Redundant Collaboration – The Irony of Asking for Help and Creating More Work

If you were alive this weekend then you probably got wind of Sarah Palin’s emails. If you felt “engaged” then maybe you poured over them yourself. That’s because several news organizations including the New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post all scanned these documents and put them up for readers to scour over.

I tweeted: So NYT, WaPo + HuffPost are all crowdsourcing Sarah Palin’s emails. Great! But now we’re redundant in collaborative efforts. #slapsmyownface

I thought about writing more on this when I got home from IRE in Orlando, but life happens and I hoped the Tweet would suffice. Then I read Mandy Jenkins awesome post and got re-inspired. That’s right, I’m taking it old school to blogging instead of just tweeting.

From Mandy:

We all had boxes and boxes of printed emails of an ex-political official to go through. From the New York Times to Mother Jones/MSNBC/ProPublica, the Washington Post and my own employer – many national news sources spent enormous amounts of human capital to scan, upload, display, read, analyze and crowdsource Sarah Palin’s emails.

I remember back in 2006 working on Assignment Zero when “crowdsourcing” raised eyeballs and had people shaking their fists in the air. “Damn you kids and your crowdsourcing, get out of my news organization.” I certainly think it’s great that various entities had this natural motion to include readers. But I’m also a little concerned about a few trends here.

First and foremost as Mandy pointed out – there was serious overlap of effort. It’s great that almost every organization used DocumentCloud to upload the emails. But did we really need multiple instances of them? All of you could have agreed to lend one person to the scanning operation and cut your work load into a tenth.

Then the real “competition” could have gotten started which would involve a few things.

(a. User Interface. A huge part of any successful crowdsourced experiment is the user interface. I would love for somebody to do some research on all the crowdsourced experiments this weekend and do analysis on the various user interfaces created and what percentage of people got involved. That’s the kind of research that can help us figure out how to pin these things down in the future.

(b. We can get over the “cool” factor of crowdsourcing now and really think about the best ways to implement it and absorb the information flow back from readers.

There is an irony in all this (hence the title). The best use of crowdsourcing (or distributed reporting) is for stories that really can’t be done by one single person. The Sarah Palin emails are a classic example. It would be impossible for one person to read over all her emails in a weekend. But by not working together news organizations defeated part of the purpose of crowdsourcing. Instead of getting the information to the public asap, they each had their own folks scanning and uploading the documents creating more work for an individual ie: a bottleneck.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that crowdsourcing doesn’t mean “no work” for individuals. Ask anyone in these organizations and I’m confident there was TONS going on. As readers go over emails they contact the news organization and then there’s a bottleneck where a few people have to analyze the information they are getting back (granted it’s filtered info) from the public. Perhaps it goes without saying but just in case – collaboration can and often does create MORE work.

  • Collaboration REQUIRES transparency (hence my push for a transparent news process) and that means taking the time to communicate to the public about where in the reporting process we are.
  • Collaboration requires communication – where physical proximity is lacking communication must excel.
  • Collaboration requires listening – an ability to absorb information sent back.
  • ETC., ETC., ETC.,

I would argue that the main reason or thrust of collaboration with the public in this manner isn’t to minimize the workflow. Instead the aim is to collaborate with the public for the sake of collaboration. Because it is a descent and good thing to do. Because it engaged the public in their own democracy – in this case it literally gets them involved reading a former Governor’s emails (I just wish the representative didn’t have to be a semi-celebrity complete with reality TV show to get their attention).

Okay. Rant over – back to work.

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