Let’s talk about User Generated Data

We have been all about User Generated Content (UGC), but now it’s time to truly connect journalism to devices and shift the discussion to User Generated Data, according to former AP UGC Editor Fergus Bell in this guest post.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 25, 2015

I have spent much of my career focusing on the value of UGC to the news industry and then more recently shifting that focus onto the ethics that guide its use. I’ve always believed that UGC won’t work for news organisations if it doesn’t also give back to those creating it.

The growing development and adoption of smartphone technology by our audiences has the huge potential to take UGC to a very exciting place.

If you are a journalist, editor or news organisation and you aren’t thinking about how we can specifically harness the power of our audiences through the devices that most of them have in their pocket, or on their wrist, then it is time to start.

The technology which so many people use to consume news, also has the power to feed the news in a way that certainly hasn’t been tackled properly, yet.

So what on earth do I mean by User Generated Data?

Your smartphone will likely have an accelerometer and GPS capability. This means that when you go running the app will give you all the data you need to show your activity. You might share the map on Facebook to show off to your friends but what about sharing it for something more useful?

What if journalists were given access (by you, but don’t worry we’ll look at the ethics in a bit) to your exercise or movement data and combine it with the data of 1,000 others.

Imagine the kinds of stories we could tell and the interesting ways we could present it. The content could be even more engaging because the facts would be based on the input from our audiences, kind of the definition of engagement, right? Wearables now add a whole new dimension.

But wait, what does an audience get back if they give you their data? Well, I love the way that Yahoo! News Digest gives you the option to choose when you receive your morning and evening edition. But why not just deliver me my content when I wake up? My phone knows when that was because I probably set the alarm on it that woke me up, but it can also detect when I physically pick it up. I don’t want my content delivered to me at 8am when one day I might wake up earlier. If I give you access to my data so you know when I’m ready, then can you please give it to me when I am ready?

We can of course go so much further. My device knows when I am travelling on a train and it detects that is the time when I do most of my reading. So how about pushing something to me? I won’t be annoyed. Likewise if I give you access so you know I have just gone for that run, then why don’t you send me health and fitness content that evening, or even on a Sunday morning when I’ll have even more time to read it?

Some might argue that push notifications are a completely different thing to the incoming user data. My argument is precisely the opposite. It is another way of making the most of user-generated data and giving back to the audience.

The implications for breaking news are massive as well, and I’ll definitely be exploring this. Some have already started to ask for content-based user/audience proximity to a news event but we haven’t got it right yet. We can though, and the key is working with the audience to make it a mutually beneficial experience based on trust and value to both sides.

And of course we need to discuss the ethical issues. For example: how do we protect this data? How do we keep it anonymous? How do we make sure it isn’t abused or misrepresented? How do we ensure trust at the point of opening up access? What about the issue of giving audiences assignments — how do we keep them safe? How do we keep the content coming in honest and verifiable?

We are now on the cusp of something huge and potentially very powerful for our industry, but also for our readers and audiences. There are of course editorial, technical and ethical questions we need to address, but as long as we work hard to get it right from the start, then I think we can open up an amazing new source of storytelling that is both fed and consumed by our audiences.

*A similar version of this piece was originally published by Bell on Medium

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