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Citizen Desk: Connecting newsrooms to witnesses

Citizen Desk will help newsrooms verify user generated content. | Photo Anton Muhajir (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Citizen Desk will help newsrooms verify user generated content. | Photo Anton Muhajir (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Since we’re about halfway to our goal of delivering a new version of Citizen Desk to our partners @Verdade, we wanted to bring you up to speed our progress. In short, we’re well on the way to making Citizen Desk a stable tool that anyone can use to collect and verify eyewitness media.

Plus we’ve got hot new screenshots at the bottom of this post, so keep reading.

What is Citizen Desk?

Citizen Desk is an open source system that helps news organisations turn ordinary citizens into reporters. Think of it as CNN iReport for the rest of the world.

When news organisations integrate citizen journalism into their coverage, they increase their scope and empower individuals in the communities they serve.

@Verdade and Citizen Desk 1.0

@Verdade was the first Citizen Desk user, relying on the tool to help them cover local elections in Mozambique in 2013.

Reporters at polling stations throughout the country sent reports to @Verdade via SMS.

@Verdade published more than 1,100 such reports in their election Live Blog. You can see the coverage on the @Verdade elections microsite.

Using Citizen Desk and Live Blog, @Verdade was able to publish information in near-real time. This gave independent election observers a chance to investigate reports of irregularities as they were happening.

While we created Citizen Desk to help @Verdade cover elections, they have since employed it in many breaking news situations, including a medical workers' strike, a crime spree in Maputo and the African women's basketball championship.

What’s in Citizen Desk 2.0?

Visualisation of the Citizen Desk 2.0 architecture.

Visualisation of the Citizen Desk 2.0 architecture.

Sourcefabric is currently working on improvements to Citizen Desk and new features to help @Verdade cover general elections in October.

The focus is much more on verification in this version, and a completely new architecture will enable further expansion after the October elections. Here’s an overview of the features:

  • In Citizen Desk 2.0, we are connecting the app to cloud-based SMS services such as FrontlineSMS Cloud and Clickatell. This way, citizen journalists will receive automatic confirmation when their SMS has been received. And editors will be able to send and receive SMS messages directly from their web browsers.

  • The new Citizen Desk will help editors verify citizen reports faster, using a new search tool to find and review previous messages from the same reporter. The newsroom can control the steps needed to verify every item. The need for such a structured process is one insights from the Verification Handbook.

  • Editors can also reply to citizen journalists directly in a chat-like window to collect further details. Editors can assign tasks and conversations to other journalists as needed, keeping all verifications centralized.

  • Editors will also be able to rewrite individual text messages for style. We built this based on feedback from @Verdade; rewriting SMS-speak to make it compliant with house style is important when not everyone is hip to the latest abbreviations and shortcuts.

  • Citizen Desk 2.0 lets editors add tweets and other media from the web to the verification workflow through an easy-to-use bookmarklet.

  • New architecture will make is easier to integrate third-party tools to help determine if citizen report is legitimate. This is especially useful in breaking news scenarios, where editors are pressed for time; the fog of war affects newsrooms, too.

  • Finally, because news happens at all hours of the day and especially when reporters and editors are away from their desks, Citizen Desk 2.0 has been designed from the ground-up as a mobile-first application. The design is conceived and optimized to be used primarily on smartphone handsets, even with slow data connections.

Where we are right now

Citizen Desk 2.0 has a working prototype that correctly handles incoming information from SMS and Twitter. It can accept reports and users can assign items to be verified.

It’s not pretty yet, but we have some very nice user interface designs that are going to be applied in the next few weeks (see the screenshots at the bottom of this post). If you’re so inclined, you can pop over to our Github page to see the current state of development.

Beyond 2014

Regardless of the outcome of the polls in October, @Verdade plans to maintain its focus on government accountability, especially with regard to service delivery. Sourcefabric will support their efforts.

Future improvements to Citizen Desk will include:

  • Peer-to-peer verification and feedback

  • More automated verification steps, especially images.

  • Support for popular input channels, including Facebook Messenger, MXit, Viber and possibly Whatsapp

  • Enhanced output to additional channels, including maps

  • Views into verification status

Beyond Mozambique

We envision Citizen Desk being used by news organizations and non-profits around the world to provide better news coverage and to ensure that services are being delivered where and when they have been promised. As such, we feel Citizen Desk can become an essential tool not only in engaging communities but also in fighting corruption.

Because Citizen Desk is free and open source, anyone anywhere can download it and use it. While we worked with @Verdade to create a tool to address their needs, Mozambique certainly has no monopoly on polling irregularities. The challenges that citizens of southern Africa face are common in many places worldwide. Citizen Desk can help them face these challenges.

Now here are those screenshots.

 

With Citizen Desk 2.0, journalists in the newsroom can reply to mobile phones directly from their web browsers.

With Citizen Desk 2.0, journalists in the newsroom can reply to mobile phones directly from their web browsers.

 

A lightweight workflow supports assigning reports to the other team members to verify.

A lightweight workflow supports assigning reports to the other team members to verify.

 

The newsroom can control the steps needed to verify every item. Having a structured process in place is one of the insights from the Verification Handbook

The newsroom can control the steps needed to verify every item. Having a structured process in place is one of the insights from the Verification Handbook

 

Want to turn your readers into reporters?

Citizen journalism makes for better news, engagement and loyalty. Write to us to learn how.

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