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May 11, 2017, 10:56 a.m.
Audience & Social

Investigative outlet Correctiv crowdsourced data collection with the help of a local newsroom

Using its Crowd Newsroom platform, the German nonprofit teamed up with Ruhr Nachrichten, the daily newspaper in the city of Dortmund, to get residents to enter information on canceled classes in schools.

When the data you’re looking for to do your reporting doesn’t actually exist, consider collecting it yourselves — or, cast a wider net, and ask for help from those who live in the community whose issues you’re investigating.

German investigative nonprofit CORRECT!V (henceforth, Correctiv) recently wrapped up an investigation meant to address such an absence of reliable, centralized government data that could be made available through a FOI request around class cancellations in schools in the Germany city of Dortmund (connected to a shortage of teachers). The crowdsourced investigation asked Dortmund residents — from parents to teachers to students themselves — to help enter information into its Crowd Newsroom platform on cancellation of classes in Dortmund schools over the course of March. More than 520 participated, resulting in 3,552 class cancellations logged on the platform. Registered users remained anonymous on the platform, but other users could see the reported hours.

Correctiv has a team based in and focused on issues in North Rhine-Westphalia (the German state where Dortmund is located) and had also been looking to partner with a local newsroom on a deeper investigation. For this Crowd Newsroom effort, it was able to work with Ruhr Nachrichten, the daily newspaper in Dortmund, which aided in the reporting and, critically, helped get the word out to its readers, including sending signup information via printed mailings with an overview of the project and the Crowd Newsroom platform URL to the paper’s readers. (It also worked with two student newspapers that could use the data to write their own stories.)

A cancellation percentage already exists, based on spot checks by the Ministry of Education in North Rhine-Westphalia. But the number seemed too low to parents and students and others directly involved in the education system, though they were largely in the dark about how they compared to other schools in the state; moreover, the schools might have known that they’d be visited, which then might have led to fewer class cancellations on that day.

“The way we’d ask for numbers normally would be via FOIA requests, but we could not really ask the federal state for numbers, because there were no good numbers,” Jonathan Sachse, a Correctiv reporter and the staffer heading up the organization’s broader community engagement efforts. “So using Crowd Newsroom for this was a perfect match. It’s also a big topic in Germany when it comes to family policy — a lot of my colleagues have school-age children as well. Everybody was interested in getting closer to the actual numbers.”

An analysis of the data submitted through Crowd Newsroom painted a different picture from early government statistics. It seemed that the percentage of classes canceled in Dortmund schools was closer to double the earlier figure provided by the ministry of education (41 percent versus 20 percent). Here, the reporters emphasize these crowdsourced numbers are starting points, not perfect scientific inquiry.

As data collection progressed, Correctiv and Ruhr Nachrichten also began to get tips “from people inside the schools” who passed along letters indicating that the federal state had become aware of the reporting and began to collect from schools’ official data in response, according to Sachse. Midway through the crowdsourced process, “we were able to use FOIA to access from the ministry of education what didn’t exist before,” Sachse said. “I’m sure we can now start working with real official numbers.”

There was resistance to the overall approach, which Susanne Riese, who led the reporting on the Ruhr Nachrichten side, had to address concerns in a piece for Ruhr Nachrichten. Some felt that the project was essentially asking parents to tattletale on an overworked school staff. Others were concerned about methodological issues, such as individuals sabotaging data entry.

Correctiv addressed the second issue with two moderating layers. First, it sent data collected to individual schools directly each week and asked for confirmation and comment. Second, contributors were allowed to correct other users’ entries on Correctiv’s platform, which allowed the platform to operate “a little more like Wikipedia than classical fact-checking operations,” according to Sachse. (Practically speaking, it wasn’t likely that project participants, the majority of whom were parents, were out to mess with the platform.)

Schools was Correctiv’s second crowdsourced project via Crowd Newsroom. Its first involved helping community members reporting on their local banks. For that investigation, Correctiv staff checked all the data entered themselves. From the first investigation, Sachse said, Correctiv learned to limit the data collection period to about a month, treating it like a crowdfunding campaign, and to choose a very specific question (“How many classes had to be canceled?”) to keep the process simple for contributors.

Getting readers to participate in the reporting process, particularly in the collection of documents and data, isn’t new. Sachse gave a nod to ProPublica’s work, from its early Free the Files project examining political ad spending to its partnership with The Virginian-Pilot investigating the lasting impacts of Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. ICIJ created a database from the Panama Papers leaks (and Offshore Leaks and the Bahamas Leaks), encouraging interested users to flag notable names they come across when searching. Argentinian daily La Nación’s VozData platform also facilitates user checking of documents, with a twist — it includes a competitive ranking of users’ activities on its dashboard.

Correctiv, however, is now flush with Google Digital News Initiative money (a grant of €500,000 over three years), and hopes to build out its platform to serve a much wider community of both journalists and community members.

“We want to make this an open platform, though it’s a long way to go before it can be open sourced,” Sachse said. A small step toward that, though, he said, is to see if the crowdsourcing process used this time around for recording class cancellations could be done with other local newspapers in other regions. “That would be the middle term, and then in the long-term, make it more open. An eventually, but not this year, maybe start international investigations — that’s really long-term.”

POSTED     May 11, 2017, 10:56 a.m.
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