Crowd­sourc­ing ex­poses Mps’ex­penses

The Bulletin - - News - BY ALEN DELIC

CROWD­SOURC­ING has taken off as a jour­nal­is­tic tool, and has led to the dis­cov­ery by Fair­fax Me­dia of ques­tion­able use of Aus­tralian par­lia­men­tary ex­penses.

The dis­clo­sure that West Aus­tralian Lib­eral MP Don Ran­dall had spent more than $5000 on re­turn flights from Perth to Cairns, where he had an in­vest­ment prop­erty, came not from a press re­lease, but from the hard work of news­pa­per read­ers.

The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald online ed­i­tor Conal Hanna said Fair­fax Me­dia had tapped into the power of crowd­sourc­ing, or the col­lec­tive wis­dom of its read­ers, to help fur­ther its in­ves­ti­ga­tions into claims of politi­cians’ wrong­ful use of ex­penses.

“We’d al­ready run a few front pages and top of the web­site sto­ries on [At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Ge­orge] Bran­dis and [Prime Min­is­ter Tony] Ab­bott, and as more and more [claims] started to drib­ble out, we re­alised it was worth con­tin­u­ing to delve into th­ese doc­u­ments,” Mr Hanna says.

Within a dig­i­tal story on the ex­pense claims, The SMH in­vited read­ers to go to the gov­ern­ment web­site where MPs’ ex­pense claims were listed and go through them.

“It made sense to of­fer our read­ers a chance to help out.”

Mr Hanna and his team es­tab­lished a sep­a­rate email ad­dress for the ex­er­cise, and the emails be­gan to flood in.

In those emails, one reader brought up Mr Ran­dall’s trip to Cairns.

Po­lit­i­cal reporter Jonathan Swan was put in con­tact with the reader who made the sub- mis­sion, and the story was born.

The ex­er­cise proved suc­cess­ful for Fair­fax Me­dia and helped draw upon the re­sources of hun­dreds of read­ers, comb­ing through thou­sands of lines of re­ports, and spend­ing time re­porters may not have had, Mr Hanna says.

“All you get is so-and-so took a flight on this date. You need to match that up with so-and-so’s wed­ding,” he says.

“You also need to know what they were up to at that time.

“It’s a bit of a fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion; you re­ally need to have a tip off that they were in town on this day.”

The Guardian news­pa­per in the UK was the trail­blazer for a sim­i­lar ex­er­cise when in 2009, it built a search­able data­base of ex­penses of Bri­tish MPs, and chal­lenged read­ers to find in­con­sis­ten­cies.

They up­loaded 458,832 doc­u­ments, and even though it did not man­age to find any­thing earth-shat­ter­ing, it opened the me­dia’s eyes to the po­ten­tial of crowd-sourc­ing.

It was another Guardian crowd-sourc­ing ex­per­i­ment that, in Fin­nish au­thor, jour­nal­ist, and aca­demic Jo­hanna Vehkoo’s eyes, helped con­firm its po­ten­tial.

In 2009, Guardian spe­cial projects ed­i­tor Paul Lewis cov­ered a G20 demon­stra­tion af­ter which a man, Ian Tom­lin­son was walk­ing home. On his way home, he was said to have fallen and died.

The po­lice said Mr Tom­lin­son suf­fered a heart at­tack; Mr Lewis didn’t be­lieve it.

Mr Lewis took to Twit­ter, and within six days, by en­gag­ing crowds at the G20 demon­stra­tions through known hash­tags, he man­aged to gather enough pho­to­graphic and video ev­i­dence to prove that Mr Tom­lin­son had been pushed by a po­lice of­fi­cer.

His foray into crowd-sourc­ing proved that it does not take un­lim­ited re­sources or time to make it suc­cess­ful, Ms Vehkoo says.

“All it takes is a clever jour­nal­ist who can build a com­mu­nity around his or her topic, or a par­tic­u­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” she says.

“All Paul Lewis needed to crack the Ian Tom­lin­son case was the trust of the peo­ple who were in a po­si­tion to help him.”

Crowd-sourc­ing works best when a jour­nal­ist taps into an ex­pert group or a com­mu­nity, but they must also be aware of po­ten­tial bi­ases and mo­ti­va­tions in th­ese groups.

For it to be truly suc­cess­ful, she says me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions need to re­alise the po­ten­tial of it while still be­ing wary of the po­ten­tial pit­falls.

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