ProPublica Demonstrates The Benefits Of Crowdsourcing

propublica loan mod.jpgNow on to crowdsourcing, which is more than just asking your Twitter friends for restaurant recommendations. It can also be a helpful tool for journalism, wherein reporters cull information and data from groups of people on the ground and in the know.

Perhaps one of the best examples of crowdsourcing was The Huffington Post’s 2008 “Off The Bus” election coverage, and this year nonprofit investigative news org ProPublica tapped that project’s mastermind, Amanda Michel to lead their own crowdsourcing efforts.

Now, ProPublica is using crowdsourcing to gather information for a number of projects, including tracking the government’s various stimulus projects around the country and keeping tabs on the national load modification program. ProPublica reporter Paul Kiel is heading the loan mod project, and he spoke to FishbowlNY about the stories that have come out of their crowdsourced questionnaire and how crowdsourcing can be used as a tool by traditional news organizations.

Kiel said ProPublica’s loan mod crowdsourcing project started soon after the program launched, around May of this year. The organization posted a short questionnaire, asking readers whether they tried to apply for loan modifications and what their experiences were. “We’ve had about 300 responses over the last few months,” he explained. “We keep tabs on it and get in touch with people from time to time. It’s led to about two dozen stories, and I’ve used people who we’ve gotten through our crowdsourcing as sources for those stories.”

Although crowdsourcing isn’t ideal for every type of story, it works especially well with respect to the loan mod project because people who are involved in the government program are usually well-educated on the subject matter and come across ProPublica while searching the Internet for more information about the program, Kiel said. “This involves people very actively working to save their homes,” he added. “These people tend to be very well-informed because it’s their house.”

Through the use of crowdsourcing, Kiel has been able to track the biggest stories coming out of the loan mod program, from the challenges people faced when applying to the regulation (or lack thereof) of loan servicers. And ProPublica plans to continue to track the program to gauge its long term effects.

Kiel says the crowdsourced material has been a good tool for supplementing his reporting but it hasn’t completely replaced traditional reporting for him.

“Our general attitude is that it’s a great tool,” he said. “Traditionally, the way I would do this reporting would be to call housing counselors, which I do anyway, but this takes out the middle man. And it makes it easier to get in touch with the borrower directly.”

It’s a model traditional news organizations can use, and should be using, in order to find trends and better sources. “It’s easy,” Kiel said, offering some advice to traditional outlets. “It’s a great resource, so there is really no reason not to do it. I know they have the capability. It’s just a way to better access information and create a clear connection to readers.”

Through crowdsourcing, Kiel said he has gained “a very good handle on what’s going on.”

“I’m not at the mercy of anyone else’s agenda or what they think should be happening. I feel very rooted in what is going on out there. Oftentimes, things will come up which will make me question why the loan mod program is structured in such a way, and that will lead to additional reporting. It’s a more efficient way of reporting, although it doesn’t replace the traditional reporting.”

See all of Kiel’s loan mod reporting here.

Previously: What’s Next In Citizen Journalism: 4 Questions For ProPublica’s Amanda Michel