Guardian calls on people power to investigate MPs

June 24, 2009

How do you sift through tens of thousands of detailed documents and individual receipts with a view to highlighting the weird and the potentially unlawful?

Well, if you are the Daily Telegraph trying to dig around MPs’ expenses, you assemble a 45-strong team of journalists and lawyers, lock them in a secure room and tell them they can’t come out until they have gathered enough material for several weeks’ worth of daily coverage, plus a 68-page weekend supplement. The result is probable caffeine dependency for many of the team involved and a sales boost of a reported 150,000 copies for the supplement.

An alternative is to lock 15 web developers in a room with the instruction to build a new web framework that will enable thousands of members of the public to scrutinise official documents released by Parliament. This approach, which I must admit is new to me, known as crowd sourcing” was chosen by the Guardian. To date, about 180,000 pages have been viewed by 21,000 people.

Of course, opinion is divided on the merits of scrutiny by online citizenry. The Daily Telegraph has been sniffy, saying such an exercise lacks rigour; “great journalism takes discipline and training” a Telegraph blogger insists (you could also add an XL-sized chequebook in the case of MPs’ expenses). The Guardian maintains that crowd sourcing is hugely innovative and empowers “citizen journalists”. As newspaper editorial budgets are squeezed and the potential of online communities is tapped, I suspect we will see increased use of crowd sourcing-type techniques.