Crowdsourcing Project Exposes Politicians' Wrong Doings

Published Nov-07-11

Crowdsourcing project that allowed citizens to expose the misuse of public money by politicians.

The Guardian Newspaper, United Kingdom

The Story:

Crowdsourcing Project Exposes Politicians' Wrong Doings In 2009 crowdsourcing helped to blow the lid off the biggest political scandal to hit the UK in at least a decade.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper had obtained the expenses details of all members of parliament (MPs) going back four years and published widespread actual and alleged abuses of their permitted allowances. These included claims for mortgages on properties that no longer had mortgages, two films of a rather adult nature, luxury beds, and an array of designer goods and furniture.

As a result of the exposure a record number of MPs stood down from the House of Commons, and a handful of politicians were jailed, including members of the House of Lords.

A Piece of the Action

The juiciest stories and biggest exposes were published in the Telegraph, and unsurprisingly other newspapers wanted to get in on the act and make public wrongful use of taxpayers’ money.

As a result of a Freedom of Information Act request the House of Commons was forced to release thousands of MPs’ receipts. They totaled some 700,000 individual documents contained in 5,500 PDF files. This was a huge release of information and there was far too much of it for a few newspaper hacks to search through.

Unique Crowdsourcing Initiative

And so the Guardian newspaper launched a unique crowdsourcing initiative that enlisted members of the public to help analyze the data for journalists, and look for stories buried amongst all the photocopies of handwritten receipts. Using a system that the newspaper developed readers could search for their own MP or indeed any member of parliament and highlight expenses of interest and comment on them.

A specially created micro-website was the brainchild of head developer Simon Willison who had the idea of a crowdsourced approach to analyzing the claims just a few weeks before they were all due to be published.

Although journalism has been crowdsourced before the scale of the operation was unprecedented. More than 20,000 volunteers signed up and in the first 80 hours 170,000 documents were viewed, which represented a participation rate of 56%.

“We hope that many hands can make light work of the thousands of documents released by Parliament in relation to MPs’ expenses,” read a statement on the website. “We, and others – perhaps you? – are using these tools to review each document, decide whether it contains interesting information, and extract the key facts”.

Engaging the Public

Even though public anger at the behavior of their politicians was enormous, the newspaper couldn’t rely on that alone to keep volunteers engaged in ploughing through documents. So the website development team created an extremely user-friendly interface with four separate panels – “interesting,” “not interesting,” “interesting but known,” and “investigate this!” And there was even a competitive element with posts listing the top performing volunteers.

The crowdsourcing initiative was a success; the newspaper picked up a number of story splashes that didn’t cost them a packet, just the fee of a development team and the price of renting a few servers. It was a fascinating exercise that brought journalists and the public together to blow the whistle on the misdeeds of politicians.

Some of the ‘interesting’ individual discoveries from this crowdsourcing project included:

• A claim by one MP of £1,000 (approx USD $1,600) for a weekend’s
• A claim for tractor repair and grass cutting
• A claim of £225 (approx USD $360) for a new pen

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