Making news pay: a pressing issue

December 9th, 2010 by

microtask_press_newsThe newspaper business has always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the web. On the one hand, reporters now have instant access to the most magnificent research tool ever known to mankind. On the other hand, so does everybody else. Since 2007 an avalanche of free, online new sites (oh, and a global recession) have caused newspaper sales to plummet in the US and Europe.

Of course, some quality publications have managed to stay profitable through online advertising, but in general, making money online hasn’t proved easy for your average hardworking media mogul (witness Rupert Murdoch ranting at search engines). In an age where information is as prolific as a Nigerian email scam, is there anything the papers can do to get the crowd to pay for news?

War of the walls
The obvious solution is paywalls. Papers which appeal to the business community such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have had paywalls for a while, but it is Rupert Murdoch that has taken them to the masses with papers such as The Times (London’s oldest daily). This seems to be a trend, with the New York Times recently announcing plans to join its UK namesake in 2011 .

But is such an extreme measure, effectively blocking news out of the web altogether, really the best way for journalists to support their expense accounts families?

Sponsor a reporter
Answer, perhaps not. These days crowdfunding isn’t just for starry-eyed, indie bands. Serious, investigative journalists – crucial to a working democracy, but also awfully expensive – have started appealing directly to their readership. Political cartoonist and writer Ted Rall raised $26,000 so he could travel to, and report on the situation in, Afghanistan (not a move we’d recommend unless you’re an experienced foreign reporter).

Beyond such one-off projects is Spot.us, a news site entirely built on crowdfunded journalism. Reporters pitch a story, readers decide whether to invest. Finished stories are displayed (for free), and sold on whenever possible, with any profits go back to the crowdfunders.

Spot.us doesn’t just want your money, they want the crowd in on the action. Citizens can give suggestions of topics they’d like to see covered, and team up with reporters to help them complete assignments. The project even has its own little corner of distributed work (aww): if you can’t afford to donate money to the site, you can earn spot $ doing tasks for the site’s partner organizations.

Taking the news to task
I admit, reporters (not to speak of editors and owners) on more established newspapers might not like the idea of being told what to write by the crowd. But, if more and more “quality” news is going to end up behind walls, couldn’t The Times and co. at least give readers another way of getting through?

How about this: instead of paying for access (£1 per day for The Times), you could perform some microtasks? The majority of readers in the “developed” world – cash rich, time poor – would probably choose to pay the money rather than do the time. But in developing nations the tasks might seem quite attractive.

Personally, I suspect paywalls will end up as just one more ingredient in the online melting-pot of free, crowdsourced and paid-for journalism. Quality news is expensive to produce and must be paid for somehow. If they want to survive the information age, the grand old men of news might do worse than look to the crowd for a few ideas.


Revenge of the gamers: an epic win for the world

December 7th, 2010 by

microtask_epic_win“An ‘epic win’ is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible before you achieved it.” Jane McGonigal

As a teenager, I found most adults just couldn’t see the point of videogames. My own parents never seemed to grasp that games had moved on since the days of Pong and Space Invaders. Despite the obvious coolness of my virtual worlds, mom would perpetually storm up to my room and start yelling about irritating trivia like “school work”, “doing your chores”, and the so called “real world” waiting outside the damn door.

Now, at last, game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal has finally given me the argument I so desperately needed as a child (given I started with a Commodore 16 at age five, it’s been a long wait). Playing games can now help to save the real world.

Massive, multiplayer and misunderstood
Jane McGonigal argues that, far from the stereotype of the slack-jawed loner, videogame players are, in fact, engaged, active and motivated to collaborate with each other. Basically, gamers are better at operating in their virtual lives than most people are in their real ones (ignoring the bloodthirsty, megalomaniac nature of their virtual personas, of course).

The statistics are astounding. Globally, every week, people spend the equivalent of 3 billion days playing games. Since it was released in 2004, World of Warcraft devotees alone have racked up 5.93 million years of game play. The average young person, growing up in a game-playing country, will have spent 10,000 hours playing by the time they reach 21. It’s a whole parallel line of education, one that goes almost unnoticed by high schools and colleges.

Deep impacts
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell claims (now here’s a coincidence) that 10,000 hours of study is exactly the time it takes to become an expert in virtually any job or discipline. But if that’s the case, what exactly is it that 500 million gamers worldwide are so good at?

Jane McGonigal has some answers. Gamers are extremely self-motivated, able to weave tight-knit social networks, good at working hard (and enjoying it!) and addicted to “epic meaning” – great stories, in other words. This powerful mix creates a breed of super-empowered, hopeful individuals. The problem is, they think that they can only change virtual worlds, not the real one. (Blame their parents for this).

So the question is, how do we get gamers to use their phenomenal skill set and motivation to solve real world problems? The answer is simple: we create world-changing games for them to play. With a little help from videogame theorist Edward Castronova, that’s exactly what Jane McGonigal has set out to do.

One of her recent pilots, created in collaboration with the Institute for the Future, was the Superstruct Game. Superstruct works like massively multiplayer disaster movie – a crowd of gamers play together to invent solutions (superstructures) to crises that threaten the planet – from fuel shortages to the global exodus of refugees.

Far from being addicted to a “time wasting hobby” McGonigal’s work shows that gamers are a crowd of experts, ready, waiting and willing to use their skills to create epic wins for the future of the real world.

All of which finally allows me to prove my parents wrong – real life isn’t just outside the door, it’s flickering onscreen, right in front of us.


Can we crowdsource the planet better?

December 2nd, 2010 by

Australia 2 - climate change canvas by Oxfam International @ FlickrOn the surface, crowdsourcing and the environmental movement seem like a perfect match. By mobilizing the masses and directing their collective skills towards a problem, crowdsourcing should be a powerful weapon in the fight against threats such as global warming (or, for those who live in recently freezing Helsinki, the challenge to speed global warming up). So why does it sometimes feel – when it comes to distributed work in particular – like the green machine is still a bit of a wallflower?

Over the past year or so, we’ve all been dazzled by the spectacular partnerships between distributed work platforms and the developing world. But, while organizations such as Samasource and Txteagle have been busy making poverty history, what’s been going on when it comes to saving the planet?

Green Shoots
Answer: quite a lot, but still not quite as much as you might hope for…

Okay, for starters, there are sites that call on the crowd to donate spare processing power to the climate change cause (though surely this leads to the dilemma of whether to (a) leave the laptop running and donate, or (b) turn it off to reduce your carbon footprint). World community grid research a range of topics, from clean energy to disease prevention. Weatherathome meanwhile, is more strictly climate focused, using PC power to run ever more refined climate models.

Trying to get a little more out of the crowd is MIT’s Climate CoLab. The “Lab” runs crowdsourcing competitions where contestants submit proposals addressing specific environmental issues. While in theory anyone can enter, this is MIT so it’s definitely not “ideas on the back of an envelope” stuff, more like “ideas on the back of your doctoral thesis”, in fact.

Much closer to the idea of distributed work is IBM’s new iPhone app Creek Watch. Creek enthusiasts provide photos and info on the health of their local waterways; data is uploaded, mapped and shared with climate groups. Over in the UK, Oxford University has come up with Old Weather, an ingenious citizen-science project which gets online volunteers trawling through early 20th century naval records in search of climate data. Apparently, sailors used to record the weather on ship every four hours – not quite the tales of adventure on the high seas you’d hope to find in a captain’s log, but still…

An underdeveloped truth
Maybe it’s the sheer size and complexity of climate change but, while these projects are clearly well-intentioned, they do seem slightly lacking in serious ambition. There are some much bigger environmental players online such as Greenpeace and WWF but (other than some interesting crowd-campaigning from 350.org), as far as I know, they don’t seem to have taken very much creative action towards working with their crowd online.

Even so, I’m confident that in the next few years, someone – an inspirational individual, a charity, a group of charities – will harness the potential of the crowd to tackle the major environmental issues.

The green movement isn’t just a bunch of trained scientists, hippies and Al Gore; there’s also a huge amount of untapped, potential support. I’m thinking of younger people, confident online, who casually support climate change action. They’d probably be happy to spend a couple of minutes on a task to help the environment, but they wouldn’t necessarily go looking for one. To get them involved, the hardcore greens will have to reach out and integrate better online, particularly with social networks.

When it comes to saving the planet, the crowd is out there; the only trouble is figuring out how to put them to work.


Too fast, too furious? The app that’ll slow you down

November 29th, 2010 by

Still from Waze's videoThis November, in a “courageous” (i.e. likely to be unpopular) move, the Finnish Government started road testing a new breed of hi-tech speed cameras. Mounted on trailers, these cameras not only detect your speed but can also spot tailgating, undone seat belts and even overdue taxes. Basically, if you see one coming down the road, it’s time to belt up and ease off the gas.

While we might not like the idea of merciless robots clocking our every minor traffic infraction, dangerous drivers are a serious, well, danger, to us all.

As someone who’s driven in a few countries I think it’s safe to say that no matter where you live, there are morons who treat their cars more like weapons than a means of transport. People who think blind corners are the perfect place for 100km/h overtaking maneuvers and that icy roads are a reason to double your speed (snow chains? of course not, they’d spoil the fun!).

Speed Busters
Okay, rant over (brief pause for few deep breaths). In some places, the speed freaks are so bad that frustrated citizens have begun to take matters into their own hands. In New Zealand, the UK and the US, individuals – often equipped with only duct tape, silver foil and a burning sense of injustice – have been building homemade speed traps and dummy cameras.

Government response to such direct action has been mixed, with worry that these MacGyveresque creations will endanger motorists and pedestrians. Despite the publicity and government concern, it seems unlikely that this kind of vigilante behavior is ever going to make a real difference. Part of the problem is that most people are not willing to go this far (vigilante behavior has never really appealed to me at least).

Waze to get ahead
So, is there anything a little less risky the crowd could do to get motorists to kill their speed? Makers of iPhone and Android app Waze certainly seem to think so. Designed as a navigation and safety aid, Waze draws on a crowd of drivers to create a global map of real-time, constantly updated traffic information.

As you drive, the app’s GPS system tracks where you are and constantly uploads information onto the map: how fast the traffic’s moving, if you’re stuck in a queue. So, without lifting a finger from the wheel, every user is a participating member of the Waze crowd. You can also improve the app by uploading shots, reporting road conditions and fixing errors. It’s crowdsourcing at its best – taking highly localized knowledge and making it globally available.

Stop! In the name of the Crowd
It wouldn’t be hard to give Waze a little extra functionality – a database, say, with the license plates of persistently dangerous drivers. Imagine it: next time you see a BMW jump the lights, you could whip out your iPhone, and, in a single snap, have the number up online. (Failing that, iPhones make excellent projectiles.)

Reluctantly, I’d have to admit this might have a few issues such as cars on the database getting vandalized and people gaming the system. A less controversial option might be adding a button that uploads details of an incident instantly to the local police.

The beauty of Waze (compared to those all-seeing Finnish cameras) is that, as every driver who downloads the app is an active crowd member, it’s not an intrusion or an enemy. Maybe the crowd can’t (or shouldn’t) punish dangerous driving, but they might do something even better: help people choose to drive safely in the first place.


Riot in a crowded street

November 25th, 2010 by

Post SF Giants Riot walk to work by jpdefillippo138 @ FlickrOver the past year or so, Crowdsourcing has proved to be great in a crisis. As Ushahidi have shown in Haiti and Pakistan, with a decent software platform, you can channel the crowd into an efficient and powerful force for good.

But, as Yoda might put it: “power of the crowd, dark side it has”. If it’s possible to organize the crowd into fixing a crisis, what’s to stop someone doing the opposite? Imagine a shadowy, sinister figure (think Tyler Durden from Fight Club, only with a twitter account) who, at the click of a mouse, can incite thousands of virtual followers into carrying out his personal Project Mayhem.

Disco Inferno
Steve Dahl, a Chicago DJ in the late 70’s, would be electrified at the idea. Dahl was known for his outrageous stunts and burning hatred of all things disco (we can only speculate the reason for this disco-phobia, a traumatic childhood incident with a glitter ball perhaps?).

Tired of waging a lonely, one-man war against the bell bottomed lifestyle, in July 1979 Dahl set to work organizing Disco Demolition Night (a kind of giant flash mob) at Chicago baseball ground, Comiskey Park. On-air, Dahl rallied baseball fans to his cause by promising 98 cents entry to that week’s game for anyone who came with a disco record to sacrifice.

On the day, over 75,000 people showed up, armed with stacks of albums (which must have given the Bee Gees quite a healthy boost in sales). When the stadium’s firework team blew up crates of records the over-excited crowd went crazy, storming the field and creating a raging bonfire.

Be there or be (four)square
Fast forward to November 2nd 2010, the day residents of San Francisco decided to celebrate the Giants (another baseball team) World Series title with a little more (ahem) vigor than average. Tech savvy fans created a “Giants Riot” location on Foursquare. Around 300 people checked in with tips like “Pick up cars” and “Set things on fire!”. That night, live video and audio streams were followed by thousands online, while Twitter was bursting with hashtags like #sfsscanner and #sfriot.

The idea of cyber riots certainly gave the prophets of doom in the media something to write home about (a quick Google news search returned over 14,000 articles). But, as Mashable founder Pete Cashmore pointed out: “if San Franciscans instead chose to phone a friend…would we then decry the rise of cellphone rioting?” And, as Steve Dahl showed over 30 years ago, you can whip baseball fans into a Saturday night fever with nothing more than a radio.

My instinct says it’s not the tech that matters, but what you do with it (I’m aware that I’m starting to sound a bit like the NRA saying this). Take Foursquare itself: in November, as well as the rioters, the site was used by the American Red Cross to encourage blood donation and Feeding America to raise awareness about hunger relief over Thanksgiving. But still, it’s both inevitable and disturbing that, once you release powerful, mass management, crowdsourcing tools like Groundcrew and Foursquare, somebody, somewhere’s going to use them to mastermind riots and mobilize revolts. Of course, protest isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in some places – I’m thinking of Kashmir and Iran – you might want to give people all the help they can get.

Whether technology is harnessed for good or evil is up to us: only we decide where to lead, and who to follow. Once again, the future is in the hands of the crowd – let’s just hope it’s not a crowd made up entirely of baseball fans.



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