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April 18, 2012, 1:46 p.m.
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Who watches the watchmen? The Guardian crowdsources its investigation into online tracking

The paper embraces open journalism — and a new U.K. law — by showing readers what cookies it uses on its own site.

As Guardian journalists were preparing to launch their new investigative project on cookies and other online tools that track you around the web, they realized they had to figure out just what kind of trackers exist on their own website.

Turns out this isn’t an easy task. “There are so many legacy ones from us that we forgot about — we had to do some research,” said Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian.

Like many news sites, the Guardian has a mix of cookies — some for geotargeting where readers are, some for registering readers on the site, some for advertising, and more. The end result was this illuminating guide that lays itself over a story page and shows what cookies the Guardian uses. That kind of transparency fits with the Guardian’s embrace of what it calls open journalism, but it’s also an incentive for readers to uncover what kind of cookies follow them around the web. As part of their investigation, the Guardian wants readers to help guide their reporting by telling them what cookies they encounter in their day-to-day internet use. Thanks to Mozilla’s Collusion add-on, users will be able to track the trackers and then hand over that data to the Guardian.

“Essentially what we’re saying is, ‘You tell us what cookies you receive over the period you use this tool and we will find out which are the most prevalent cookies,'” Katz said. “We will do the work of finding out what they are and what they do.”

This week the Guardian is publishing Battle for the Internet, a series that looks at the future of the Internet and the players involved, from the private sector to governments, militaries, and activists. Cookies have an new significance because of a regulation passed last year that requires sites based in the U.K. to inform users they are being watched.

Joanna Geary, the digital development editor for the Guardian, said the idea is to go deep on cookies — not just what they do, but the companies behind them, what happens to the information they collect, and how they connect various parts of the web. Geary said the Collusion tool was perfect for this project because it not only tracks the trackers, but it provides a helpful — if not scary — illustration of how cookies work across various sites. “The Guardian being what it is, and being conscious of our commitment to open journalism, it felt like this was the right project to get our readers involved in,” she said. As for the Guardian’s own self-examination, “I think it would be weird if we had undergone any sort of crowdsourcing project without doing it,” she said. “We have the responsibility of telling people what we use on our site ourselves.”

Asking the crowd for help is a regular part of the Guardian’s playbook, and because of that they’ve learned a bit about what works and what doesn’t. Katz said a big part of success in crowdsourcing it the ease of contributing to a given project, whether you are asking someone to look at a document for a few minutes or put a pin on a map. This project could prove a bit more tricky since it requires downloading a browser add-on (that only works on Firefox) and later exporting data to the Guardian.

But just as important as the ease-of-use question is the motivation, Katz said. “You have to tap into an issue people are relatively fired up about,” he said. “You can’t sort of create that sense of urgency unless people already feel it.” Katz said people need to not only feel like they are making a difference — they also have to see their work in action. Katz admits that not all of the Guardian’s crowdsourcing efforts have been as successful as they hoped, saying the responsibility for that lies with the paper “when we have not reflected that work back in an interesting way.”

Katz said the graphics team will work on visualizations from the cookie data to display findings from readers. But the ultimate fate of any further reporting rests in what the audience finds. Instead of reporting out what it sees as problem cookies, the paper is asking readers to show what trackers are a growing part of daily life online. “It’s a genuine sort of combined enterprise, that both sides are bringing something to the party,” he said. “In this case, you bring the data and we’ll do the reporting.”

Image from Danny Sullivan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 18, 2012, 1:46 p.m.
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