Writing a good challenge

September 1, 2009

Every investigation on Help Me Investigate is broken down into a number of small ‘challenges’. This allows different members of an investigation to contribute in different ways – from inviting a friend or adding background information to submitting a Freedom of Information request or analysing the results.

Anyone can set a challenge. The most successful ones tend to be

a) short and simple. Don’t ask people to do too much – break it down into smaller chunks.

b) include a link to a longer tutorial or useful tool. The site’s KnowledgeBase contains a number of tutorials that are related directly to typical challenges; while there are a number of online tools on sites like MySociety that you can link to.

Typical challenge questions

Use the following list to help:

  • Blog about this issue
  • Write the story so far
  • Add some background information
  • Invite a friend
  • Find a discussion space
  • Get expert opinion
  • Find evidence on where the money goes (or should be going)
  • Find out who regulates this
  • Find out who is responsible
  • Write to your MP
  • Write to your councillor
  • Submit a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to get answers
  • Get response from party concerned
  • Map occurrences
  • Find regulations
  • Create a spreadsheet of XXX (Collate data)
  • Explain why this is important
  • Find a definition or explanation of this
  • Find an expert
  • Invite someone with good contacts
  • Write about your experiences pursuing this
  • Add your tips to the KnowledgeBase
  • Write the full story of a completed investigation
  • Organise an event to discuss the issues
  • Vote on whether this investigation is complete, open, or a new one needs to start

Using Help Me Investigate if you’re a journalist

September 1, 2009

If you’re a journalist, Help Me Investigate can be a useful resource – on the surface for simple leads and content – but if you explore more deeply you’ll find it goes beyond that.

Here are a few ways you can use Help Me Investigate most effectively:

Add a link to your articles – and raw material

If you write up a story from the material in an investigation, please come back to the investigation and at the very least post a link to the story you published. This should lead to more people clicking through to the story, which is what you want.

If you’ve added something to that material – for example, a reaction from the council press office or a Google map – then post that material too so that others in the investigation can add to it or pick out the reality beneath the PR spin.

Seed an investigation with useful material

Investigations are most successful when people are active and contributing stuff. If you’re only writing up near-finished investigations then you’re not going to get that much from the site. If, however, you see an investigation where you can contribute something, that will spur others into further action, and increase the likelihood of there being something in the future to write up.

Even if all you do is suggest a key person to invite – or invite them yourself – you’ll be doing something useful.

Not only that, but you’ll be creating goodwill towards yourself for when you need to ask the community for help…

Start an investigation yourself

If you:

  • have a lead but no time to pursue it, or
  • raw material that you need someone to go through, or
  • you’ve published a story but there’s more digging to be done,

Then call for help by starting an investigation. You’ll need to bear in mind the points above – invite people, and add what you can. Birmingham Post journalist Tom Scotney described it as being part of “An investigative team that’s bigger, more diverse and more skilled than any newsroom could ever be.”

Don’t ruin it

These are early days for Help Me Investigate and we are continually adding features based on how people use – and abuse – the site. It’s not clear yet how ‘private’ or public investigations will become, whether users will want to restrict how their work is used by news organisations, and how news organisations will support investigations in formal ways. At some point we will be introducing a feature to ‘flag’ users as not contributing to the community (among other things). The point of the site is to make it easier to investigate the powerful by allowing journalists and non-journalists to collaborate and play to their own strengths. The more positively journalists use the site, the more positively everyone else will.

Finding background information for your investigation (advanced searching tips)

August 26, 2009

The first challenge you’ll receive on any new investigation is to ‘Add background information’. This helps establish what’s already known about the issue, who might know useful information, and where the gaps are.

Here are some tips in finding useful information:

1. Search Google News

Google News is “a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together and displays them according to each reader’s personalised interests.” It is a particularly useful place to start searching for information as, unlike Google.com, will prioritise more recent information and leave out general, and perhaps less relevant pages.

News stories will often provide a starting point for identifying further useful documents. An article might for instance mention an official report, an organisation, a set of guidelines or regulation that apply to the issue being investigated. The next step is to find the original document if the article doesn’t link to it (Some news organisations are better than others at linking, notably the BBC and Guardian).

2. Use Google’s Advanced Search facility

Certain types of webpages or documents are likely to be more useful in your search for information. By clicking on Google’s Advanced Search link you can be more specific in the types of results you want. Here are some options to try:

File type:

Official reports tend to be published in PDF format. By selecting PDF from this drop-down menu before you conduct your search you are more likely to find reports that would otherwise be buried in the normal search results. You can also try Word documents.

Likewise, try selecting Microsoft Excel for spreadsheets of raw data published by organisations. Less useful, but also worth trying is Microsoft Powerpoint – often used for public presentations.

Search within a site or domain:

The search facility on many websites is often very poor. Sometimes you will be more successful by using Google to perform the same search.

Type ‘birmingham.gov.uk’ into this box and Google will only look within that website.

Type ‘.gov.uk’ and Google will only search within UK governmental websites

Type ‘.ac.uk’ and Google will only search within UK educational establishments

Type ‘.org.uk’ and Google will only search within non-profit organisation websites – also try ‘.org’ as not all UK nonprofits use ‘.uk’

There are other domains that are worth trying too, depending on the nature of your investigation, such as:

  • .ltd.uk (some limited companies),
  • .info (some information providers, worldwide),
  • .nhs.uk,
  • .police.uk,
  • .parliament.uk,
  • .sch.uk (LEAs, schools, etc.),
  • .bl.uk and .british-library.uk (British Library),
  • .nls.uk (National Library of Scotland)
  • and .mod.uk (Ministry of Defence).

All of these are likely to bring more useful results than a broad search of the web.

Find pages that link to the page:

The last box on Google’s Advanced Search page (you’ll need to click on the + icon to bring it up) allows you to search for pages that link a specific webpage. If you’ve found a useful webpage in your search using this option to see what else is linking to it can be useful in a number of ways:

  • If it’s particularly specialist, anything linking to it will be likely to be equally specialist
  • It might add new information, or correct incorrect information
  • The person who created the webpage may be able to contribute to your investigation

3. Search blogs

Blogs can be a useful source of specialist knowledge that a Google search wouldn’t bring up. Although Google has its own search engine, it tends to include more irrelevant information than others. For that reason a better search engine to use is the specialist blog search engine IceRocket.

Even if the search doesn’t result in useful information, it may bring up someone blogging about the same issue – it’s worth asking them directly for any relevant information, and inviting them to the investigation.

Things to do to make your investigation successful

August 24, 2009

Once you’ve started an investigation you may ask: ‘So now what happens?’ The answer is: it’s largely up to you. Help Me Investigate provides journalistic support, and a community of users who want to help find things out, but you’ll need to put a little something into it yourself if it’s going to work.

Here are a few simple things you can do to help make your investigation progress:

1. Invite lots of useful people

The more people you have in your investigation, the more likely it is that challenges will be completed; and the more likely that someone has the piece of knowledge or contact you’re after. There’s more advice on that front here. In short, you’re looking for friends, others who are passionate about the same issue, and experts.

The more users an investigation has, the more prominent it will be on the Investigations page, which means others who could help will be more likely to see it.

2. Add as much useful information as you can

The first challenge on any investigation is ‘Add background information’. This might be news, council or government reports, official webpages of relevant organisations, contact pages for useful people, or links to material you’ve gathered yourself, such as photos, video, emails or forum posts. This helps give others some context – and might highlight the oddities you’re investigating.

3. Write about it on blogs and forums

You want other people who are annoyed by the same issue to be able to find your investigation easily. The more you write about it – in as many places as possible – the more likely they are to find out. You might try one or more of these:

  • A forum where the issue is being discussed, or where affected people might gather (e.g. if your investigation is about health then a forum for health professionals or patients). You can search forums at Boardreader.
  • A Facebook group related to the issue (if one doesn’t exist, start one!)
  • A blog or blog post where the issue is being discussed (search IceRocket).
  • Start a blog of your own, even if there are other blogs talking about this. You can link to the other blogs and join that community. How to start a blog is explained here – but also ask other bloggers who are writing about the same issue for advice.
  • You could also record a simple video about your investigation and post it on a site like YouTube or Vimeo. (Advice here)
  • Finally, look for similar investigations on Help Me Investigate and mention it there (use the search facility or browse by tag).

4. Contribute to other investigations

Others are more likely to help if you can contribute something to their investigation too – even if you only invite more people, or do a quick search to find background information. It’s the thought that counts.

How to create a Google Map

August 18, 2009

Here are a few useful links that provide instructions on how to create a Google Map. If these aren’t clear enough, let me know in the comments below and I’ll see if I can help:

Once you’ve created the map you need to be able to link to it in your investigation. Instructions on publishing your map and getting the link to paste into your investigation can be found in the Google Maps Help page at this point.

How to create a template letter that others can use

August 13, 2009

There may be other ways but this is what I would recommend:

Create an account with Google Docs if you don’t already have a Google account

Log into your Google Docs account and click on New, then select Document from the list that appears

If you’ve ever used a word processing package like Word this will look very familiar. Click on ‘Untitled’ to give your document a name.

Type (or paste) your letter as you would in any other package. Leave out any personal information as this is going to be used by other people and visible by others.

When you’re done and ready to publish your letter so others can use it, click on Share (upper right) and select Get the link to share…

A new box will appear with a tick-box: ‘Allow anyone with the link to view (no sign-in required)’. Tick this. (Don’t tick the second box allowing others to edit the document unless you want to allow that too)

Now the box below should have a web address (URL) that you can copy and paste elsewhere. Copy this (right-click on it and select Copy)

Go to your investigation on Help Me Investigate and any relevant challenges. Accept the challenge and type some text explaining that you have created a template letter. Paste (right-click and select Paste) the web address in the Update’s link box so others can see it and use it too.

How to create a form for people to add information to your spreadsheet

July 30, 2009

Rather than asking people to edit a whole spreadsheet, you can make it easier by creating a form for them to add particular information by answering questions.

To do this, open your spreadsheet in Google Docs and click on Form > Create a form.

A new window will appear containing a form that you can edit, with some information automatically added.

If you roll over any of the questions you will see buttons for you to edit, duplicate or delete it. You can also edit the form title and description and there are various extra options across the top. Read the rest of this entry »

Allowing others to edit your spreadsheet – and tracking what happens

July 30, 2009

Following on from the previous post on creating and publishing a spreadsheet online, here’s how you allow others to add to that, and how you track what happens:

To allow others to edit your spreadsheet, open it and click on Share (in the top right area) then click See who has access…

A new window will open – towards the bottom of that it will say ‘Sign-in is required to view this item’ which means users need a Google account to see it. Click ‘Change‘ next to that.
3 options will pop up: Read the rest of this entry »

Creating and publishing a spreadsheet online

July 30, 2009

For some investigations it will be useful to create a public spreadsheet of information. There are 3 main reasons why:

  • It’s a better way of displaying data than using a sentence of text
  • It means people can easily see where the gaps are – and fill them in
  • It also allows people to do interesting things with the data, like visualise it, or mix it up (‘mashup’) with information from elsewhere, e.g. maps

One of the most popular tools for creating public spreadsheets of data is Google Spreadsheets, part of Google Docs. Read the rest of this entry »

What to do if you have documents you want to upload

July 30, 2009

If you have a document relating to your investigation that is not already online – for instance a PDF, a Word document, a scanned document, or a letter, here is some advice on how to get it into the investigation:

1. Get it onto your computer if it isn’t already

If your evidence is physical – e.g. a printout – then use a scanner to get it onto your computer. Many company photocopiers now offer this facility as well.

2. Upload it to a document-sharing website

There are a number of these. Scribd is a very useful place to store PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. You will need to create a (free) account first. Once you do, just follow the instructions given here. You can also use the service to create backup copies of documents that are already online. Read the rest of this entry »