When plugged into a map the data suggested what residents had long suspected—that the roughly 10,000 trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge—which connects Detroit to Ontario, Canada and is the busiest border crossing in North America—were likely contributing to the area’s disproportionately high asthma rate, amongst other quality of life issues. Moreover, when the crowdsourced map was compared to a map of legal truck routes, it revealed that a lot of drivers were taking unsanctioned shortcuts through area neighborhoods. The series led to a donation from the Detroit International Bridge Company, which owns Ambassador Bridge, of over $200,000 to open a health center in the community.
The crowdsourcing in southwest Detroit was done using a platform called Mobile Commons in collaboration with the Public Insight Network. PIN is made up of sixty newsroom partners, from The Washington Post to WNYC, and has a database of 130,000 people. These individuals sign up as contacts for stories, often recruited to the network by a local media outlet that’s partnered with PIN. Linda Fantin, the Director of Network Journalism and Innovation at American Public Media, which PIN is a part of, says their network has surfaced sources for a variety of stories about community health concerns.
“Public health is an area where you need the help of the community to understand what’s going on,” says Fantin.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) used PIN for a series on coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning plants. It is often used in construction and infrastructure projects, but critics fear that toxic elements in the ash could leak into the groundwater. CPI wrote to network members located in zip codes near coal ash deposits and found people who became sources for a couple of the stories it did on the subject in late 2010. The amount of people eager to tell their experiences about living near coal ash sites was so high that CPI enlisted help from the Center for Investigative Reporting to pursue some of the leads. CIR used some of the sources from PIN in its film on the clean energy industry, “Dirty Business.”
Crowdsourcing is about more than health impacts. At Clear Health Costs founder Jeanne Pinder is attempting to bring specific information on prices to an industry that is notoriously opaque. She uses government databases and cold calls for a lot of the information, but relies on crowdsourcing to document the disparities in birth control prices in New York City, where one brand can range from $17 to $50, depending on the pharmacy. This was the first crowdsourcing project done by Clear Health Costs, but Pinder says she has plans in the works to use it for other research.
“There’s things that journalists know that the crowd doesn’t, and things that the crowd knows that we as journalists don’t know,” says Pinder. “Putting the two things together makes a powerful combination.”
Combining the crowd’s knowledge with reportorial skill is the best way of offsetting the kinks in the crowdsourcing method. Heaps of anecdotes, mistaken correlations, and even false positives can happen without a journalist to check leads and explain conclusions. As with all tools, it’s best to know its limitations before using.