Making a routine of citizen journalism

Web-enabled tools make it easier than ever for anyone to document the events of our world

Compared with New Orleans we’ve got little to complain about, but last week’s torrential rains did flood parts of southwestern New Hampshire pretty badly. The town of Alstead, 15 miles north of my home in Keene, got the worst of it: roads crippled, a clutch of homes swept away, several people killed. In Keene, folks were evacuated by boat from homes all along Beaver Brook, and more than a few furnaces and water heaters were wrecked when basements took on five and six feet of water.

At the height of it, on Sunday morning, our cable TV was dark but the DSL lights were blinking green, so my family and I turned to the Internet to scope out what was happening. We didn’t learn much. Depending on what you read, two dams north of us either had or had not broken and a surge either was or wasn’t headed our way. My judgment was that our house, which had stayed dry, would likely remain so. So I grabbed a camcorder, headed out on my bicycle, and documented flood levels that hadn’t been seen locally in over 20 years.

Back home I combined the video clips with maps and voiceover to create a screencast that, TV coverage notwithstanding, may turn out to be the most complete visual record of the situation in Keene. To capture the map views I used MSN Virtual Earth for its superior satellite imagery, while the Gmaps Pedometer, an application layered on Google Maps, enabled me to trace out my route.

The InfoWorld homepage called this as an act of citizen journalism, as did the public radio producer who interviewed me. And I suppose it was. But there really shouldn’t have been anything special about it. Anybody would want to take pictures in a situation like that, and lots of people did. The missing ingredient, which I could only partially supply at the cost of great effort, was geographic context. In this case, I did that by introducing each video clip with a map animation of my route to that spot.

WMUR TV's Web site enabled people to submit and view photos. Later in the day, those images were the best way to understand what was happening statewide, but it was hard to stitch together a coordinated big picture. And when we hosted a refugee from Alstead on Monday night, there was no way to search that archive for photos taken within, say, two miles of his house.

We’re really close to solving that problem and a thousand related ones -- so close that I can taste it. Google Maps and its brethren are frameworks we can use to correlate online data and services with locations in the physical world. GPS, phone, and data networks can supply the locations. We just need to work out a few kinks. Cameras need to know their locations and encode them in the images they write. Map-enhanced services need to make it easy for people to contribute those images and then explore them in various contexts. Media production tools need to simplify the process of merging text, audio, still images, video, and computer-generated visualizations.

Eventually, the gathering of basic documentary evidence won’t be, in and of itself, a special act of citizen journalism. It will just be routine. With lots of eyes and ears on the ground, and a network to connect them, everyone -- first responders, journalists, and citizens alike -- will cope better with crises.