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Citizen Information Gathering: Three Projects

BY Joshua Levy | Tuesday, September 26 2006

While many sites like RealClearPolitics do a great job of contextualizing campaigns with poll numbers and links to articles, they are often governed by a top-down structure that reflects an editorial vision. That's okay, but sites that rely on user-generated content can often benefit from the collective intelligence of their users. Allowing local readers to contribute to coverage of a campaign can allow for random bits of information that, when glued together, can provide a comprehensive look at a campaign.

Three sites have recently emerged that are taking on this approach in three novel ways.

Open Source Radio recently launched a section on their wiki that will cover 38 hotly contested races across the country. It's a great idea that could create an open, democratic database of candidates in races around the country. The only stumbling block is getting every congressional race adequately covered.

For each contested race, contributors can add information about the candidates and the district, recommended readings, local blogs, contacts, and other resources like interviews with featured constituents. So far, the site is active in some places and slow in others, which is indicated by two sections, "Fleshed Out" and "Help Us Get Started." The 4th Congressional District in Connecticut (where incumbent Christopher Shays is facing Dian Farrell), the Colorado governor race, and the Minnesota senate race are well-covered and lively, while the coverage for many other districts and states are lacking information. Of course, this is up to you -- if you live in a place that isn't yet covered by the wiki, you can take the reigns and add whatever information is missing. That's the beauty of the wiki.

Over at Josh Marshall's TPM Café there's a comprehensive effort to tally polls, videos, blog posts, and anything else related to this November's elections. Election Central isn't a wiki, but posting there is open to the public, and as a result it's become the go-to place for daily election coverage. Every district with a congressional race is covered, even if that simply means showing the results of the latest polls. But more often than not, bloggers are commenting on the race and adding useful context for those of us who don't live in, say, the 12th district in Georgia. This is citizen journalism at work.

Speaking of citizen journalism, one other site hasn't launched yet but looks very, very promising. The Center for Citizen Media is overseeing a project tentatively titled "political transparency for the people, by the people," an experiment in citizen journalism that will cover California's 11th district. According to the center, the site will "include in-depth biographical and political information on candidates, audio and video archives, campaign finance profiles, first-person reports, links to articles, etc." Citizens will be asked to contribute any scrap of information they have about a candidate in a bid to build a comprehensive portrait of the electoral field. That information will be posted on a site created by students in the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, who will be assisted by Dan Gillmor and Bill Gannon, editorial director at Yahoo! [Disclosure: the project is funded by the Sunlight Foundation, for whom Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej of PDF are technology advisors.]

I'm looking forward to seeing how these sites progress as we approach November. Even if these adventures in citizen information-gathering don't unearth every piece of information in time for the elections, they're providing useful templates for the 2008 elections.

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