Feature phone Nokia texting SMS
Credit: Image by kiwanja on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Earlier this month at the Mozilla Festival the Knight Foundation announced the recipients of its prototype fund, which included GroundTruth, a platform which aims to "make journalism more connected" by mapping sources and providing contact via text message.

The project is being led by Andrew Haeg, who co-founded US crowdsourcing platform Public Insight Network in 2003. The platform, which he said is now used by around 80 newsrooms, uses email to reach out to potential sources and ask them to feedback on specific issues.

Haeg told Journalism.co.uk that the growth of the network highlighted "a need for a platform that allowed individual journalists to start building networks of sources around their journalism and to reach out to them in very simple ways via mobile phone".

Working with the World Press Institute, Haeg decided to apply for funding from the Knight Foundation, which will now be used to pull together a team of developers and build a prototype of the platform. It is hoped the first version will be ready to start testing next month.

The idea is that during news events across the world, where journalists need to find sources on the ground, the platform will open up sources to the media via mobile phone who may not be as connected to the social web.

"Maybe they're not sharing on Facebook and Twitter, or maybe they're not sharing that kind of information," Haeg explained. "Maybe they're not even connected to social media at all and plus they might not be part of that journalist's social network.

"I found it's very difficult to connect to people who aren't part of your social network and to make a trusted connection with them.

"I think we assume that Twitter and Facebook give us the ability to connect to anyone in the world, anywhere, anytime, but actually it's quite difficult to travel beyond our own spheres of influence into areas where we don't know anyone."

The plan is for GroundTruth's landing page to feature a map which users can then use to zoom into their areas of interest and apply filters such as by demographic, expertise or background and be alerted to relevant sources who have already submitted their information to the platform.

At this point a user can choose to set up a survey or ask a question via text message, which will prompt an SMS to be send to the source asking if they wish to share their experience with the journalist.

Currently the plan is that if the source agrees to speak to the journalist, a voice call will be made to the source asking the journalist's questions, with future versions of the platform able to translate those questions into the relevant language.

To build the network of sources Haeg aims to use his experience in building Public Insight Network which has helped him gain "a pretty good idea of what motivates people to share information".

The plan is to offer incentives using a points system. For example, if a person responds as a source they get 100 points and if they get 1,000 points their mobile phone bill will be paid for a certain amount of time.

He said that using a points system rather than direct payment "avoids some of the problems journalists might have with the perception or the reality of paying for sources".

"But the fact is if they're answering questions via text message or their mobile phone they're using their own money to engage with you so they need to be compensated somehow for that. The points system I think is a good way to do that."

He added that this is open to feedback, and given the fact the platform could be used by a number of other groups beyond journalists there is the potential to limit incentives to non-journalism uses if that proves to be an issue for news outlets.

"That's the great part about the Knight prototype fund is that it allows for a rapid iteration and experimentation period."

The next step is for the team to start building the first prototype and "by early December we'll have a prototype ready for testing with a small group of journalists and researchers", he added.

"By early next year, probably about February, we'll have an alpha version that will be ready to be tested with a larger group of journalists and we'll use that period in the early part of the year to raise an additional round of funding to build the organisation and to build up the technology."

He added that the overall aim is to roll out the platform in beta by summer 2013.

For potential respondents, the platform will be "completely wide open", while to be authenticated as a professional user of GroundTruth the platform may adopt a "referral, affiliate approach" with a subscription model based on the volume of questions being asked.

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