Everywhere in the world, there are people with fast, easy access to simple — but crucial — information that is difficult or impossible for another to obtain due to structural, practical, technological or financial barriers. These barriers can be surmounted through incremental co-operation — microcollaboration — of five minutes or less among and between peer expert groups. What they lack is an easy way to find and connect with each other and the information they need.
The goal of INVSTG8.NET [video] is to create an open source tool that people can use — via readily available, familiar, lean or low-bandwidth means such as a mobile Web site, e-mail and text message or SMS — to microcollaborate on a local-to-global scale, and foster larger, deeper collaborations.
The initial use case is opening and disseminating public-interest information by solving this widespread access problem for the group that inspired the project: Journalists in Africa, Europe, North, Central and South America, Asia and beyond. The tool also has potential applications for health care, humanitarian aid NGOs, crisis communications, non-profits and anyone else who needs small chunks of information in sub-realtime.
INVSTG8.NET [InvestigateNet] was inspired by an African journalist who was working to educate people about the value of their land so they could make informed decisions about selling it or rights to its use. He was unable to identify the value or uses of minerals foreign companies were mining in his country because the experts who could assist worked for mining interests and would not talk to him, or were abroad and therefore out of reach.
Research was difficult with a maximum of 30 minutes per week on a dial-up Internet connection that only gave him access to e-mail, and a basic mobile phone capable of voice and text for most of his communication.
He said these problems were widespread in Africa, a fact confirmed by the state of communication network development, access and traffic in all but a few regions of the continent. Similar conditions are found in parts of South America and Asia.
The information he sought was easily obtained in minutes by journalists in North America and Western Europe. That was the seed of INVSTG8.NET: Information one journalist found impossible to gain in one locale was easily accessible to a peer elsewhere.
HOW IT WORKS
A journalist submits an information request and other pertinent information, such as keywords and privacy considerations, through a text message, e-mail or a simple, mobile-friendly, InvestigateNet form online.
The query goes to journalists who self-identify as experts or interested in subjects noted in the request. They obtain the sought information and send it to the requesting journalist according to their preferences: E-mail, text message, fax, etc.
Journalists in the economic North with abundant technology or information access will also need sources outside of their networks, especially when a story leads abroad where their news outlet has no presence or contacts. It is impractical to always fly a correspondent there, so the story is shelved or killed. Instead, InvestigateNet would enable Southern journalists to become virtual field producers.INTEREST
The INVSTG8.NET outline and mock-up video has been presented to journalists from the economic North and South, attending conferences in Africa, Eastern Europe and North America, who have universally expressed enthusiastic interest and an eagerness to use it.
Journalists from across Africa who gathered at the African News Innovation Challenge Finalist TechCamp in Zanzibar in October not only supported use of the tool, but expressed new ways that they could use it to work with others in their own countries — not just internationally.
INVSTG8.NET has also garnered interest from people who work in non-profit, health and humanitarian aid and development sectors.
- Many users will not be technologically adept. The tool must be useable by people with limited technical skill.
- At some point, participants will require some form of network access. This will exclude some people, although INVSTG8.NET is designed to reach the broadest segment of people possible via the lowest-bandwidth technologies and platforms.
- A multi-platform approach would be necessary to flatten communication access barriers. The initial case would explore text, mobile app and HTML5 / mobile Web implementations to enable access for the broadest segment of participants.
- A centralized database/server-client architecture for the core system, or a distributed one with local caches that synchronize when a network connection is available will likely be needed to manage the system. This may affect participation by some.
- Participant selection will initially rely on in-person, real-world contacts for qualification as expert sources. Participant selection at scale will require its own management tool or module.
- Participation in the economic North in particular is not guaranteed. It may be necessary to add incentives or game mechanics. This will be revealed in iterative testing. We have partnered with the first sub-Saharan Africa user experience testing lab to examine this, as well as other usability and interaction issues.
- Privacy and security beyond the browser connection or native device/network-level encryption may be needed. Tools like Tor and user profile management features may address these issues. We have partnered with 2012 African News Innovation Challenge winner Green Hornet (based on Tor) to work on this. This is an issue for future development.
- Authentication occurs at a device level but does not address device sharing, or human error that grants access to a user’s INVSTG8.NET profile. This is an issue for future development.
As noted, individual or device-level encryption would make this tool more useful to more people and give them confidence that their communications are secure. This is likely a longer-term aspect to development that would likely need its own team to develop, test and integrate.
However, as noted, we have partnered with 2012 African News Innovation Challenge winner Green Hornet, which is working on this problem in co-operation.
Services like Quora, StackExchange, WikiAnswers, LinkedIn Answers, Facebook Questions, and journalism discussion lists/forums, are nominally similar, but are more of a broadcast model, and address neither the South’s technology limitations, nor structural, privacy or security needs, especially for journalists.
We have an ongoing discussion with leaders of the Investigative Dashboard project, and have been in touch with the leaders of the EnviroFact project and the Society of Environmental Journalists about collaborating.
We are actively seeking foundation grant funding, and have encountered angel, venture and social innovation capitalists, private companies, NGOs and news organizations that have expressed interest in InvestigateNet and purchasing beta or release-candidate licences for customized versions, or investing once a working prototype is available for testing.
We have an ongoing discussion with leaders of the Investigative Dashboard project, and have been in touch with the leaders of the Envirofact project, organizers and members the Society of Environmental Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors, about collaborating on InvestigateNet and linking or integrating its functionality.
We are also actively involved in helping to build a pan-African news innovation ecosystem.
We are also exploring the possibilities of sustaining the project by selling consulting services and training, a freemium pricing model, and ancillary merchandise.