We’ve seen some fascinating experiments by both professional and amateur journalists in crowd-sourcing the news in real-time, including Andy Carvin’s groundbreaking use of Twitter during the Arab Spring and the pioneering work of British blogger Brown Moses. What if there was a dedicated platform (other than Twitter) for harnessing the knowledge of the crowd about breaking news events? That’s what Austen Allred is trying to build with Grasswire: a kind of Wikipedia-style platform for real-time news.
As it stands now, the site is essentially an automated system for pulling in Twitter posts and images related to the upheaval in Ukraine and in Syria, which it displays in a stream that can be ranked either by recency or relevance. Each update also includes a “fact check” feature, which allows anyone to submit a report stating why they believe the information or the image to be true or untrue, with supporting links or documentation. Its founder said the site will soon include YouTube videos and images from Instagram as well as other social-media sources.
Allred — who has no formal training in journalism, apart from a few courses he took in communications before dropping out just shy of completing his degree — said in an interview that the work done by both Carvin and Brown Moses has been part of the inspiration for Grasswire. But more than anything else, his desire to build the platform stems from his experiences living in Ukraine and China, and being unable to get any useful information from mainstream sources.
“When I was in China, I was supposed to take a bullet train from Shanghai, and it wound up colliding with another train and a bunch of people died, but the Chinese government tried to cover it up. I was really frustrated at the time, because I wondered why I couldn’t hear from any of the thousands of people on the train about what was going on.”
Building a tool for people-powered news
That same feeling occurred to him in Ukraine during some of the political turmoil that occurred when he lived there, Allred said, and watching what Carvin did with Twitter during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia cemented his decision to help people crowdsource breaking news. The original iteration of what would become Grasswire was devoted primarily to news articles, but eventually Allred says he decided to focus on somehow aggregating the whole gamut of news content — from photos and videos to tweets and blog posts.
Watching a news event like the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. in 2012 helped reinforce what might be possible, Allred says: He opened a tab in his browser for every potential social-media information source, from Flickr and YouTube to Twitter and Instagram, and ran simultaneous live searches for hashtags or keywords related to the shooting. Although there was some incorrect information, he said the sheer volume of fascinating content that was available convinced him there was a need for something like Grasswire:
“It was really powerful, because it was all coming from people who were there — it made reading the New York Times feel like reading a textbook. You could really see the feeling and the emotion that was happening, and understand the fear and confusion, whereas if you went to a newspaper it would just be very matter-of-fact: “A man opened fire in a theater, this many people died, etc.”
Allred says that much of the inspiration for Grasswire — which he freely admits is still a very rough-looking beta — has also come from being involved with a number of breaking-news forums on Reddit, including the Syrian Civil War forum, which has been using new tools for live reporting of the events there. “I’m a very active Reddit user, and I work with some of the guys on the Ukrainian conflict and Syrian civil war threads,” says Allred. “We’re trying to build what those guys would really want, the social-discovery platform or engine they don’t have.”
Everyone has the power to report and verify
One of the things that makes Reddit less than useful for reporting or verifying breaking news, Allred says, is the fact that the platform only allows for up-votes and down-votes, and this isn’t a very practical or effective way of stamping out incorrect information. This became especially obvious during the Boston bombings, when an attempt to identify the bombers went badly awry — an incident that seemed to sour many observers (especially professional journalists) on the whole idea of crowdsourcing breaking news. Allred said the fact-checking tool is designed to make it easier to correct early or erroneous reports.
But won’t the system be over-run by hoaxes and misinformation? Allred doesn’t think so — at least, not if enough eyeballs and users are involved in checking it, which is why he is trying hard to improve the design and functionality of the site. And to those who believe that non-professionals and everyday users can’t perform such tasks reliably, Allred points to the success of Wikipedia, which almost everyone initially thought was doomed.
“Instead of giving journalists better tools, our feeling is there’s not really that big a difference between everyday people and journalists, so we’d rather give everyone the tools… one of the most dangerous things to journalism, and I say this with the greatest respect for journalists, is the hubris they have. I think journalists are vastly underestimating the power of the average person, especially when it comes in numbers.”
What Grasswire needs to do, Allred says, is improve the tools and explanation on the site so that users know what they can or should do with the service, and to that end he has closed a small seed round from an investment fund. But despite the apparent enormity of the task — creating a site that will allow the crowd to curate and verify breaking news from around the world — Allred is committed to the idea (committed enough to live in his car). “I feel like it’s something that needs to exist, something that has to happen, and I think that someone will eventually create it. But since it doesn’t seem to be happening, I am trying to be the one that does it.”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen