Every murder draws a crowd: Homicide Watch DC

November 26th, 2012 by

microtask_crimescene“Homicide Watch DC” sounds like a cop drama, and to be honest it’s got the makings of a police procedural (especially for those of us familiar with the 5th season of The Wire). Instead Homicide Watch is a crowdfunded, crowdsourced reporting project, covering every homicide in the District of Colombia.

This claim is so bold as to almost be suspect. More than a hundred people are murdered in the US capital every year. That’s a huge number of stories, requiring an awful lot of information.

This information is partly official reports and court documents, but much of it comes from the crowd. Using social media and the help of the friends, families and neighbors of victims (and suspects), Homicide Watch puts together a lucid portrait of every homicide.

A database for the dead

Homicide Watch isn’t organized like a typical newspaper. Instead, the site is more like a database or wiki. Each victim is assigned their own page, where information related to their case is collated. This includes, crucially, a memorial and comments section where the community can contribute to the database and remember the dead.

The site’s popularity is evident from the $40,000 it recently raised in a Kickstarter campaign. This means at least for now, it has enough money to carry on (before the campaign they came dangerously close to disappearing).

Homicide Watch definitely contributes to homicide investigations, but it would be naive to hope for Hollywood results. Homicide Watch won’t be premiering on CBS anytime soon, although considering how glamorous CSI managed to make laboratory work, I wouldn’t put it past them. In fact, the website isn’t really about fighting crime (that’s for professionals, and Batman), but more about commenting on it, remembering it and making it accessible to the public.

A new beat for journalism

What makes Homicide Watch significant (aside from its motives, which are unquestionable) is what it might mean for journalism. Editor Laura Amico has described Homicide Watch as data-driven beat reporting built on a framework. This model – gathering data from the crowd into a database and then using it to construct ongoing journalism – is important for two distinct reasons.

First, the idea could be far-reaching in terms of applicability. Amico has suggested applying the approach to other issues, such as medical journalism. If Homicide Watch turns out to be an enduring success, who know how many different areas could benefit from it?

Secondly, it makes up for the deficiencies and biases that have long been evident in reporting. Commenting on Homicide Watch, American writer Clay Shirky points out that “The old saying for New York papers was not to bother covering murders north of 96th street, where the victims were almost certainly black… news organizations aren’t generally in the business of introducing their readers to the realities of life elsewhere in their town.”

Homicide Watch covers everything, without favor. Journalism on this scale – and with this level of inclusiveness – has rarely been attempted, especially in an age where traditional beat journalism is fading, as physical media struggles to increase readership.

In this respect, Homicide Watch does more than fight crime and provide a memorial to victims. It’s also keeping local beat reporting alive. Actually, when you put it like that, maybe there is a TV show in there after all.