Why crowdsourcing won’t save journalism

Many big-thinkers in journalism rightly point out the traditional media are no longer gatekeepers of information. We no longer have a stranglehold on the pipeline. We are but one cog in the machine, albeit still a much bigger cog than many people realize.

With so much of the population constantly plugged in and able to report what’s happening around them, many of those big-thinkers say some day soon we will “harness the power of the crowd” to report the news.

After all, what could be better than mounds of free, timely information supplied by eyewitnesses from every corner of the globe?

How about accurate information.

Some colleagues and I recently took on a pretty cool project, testing the cellular data networks around Salt Lake City and creating a few maps to show the results. Despite technical issues with getting the data to display how we wanted, I think the results were great. We also asked readers to pick up where we left off, by testing the mobile network speeds on their own and entering the results into a form that we would turn into an online map.

It’s only been up about 24 hours at this point, but I’m pleased to have gotten 26 reader responses plotted. I didn’t expect it to go crazy, but I wasn’t sure it would even be this successful. But those responses also lay bare the biggest problem with crowdsourcing: You can’t trust it.

The instructions are explicit. I tell readers the exact format to enter dates, addresses and the speed readings they got in kilobits per second. About 70 percent of people did it right. The others gave me an address but no city and state; some gave readings in megabits per second instead of kilobits (despite the word being in capital letters); one person neglected to put numbers in the speed fields, instead writing “kbps”; and a few clearly had wifi connections when they ran the speed test, reporting numbers so far out of the realm of a 3G connection that I should delete them, although I won’t. I did convert the ones that were sent in Mbps to Kbps for consistency, and I did add in city and state when those were missing. I deleted the ones where the information was completely wrong. In other words, I did some basic editing.

Do I consider this experiment a failure? Absolutely not. In fact, I’d say it’s a mild success. We engaged readers and asked them to contribute to our body of facts. But had I asked the crowd to do all of my research instead of having a technology reporter hit the streets and run the readings, I would have ended up with a story that wouldn’t meet my paper’s standards. Perhaps 70 percent or more of it could have been wrong, and frankly I can’t vouch for the numbers we got that do look accurate.

This was a very simple assignment. Download an app, push a button to run the test, send the results in a specific format. If an editor can’t trust the information that comes in with something that basic, why should he or she trust the crowd with anything more serious?