Open Innovation: DocumentCloud

Published Oct-22-09

An online news archive to make primary source material more findable, shareable and searchable for journalists and the public. It could revolutionize the way investigative news stories are made.

Eric Umansky, Scott Klein, Aron Pilhofer, Ben Koski, United States

The Story:

Open Innovation: DocumentCloud First there were newspapers, then television, and now it’s the Internet. The media landscape is moving fast with new technologies forever changing the way that news is delivered and received. News headlines reach us via social networking sites, cell phones, and handheld digital devices every minute of the day wherever we are in the world.

In our 24 hour multimedia age the challenge for news programs is to maintain editorial standards of truth, accuracy, and balance whilst also harnessing the power and reach of new and emerging digital technologies. Plus, news is no longer a passive genre; people want to have their say, they want to debate with newsmakers and provide their insights into regional, national, and global events. Media companies who understand and embrace this will survive whilst those who do not will struggle. But there isn’t a single company out there that has all the answers.

News Needs Innovation

News reporting is just like any other enterprise; it needs innovation to survive. Realizing this has spurred on the Knight Foundation which fosters innovation and experimentation in journalism. It created the Knight News Challenge to help people use new digital tools to inform their lives and to run their communities. It is a five-year $25 million contest that awards $5 million each year for media innovation.

The winner of the biggest award in 2009 was a small group of journalists from ProPublica and the New York Times who came up with a project to build and maintain a crowd-sourced database full of primary source material. It’s called DocumentCloud and could become a vital journalism tool.

Fact Checking

The pressure on journalists to generate news is more intense now than it has ever been at any other point in history. But what this means is that sometimes in the rush to get a story published some reporters are not fully checking their facts; they are not making that one final phone call or record check to validate their report. DocumentCloud is a way of bringing due diligence back to the industry.

The information will come from a variety of sources such as newspapers and documents that can already be found on the Internet. But this innovative online database will organize them in a structured and easily searchable way. The material will be available to journalists, bloggers, lobby groups, and the general public.

Making Life Easier

DocumentCloud should make the life of an investigative reporter much easier. A hard-hitting news story is built from months of intensive research. Documents are poured over, links are made, and a narrative appears. And then the story fades and all the documents, reports, graphs and statistics are left to gather dust at the back of a cupboard, never to see the light of day again. This is frustrating for anyone who would want to use this research material for new reports. The material has a life beyond just one story.

Although some journalists and bloggers do post their source material they become hard to find when the story goes away.

The creators of DocumentCloud are developing a technology to do away with all this to salvage valuable primary source material that would otherwise be lost.

The project received $719,50O prize money from the Knight News Foundation and it will be spread over two years as the system is being developed. Ultimately users will be able to search for documents by date, topic, person, or location and the software will make it easier to create links and relationships that are not usually evident by simple text searches.

The documents will not be held on DocumentCloud computers; they will store information about them and link to files on the servers of source organizations. The technology will also convert PDFs into more user-friendly data.

A beta version of DocumentCloud is due to be launched in 2010.

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