Using the intelligence of the crowd – Q&A with Brown Institute’s Tanja Aitamurto

One of the findings she told Ulrike Langer about is this: “Publishers and journalists are often eager to try something new, but often don’t have a long-term vision about how to sustain and integrate innovations after the first experiments are over.”

Tanja will be at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin, taking place from 20-22 March 2016 (the main Summit is on 21 and 22 March). See the preliminary programme, speakers confirmed so far and/or register to attend.

In your research, you have defined “crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and co-creation as methods for tapping into the collective intelligence of the crowd(s)”. In a nutshell: How does this happen?

Let’s take an example. When a journalist wants to tap to the collective intelligence of the crowds, she or he can use open journalistic practices to support knowledge search for the article the journalist is working on. Open journalistic practices require a certain degree of transparency and openness to function. One of these practices is crowdsourcing. 

How does it work?

The journalist can ask the crowd to share information that is useful in the journalist’s investigation. The journalist then processes the data further (e.g. by doing required fact-checking, etc.), synthesises it and can use the crowd-generated information in the story process. The journalist can also ask the crowd to complete small tasks, such as looking for information in documents and so on, to advance the investigation. When the conditions are right, the crowd can help the journalist to accomplish investigations that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. 

How does it influence new product design, especially in media?

Open journalistic practices bring new possibilities for journalism as knowledge search and audience engagement methods. These methods can be also used in new product development in media, for example in developing new publication concepts, story types, and digital products. This happens by doing needfinding, one of the core elements in human-centered design, in mass-scale online with the crowd. When we find the readers’ needs early in the process and design solutions for those needs, the success of the new products is more likely to be better than if we design products for a hypothetical, imaginary user.

How can news publishers use your findings? 

With the help of my research findings, journalists and publishers can use the best practices in crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and co-creation, and innovate new ways for using those methods. They learn the ins and outs of the methods, for instance: What drives the crowd, i.e. what are the crowd’s motivation factors, and how to strengthen those incentives for participation.

Journalists for the most part still research behind closed walls, then publish their stories and then involve the audience. Should they reverse the process? 

It always depends on the case and what the need for open journalistic practices in the story process are. Crowdsourcing and other open journalistic practices should be used only when they create additional value for journalism. Sometimes it is useful to apply crowdsourcing, for instance, this can be the case when the data the journalists need cannot be gathered otherwise, as was the case in the crowdsourced mortgage interest investigation in Sweden.

How did they do it?

The only way for the newsroom to map Swedes’ mortgage interest rates was to ask the crowd to submit their interest rates on the newspaper’s crowdmap. The crowdmapping initiative, set up by a leading daily newspaper in Sweden, resulted to 50,000 submissions.

The crowd can come handy also when there are thousands of documents to read, and the journalists can’t complete such a large amount of work on their own. The investigation wouldn’t happen without the crowd’s help. But in many cases, the journalist can acquire the desired information for her or his story without the crowd, and using crowdsourcing or other innovative methods doesn’t provide any additional value. 

Are there inherent risks in this approach?

We have to remember that open journalistic practices come with several complications, too, and those need to be taken into account when deciding whether to use the methods. For instance, sometimes crowdsourced information can’t be fact-checked, which leads to a huge conundrum for journalists: should they risk data veracity, or leave the story unpublished? This was one of the challenges in the mortgage rate investigation in Sweden.

What are some good examples of publishers tapping into collective intelligence and getting the most out of it? 

There are several cases, just to mention some: The crowdsourced mortgage interest rate investigation in Sweden, by Svenska Dagbladet, as described above. In another successful case, a Finnish investigative journalist crowdsourced his stock short-selling investigation. As a result, he received a tip, which lead to a nationwide scoop revealing a questionable holding company arrangement for tax evasion, set up by executives in a large Finnish bank. One of the executives was fired when the news came out, and the journalist received an award for the story. There are several other cases in which crowdsourcing has strengthened reader-relationship and served as an efficient knowledge search methods.  

How would you judge the adaptability of publishers to implement new technologies in comparison to policy makers or other institutions you have advised and worked with?

Publishers and journalists are often eager to try something new, whereas governments can be slower to adopt innovations. However, publishers often don’t have a long-term vision about how to sustain and integrate innovations after the first experiments are over. Governments can be better in institutionalising things and doing long-term planning.

What other trends do you see in media innovation?

Virtual reality (VR) as a medium in journalism is becoming really big really fast. There’s a multitude of 360-degree journalistic content out there, and the technology is advancing really fast here in Silicon Valley. There are many innovative ways to tell stories with VR, and I’m very excited about the VR space. There’s much more to come. Innovative new models in crowdfunding for journalism are also being explored, and there’s been some success

Links and comments:

Tanja Aitamurto’s personal website

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford

For the full description of crowdsourced mortgage interest investigation in Sweden, see Aitamurto, 2015: “Crowdsourcing as a knowledge search method in digital journalism: Ruptured ideals and blended responsibility.” Digital Journalism. )

More cases of publishers tapping into collective intelligence can be found in Tanja Aitamurto’s publications:

Aitamurto, T. (2015) “Motivation factors in crowdsourced journalism: Social Impact, social change, and peer learning.” International Journal of Communication. 9 (2015), 3523–3543, and Aitamurto, T. (2013) “Balancing Between Open and Closed: Co–creation in Magazine Journalism.” Digital Journalism. 1 (2) pp. 229–251.

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