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Summary:

Services like Instagram provide a huge trove of photos for traditional news outlets to enrich their coverage of major events like the election or Hurricane Sandy. A novel approach by NBC shows the opportunities and challenges of user photos.

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The election is days away and NBC News is marking the occasion with Electiongrams, a site of political images posted to popular photo-sharing service Instagram. NBC is using geo-tags to display the images on a state by state basis, and will post photos uploaded with terms like #obama2012, #romney or #vote.

The site has just launched and for now contains only a handful of photos, but this screenshot of photos submitted to Electiongrams by Georgia politicos gives you the basic idea:

The significance of Electionsgrams for NBC is that it gives the network another news tool for election night. But, on a broader level, the site also represents a new phase in citizen reporting.

It’s true that media outlets have long drawn on the voice of their viewers through Twitter or tools like CNN’s iReport. Electionsgrams, however, means that NBC and others can easily tap into photo-based reporting on an unprecedented scale. The flood of photos on the site provides a cheap and near-frictionless way for NBC to add color to its coverage and keep up with real time events.

According to Ryan Osborn, VP of Digital Innovation at NBC News, these new citizen submission tools are not a replacement for people on the ground but a “nice complement” to existing coverage.

Mass-scale photo reporting offers a new form of coverage but also creates new challenges for traditional news outlets: how to find the good stuff in the deluge of photos? And how to screen out the mischief-makers who will try to spam the system with ads, fake news or worse?

In the case of Electiongrams, NBC is relying on a start-up called Chute that provides back-end tools for large-scale photo management to brands and large media companies. Chute helps its clients pull in photos that people share through email or sites like Facebook, but also offers human and automated moderating tools.

According to CEO Ranvir Gujral, the Chute moderation tools are part of an enterprise solution for brands and big media companies that are trying to swim through the massive new stream of user photos flooding the internet.

A quick look at NBC’s Hurricane Sandy photo-sharing site, Stormgrams, shows the moderation is working – sort of. The state-by-state storm collages are largely free of ads but do contain a fair number of irrelevant pictures like this one:


This doesn’t mean NBC is on the wrong track, though. The company appears to recognize that sites Twitter and Instagram have come to influence major news events as much as any desk anchor or gumboot-wearing weatherman, and is responding appropriately.

NBC’s Ryan says sites like Electiongrams are part of a larger process in which news companies are using people-based platforms to news gather. “We use them as an early barometer,” he said, “and then the work for journalists begins.”

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  1. This is fascinating…citizen reporting based on picture taking and embedded geo data. Hash tagging as a polling mechanism is brilliant but only matters when backed up by geo data (not so easy to manipulate).

    What I like most is the filter this provides for the crush of social data…the hardest part in finding relevance. I’ll be checking in to see how well it works, and who knows, maybe taking a photo myself.

  2. Michael Baranovic Sunday, November 4, 2012

    Yep, I did a live curration of Hurricane Sandy Instagram hashtags using Nitrogr.am on the Mobile Photo Group Blog. Decent photos will still require human curation as shown by the poor quality of images and broken links on the Weather Chute site. Here’s our feed: http://mobilephotogroup.com/blog/

    1. Weathergrams and Electiongrams are powered by a product called SlideChute. It has pretty slick moderation tools, which make it pretty easy to weed out broken images pushed through the APIs.

  3. Thanks for this. Inspiring. We’ve created an Echo “iVoted” realtime stream via Chute here: http://echosandbox.com/ivoted/. Spread the word, and hashtag #ivoted, to visualize the vote! Add your own. RT, etc.

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