Archive for August, 2009

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, 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 ‘’ into this box and Google will only look within that website.

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

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

Type ‘’ 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:

  • (some limited companies),
  • .info (some information providers, worldwide),
  • (LEAs, schools, etc.),
  • and (British Library),
  • (National Library of Scotland)
  • and (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.