Revamped Version of Reporting Tool Citizen Desk Focuses on Real-Time Verification

Nov 252014

Last year, Mozambique’s Verdade newspaper put out a call for citizen reports to supplement its in-house reporting on the country's general election.

Through a new, open source toolkit called Citizen Desk, Verdade received on-the-ground reports, astute observations and...a lot of junk (especially misplaced orders for more mobile minutes).

With that experience in mind, the makers of Citizen Desk have revamped it with a focus on user and community management and real-time verification. Now, editors using the tool to capture eyewitness reports can quickly choose or discard incoming items, investigate the credibility of citizen reporters and use updated organizational tools that let the editorial staff build out stories piece by piece, as the information rolls in.

“The workflow of verification is its own beast with its own rhythm and requirements,” says Douglas Arellanes, the founder of Sourcefabric, a nonprofit open source software developer for independent news media and the creator of Citizen Desk. “Citizen Desk 2.0 reflects that.”

Citizen Desk pulls in content from three sources: Twitter, SMS and the web. Once content has been processed into the system, users have the option to publish it straight to a live blog. Or they can choose to dig much deeper in a number of ways.

Reports from each of the three input sources come in with a basic level of detail. To go further, users can research the citizen reporters' location, identity and credibility. In many cases, the system helps facilitate a simple conversation between the editor and the citizen reporter. When an SMS report comes in, for example, a Citizen Desk user can automatically respond with a message and then use a built-in chat interface to continue the conversation with the reporter.

Editors can make “assignments” to other users, which flags the content for further investigation. And they can create lists to organize multiple simultaneous reports.

Arellanes describes the process from citizen report to publication as one full of possibilities to make the story more dynamic and to learn more about a reporter. It’s like “snowballing information,” he says. “You start with one little snowball but then it picks up more snow and becomes bigger and bigger.”

And in the end, that deep digging is what makes the best journalism, he says. “What we’re doing is allowing journalistic standards to be supported even though input sources may be coming from social media."

To build Citizen Desk 2.0, the team used the Agile method of development, which "let us show various people -- especially the editors at Verdade -- a real piece of software from a very early phase of development, so that we could gather valuable input," Arellanes said. "This allowed us to try various ideas quickly and let us see what worked and what didn't -- and importantly, why that was the case."

Citizen Desk was one of the winners of the 2012 African News Innovation Challenge contest (ANIC), which encourages experimentation in digital technologies and supports the best innovations designed to strengthen African news organizations. The contest, modeled on the Knight News Challenge, was launched by the African Media Initiative under the leadership of ICFJ Knight Fellow Justin Arenstein.

This year, Citizen Desk was also named a finalist in the Making All Voices Count Global Innovation Competition.

Sourcefabric is looking for additional partners and use cases for Citizen Desk. The platform is completely open source and ripe for further add-ons, such as integration of additional content inputs like Instagram and Pinterest feeds.

“Many organizations have already come around to the conclusion that you can build upon what someone else has got and get there faster,” he says. “Unless you have deep pockets and a really talented team in house, take this tool and build on it.”

This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.

CC-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Rettberg.