Crowdsourcing exposes Mps’expenses
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.