BRUSSELS – Old and new journalist thinking clash in English crowdsourcing project. In Birmingham journalists and non-journalists cooperate and the ongoing research is visible before publication. Similar thoughts are surfacing among it-programmers dealing with tasks that usually were taken care of by journalists. Time to take up an inspiring challenge.

Investigative journalism as a game? Maybe. In Birmingham Paul Bradshaw and his team behind the website Help Me Investigate is playing with the idea. And successfully so.

The model is easy: Anyone can ask a question. The editorial team behind the site helps set up a research team and to divide the research tasks. The tasks appear as buttons on the website, for example “find out, whether the service was tendered” or “if the task was outsourced, request the contract” or “blog about progress so far.”

When a task is fulfilled, it changes colour and appears with a check-sign in green. Done. Goal achieved. Step by step along the way. Maybe it’s not quite like a computer game yet, but it’s looking into that direction.

That means, that every step of the research is transparent, the public can follow – if they wish to. This is exactly the opposite way of how journalists have done their research until now. All information is kept carefully – until the day of publication.

Take the latest research about the costs for the website of the city of Birmingham. Those, who have ordered a simple, new website will know, that programming of a simple site with an underlying database will cost €2000-5000 in Western Europe. A more complex site will – obviously – be more expensive. But does it have to cost £ 2,2 million?

The starting question was: “When can we expect a new Birmingham.gov website?” A few days ago one of the co-researchers on that story got hold of a key-document – and put it online.

Paul Bradshaw initially was reluctant to publish immediately – but then caught himself: “I was thinking like an old-fashioned journalist,” he said to Journalismfund.eu. Of course the story had to go online. That’s part of the new model.

Paul Bradshaw is not the only one, who deals with these ideas - just have a look at his blog about online journalism

Or take a look at websites done by programmers like British My Society, where they help citizens to keep an eye on their MP, on their street and other small and large questions.

So a few questions for those wo want to think ahead in times of inspiring challenge (and for those, who think about political impact and how to finance journalism):

First question about publication: Will a broader group of readers bother to read through research steps – or does the majority just wish to read a nicely produced overview over the outcome of the research? Will online-literate citizens even enjoy following an ongoing research via Twitter or other social media?

Second question about impact: A former advisor to a German chancellor once said, that the only thing, they really were concerned about in the cabinet, were negative reactions in the media. In other words if a large group of society reacted to a case, a comment, a decision. Now where do we find the good, old-fashioned “broad public”, that ultimately would react to a journalistic story and could create a democratic debate? And how will they interact with politicians?

Third question is about funding, of course: If investigative journalism is produced by volunteer journalists coordinating a team of online volunteers, and publication is done via Facebook, Twitter and so forth, there is no money involved. Now volunteer projects usually need at least a bit of economic input for coordination as they grow older and loose the initial enthusiasm.

Written by Brigitte Alfter