Crowdsourcing — an idea that suggests that many people working on their own on a collective project can accomplish great things — has put paid to the Daily Telegraph’s claims that only the vast resources of a major commercial newspaper could possibly have uncovered MP expenses abuse. And it has done it through the mediation of the Telegraph’s derided rival, The Guardian.
Originally put forward in a Wired Magazine article, and subsequently in a book by Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing harnasses the skills of the many (as opposed to — dare we say it in this context? — the lust for blood of the mob) to analyse data or to chew over a problem. In this particular case, Guardian readers, and, we can assume, other bloggers and webites, have been combing through the now-published MP expenses data. Despite the blanking out of crucial data, crowdsourcers have already begun to build up powerful profiles of who is spending how much on what.
More important than the actual method used — although it is important — is the fact that all this user-researched data means that finally we, the people, have access to our MPs’ expenses claims, not in driblets issued by the Daily Telegraph to further its own ill-concealed political agenda, nor in the avalanche of mind-numbing detail on which civil servants and politicians have been counting to put us off looking, but in clear, concise analysis, which can be checked by anyone who wants to.
This is what Freedom of the Press is all about — the freedom for any newspaper, or, in this blogging age, any citizen-journalist, to look at the facts for themselves, come to a conclusion, and put forward their own interpretation. Suddenly we are no longer in the hands of a journalistic-elite, themselves under the thumb of a right-wing editor.
This freedom has come too little too late. Too late for Cameron’s ‘old-guard’, who are set to be swept away in sweeping purges. And certainly too late for us collectively to have any faith in the financial probity of our politicians. And too little to set our minds at ease that now everything is in the open and nothing is being hidden. If you haven’t looked at the MP expenses yourself yet, then do. There is something uniquely terrifying about the way in which whole sections have been blacked out, with (crucially, in my mind) no annotations to indicate the reason for the black out nor the text minus the offending details. Nothing is more compelling in telling us that our interests are deemed as less important than those of an MP. Even though any private detective could dig up the real information (or just buy it from the Telegraph) without a great deal of difficulty.
Guardian readers have so far crawled through 700,000 heavily edited documents. The degree of scrutiny they have brought to it is vastly more than the Telegraph’s — in fact, we now wonder if the Telegraph was not tipped off to go straight for the juicier items, since they, in passing, overlooked so many other interesting things.
More to the point, though, is that the Guardian readers are enabling information to be aggregated. We know now that the Tories claim the most for food. But the aggregations also allow us to compare MP total costs for various things with their actual performance in the House of Commons, thanks to a little additional cross-referencing with TheyWorkForYou.Com.
Once MP second job information is published at the start of July, we will be in a position to see a league table of MP value for money. It will not placate the public. But it may give some old, recalcitrant and now entirely embittered MPs the push they need to, in the time honoured phrase, ‘pursue career interests elsewhere’.