Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Times' cynical crowdsourcing attempt

When the Clinton's finally released their tax returns from the last seven years yesterday, the New York Times was quick to toss a analysis up on their website and their (generally pretty great) political blog, The Caucus. The report (both the original and the updated version now available) ended with this line:

More on this to come, as we examine the documents. In the meantime, dig in and let us know what you find

That call to the audience to help sift through the documents is a classic example of crowdsourcing, utilizing the power of the masses to achieve a result that would have been difficult without them. In this case, it would be possible to utilize the millions of eyeballs reading the times to nearly instantaneously read and analyze the hundreds of pages of tax returns There are many examples of news organizations (and others) trying things like this.

The Times echoed the call again this morning in the very first sentence of The Caucus's "early word" first-post-of-the-day entry:

As news organizations (and you) pore over the Clinton tax returns,

The "you" there is a link back to the original piece, and the original problem: There's no actual place to report your findings. Sure, you can post your findings in the comments section but then they're lost amid the typical sniping and posturing that goes on there. And does the Times really have someone checking in there for useful information? Doubtful. Instead, it's a cynical attempt to look savvy, but to pretty much ignore the many possibilities that are created when you open up to the crowd.

So how should they have done it?

Well a good page can be taken from WNYC's use of the crowd in analyzing Clinton's White House schedules. While they too simply had people post to the comments, they gave direction and organization (pick your birthday and look at the corresponding date in her schedule) and as a result got some usable information that stood out from the comment noise.

Even better would be to create a structure less anarchic than the randomness of comments. Why not build a simple database organized by year and page number that people could enter their findings into? It could even be dynamically linked to and from the corresponding pages in the PDF files the Times provides. That database would then be open to the public, but also could be used by reporters in their work--the very reporters who could then offer qualitative analysis of the raw data instead of having to create it themselves.

Instead, the reporters are left to do the heavy lifting themselves and the audience is once again left on the sidelines, another missed opportunity for something greater.