Archive for September, 2009

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.