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The Power of the Public Insight Network: A Do-It-Yourself Way to Crowdsource

The Power of the Public Insight Network: A Do-It-Yourself Way to Crowdsource

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In last weekend's PubCampWest, an "unconference" for public media, a big chunk of the conversation was devoted to how media might better cover more communities, particularly those that don't often have a voice in mass media. One way to diversify coverage that the group identified was by diversifying and connecting with sources in those communities. Many reporters in public media have access to powerful tool that can help: the Public Insight Network.

A cross between a fancy Rolodex and a crowdsourcing machine, the Network is a resource for reporters who are part of partner newsrooms. It's a platform that was created by Minnesota Public Radio in 2003, and it's now run by parent organization American Public Media. More than 30 newsrooms have since joined the network and, in limited ways, share sources with each other.

As with any kind of reporting, it takes groundwork to get sources on board and participating. Unlike reaching out to groups of people by email or via a community advisory board, the Public Insight Network allows you to keep track of sources over time and return to them en masse for their ideas and personal narratives. And unlike crowdsourcing in social media, those sources are guaranteed some confidentiality.

Here's an example: In the summer of 2009, there was a violent, 11-hour riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. Controversies around California's prison populations were building up, but the prison population is often difficult to research and connect with. Sharon McNary, Public Insight analyst at Southern California Public Radio (89.3 KPCC), and reporters at the station posed a question about prison life to the Public Insight Networkin September. McNary built up a group of sources by asking for responses from online groups for prisoners' families.

Early on, she got a tip that prisoners in Chino were held in outdoor cages after the riot, often in their underwear, for a day or two days in summer weather. Another source collected over 50 letters from inmates which she turned over to KPCC. In January 2010, the station broadcast a three-part series and and created a web feature called "After the Chino Prison Riot," which includes allegations of prisoner mistreatment and first-hand accounts of what happened during and after the riot. It also includes that amazing repository of inmates' hand-written letters with personal information redacted and calls for readers and listeners to contribute to the Public Insight Network.

The power of the Public Insight Network is that those relationships with sources yield not just one powerful story, but several stories over time. The next summer, the prison-related sources on the Public Insight Network brought more stories and narratives to KPCC. McNary worked with KPCC with reporter Julie Small to develop a questionnaire about medical care in prison.

The questions were wide-ranging, which prevented McNary and Small from overly influencing the information that sources provided. Small, who won a reporting fellowship from the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships (the program that publishes this website) to investigate the topic, found sources through lawsuits and advocates as well. The four-part series, "Prison Affliction" includes personal narratives and sidebars from the Public Insight Network sources themselves. In one sidebar, a prisoner's wife discusses her husband's cancer treatment. In another, a prisoner's wife shares her journal that tracks her husband's struggle with disability in prison. And even though all the sources who contributed from the Network were not used in the story, McNary says, their input helped KPCC understand the topic more broadly.

"Because we have so many people in that prison subgroup, I'm always writing back and forth," she explains. Her newsroom gets tips from that interaction and more leads than KPCC has reporters to cover. There are now at least 150 people in the KPCC Network's prison-related group. This year, that group tipped reporters off ahead of the hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison. McNary and KPCC reporters contacted people involved beforre the strike even began.

McNary now has full access to some 7,000 sources on KPCC's network, and limited access to 17,000 of the more than 110,000 sources that are part of all of the Public Insight Network. While the partnerships are empowering, newsrooms and even individuals can create their own versions of Public Insight Networks using tools they likely already have.

McNary shared a presentation she gave in at the 2009 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference; her instructive slides are below. Ceating a network on your own is less powerful than the larger Public Insight Network, where partner organizations have people like McNary to nurture and build sources. But understanding how it works is a good skill for the future and might just help with editorial projects that involve community input.

"I want to make it clear that I prefer to use the Public Insight Network tools," McNary explains in an email. "But if I were operating on my own or in a newsroom where I wanted to leverage the wisdom of crowds and build a case for becoming a partner newsroom in the Public Insight Network, this is how I would do it."

More reading on crowdsourcing and reporting on communities:

A FAQ about how the Public Insight Network works

Q&A with KPCC's Julie Small: Investigating Prison Health Care

Spamming for Public Health

Scientific Citizens: Using Cell Phones to Collect Data

Health 2.0: What's The Next Generation of Online Health Communities

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