How the Crowd Reads Crowd-Sourced News

It turns out that we have lessons to learn from Uganda – more specifically, from web coverage of events in Uganda this week.

I’m constantly trying to improve my own ability to follow real-time world events, whether through social media, advanced search technologies, or aggregation of multiple old/new information technologies. About this time last year, as the Georgian-Russian skirmishes were just kicking off, I wrote about keeping up with information on international events (“Using Web 2.0 to Track a Political Crisis“).

In the intervening year, development of real-time tools and techniques has really blossomed. This past week, the onset of violent political unrest in Uganda has served as yet another crucible in which new techniques and web-based technologies can be tested and tweaked.

We’re still well inside a week since the onset of this round of violence in Uganda, so there’s not an enormous amount of reporting in traditional “1.0” western sources. If you’re interested in the actual political background, context, and parties involved in the Ugandan unrest, one quick read is from the Uganda Independent’s blog, “For the International Audience: The Kampala Riots Explained.” Make sure you read through the many comments, however, as the post has now sparked a blizzard of competing explanations, an angry diversity of opinion likely representing the fissures behind the uprising itself.

But as for keeping up with the latest events in Uganda, now just four days since the unrest flared, I have been having an experience much like the first few hours of the Iranian elections crisis earlier this year. It’s been frustratingly difficult to get up-to-the-minute information on events in Uganda, as it was initially from Iran. In the latter case, though, the size and strategic importance of Iran combined with the large numbers in the Iranian diaspora, ultimately led to an explosion in eyeballs trained on events being tweeted and Facebooked out of Iran, a more developed and urbanized country than Uganda, with much greater cellphone penetration and internet access for citizen reporting. In Uganda, not so much.

I’ve just read a thoughtfully analytical look at how web-based social media can help audiences inside and outside Uganda keep up with, and make sense of, the events of the past four days, and with really helpful insights for tracking this crisis and others going forward. The piece is “Aynchronous Info, Disjointed Data and Crisis Reporting,” on the Appfrica.net blog. It’s written by Kampala-resident Jonathan Gosier (Follow him on Twitter, @jongos), a software developer and entrepreneur with Appfrica Labs.

Jon happens to be a 2009 TEDGlobal Fellow. and really knows his social-technologies. His review of crisis-reporting capabilities mentions the use of such apps or sites as Twitter, Ushahidi, Plurk, Swiftriver, FriendFeed, and Facebook, among othes. A major focus in his article is the role of citizen reporting – and the incumbent guidelines on the citizen consumer of that kind of reporting.

On day three of the Kampala riots we saw evidence of this. People on the ground wrote about the situation as it unfolded through out the day until things began to finally settle down. Then 8 hours later we began to see people in the US retweeting things that happened hours ago (in the morning for us) as ‘news’. To them it was indeed news as they were just waking up to it. This in turn created confusion for us back here. (”Have the riots started again or is that just an old re-tweet?”). This is not a problem of user behavior, rather it’s a problem of the UI itself. Retweeting messages from friends and followers is something users of Twitter have always done. However, what’s missing is some way to group these updates together, so as to build a more accurate timeline of activity.”  – Jonathan Gosier

Jon’s article is not entirely comprehensive; for example he cites the shortage online of photos of this week’s unrest, yet I quickly found this small collection on Flickr and others, and they’re certainly worth a look to convey a powerful visual image of events. But overall his insights into the nature of the audience for socially-reported news are a very helpful addition to an emerging issue we need to think about: how the Crowd reads the Crowd, including perceptions, warping biases, and technological constraints.

By the way, about an hour before I published this post, Jeff Benson (Twitter’s @jefferysan) tweeted this optimistic update: “Well, the horrendous traffic this morning suggests that everything is back to normal. I hate when “good signs” aren’t that good…#Kampala.”  And sure enough, within ten minutes, Uganda-watchers outside the country were re-tweeting the news….

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4 Responses

  1. Hey thanks for the appreciative nod. There are a lot of ways developers can improve information like this for citizen reporters trying to get out information in a crisis situation. These are some of the many things we’re working on Appfrica Labs here in Uganda to improve government transparency as well as generally improve the quality of social communication through technology.

    What’s the case with Microsoft’s own Vine which was developed for similar purposes?

  2. Thanks very much Lewis for your unique perspective. I suspect that this is very relevant not only for situations like Iran and Uganda (which can seem to many far away and irrelevant) but also for things like massive floods, wildfires, and infectious diseases.

  3. Great post. The problems associated with the delayed retweeting that Jon Gosier brings up is something that I think most people would never consider when hitting the retweet button in their twitter client.
    Similarly while following some events (i.e. conferences and the Iranian Election) on Twitter I began to ponder the usefulness of retweeting posts with well developed Hashtags as this can lead to an echo effect that can obscure new information. I can recall looking at what must have been hundreds of duplicate messages in my Iranian timeline. It created for a very chaotic and confusing timeline.
    In a post a few weeks a ago @Biz posted some info some possible changes coming to how retweets are seen and handled that sounded very interesting and maybe could effect these crowd sourced events.

  4. Lewis your post reminded me of the vision and upgrade you gave the guys in the early JIOC upstairs at the DIAC. I don’t know it for a fact, but I have to assume they have not upgraded much since then and could probably use a visit by you for a discussion on the realm of the possible. I think they are called the DIOCC now. We should probably figure out who heads that group up and get you in with them for a discussion.

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