people who can analyze and publish digital information for many social and economic purposes. 

Open data – not subject to costly licenses for access – is part of a growing phenomenon where citizens depend, not on government, but on their own production of digital information to tell stories. Crowdsourcing, using digital platforms, does not need to involve paid contributors (although it sometimes does in the case of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk). It does not require professional training as a journalist or data analyst. It seems to work faster than traditional publishing to galvanize people into social action.

Rumour, raw and verified information are mixed together. The aim is to create an informed public, but also to provoke a reaction. Crowdsourcing is an example of new ways of imagining the Internet. Citizen/activists are swarming to respond to emergencies in ways that the press and NGOs find increasingly hard to do; humanitarian stories often fail to elicit action.

An example is Russian-Fires Help Map set up when lives were threatened by forest fires in Russia. An open digital platform called Ushahidi let people map the location of fires, offer help and provide information about aid centres, long before government authorities acted. The information had to be moderated and checked for accuracy and this was done by volunteers.

Another example is Liza Alert which mobilizes volunteers to look for lost children and adults. An application with official support in the US is PulsePoint which alerts people when someone needs resuscitation close to their location before emergency services arrive.

Combined with social media, including Twitter and mobile text messages, this way of publishing information is very timely and seems to provoke widespread voluntary reaction. Research is badly needed on this proliferating form of citizen action. If open data digital media are really so effective in galvanizing responses to social problems, not just crises, then public policy should support them as a complement to high profile government sponsored open data initiatives.