Collaborative mapping of fires in Brazilian favelas showcases possibilities for crowdsourcing the news

Brazilian reporter Patrícia Cornils got a surprising response after sharing on Facebook a Google Docs worksheet listing fires in the favelas of São Paulo. Several people joined the collaborative reporting project that became Fogo no Barraco (Fire in the Shanty), an interactive map that cross references data on fires with real estate appreciation near the affected areas. The map demonstrates the journalistic possibilities of online collaboration and crowdsourcing information.

According to Cornils, the spreadsheet took off when she decided to open the process and ask for help online. "I didn't have any expectations but to start collecting basic information about the fires because I was worried about what I was seeing--am seeing--happening. I think the map only became relevant when it became a map, which is to say, when people were able to start visualizing the fires, she told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Cornils does not know precisely how many people have contributed to the survey but she celebrates the collective work, which has compiled more than 700 cases of fires in favelas. The main sources of information come from news reports and civil defense information. "People participate with no other incentive but the need to support the project and see the topic investigated," the journalist said.

Among the collaborators, programmer Pedro Moraes was responsible for transforming the data into a map. While they did not know each other, Moraes and Cornils were members of Transparência Hacker, an online community that proposes ideas and projects that use technology to benefit the public. According to Moraes, the application was created using open-source software and relies on additional developers to continue advancing. The project's website explains how people can contribute.

News outlets like the Guardian and The New York Times have also launched collaborative investigative reporting projects like "Investigate your MP's expenses" and "The High Price of Creating Free Ads" that generated massive participation. Initiatives like Fogo no Barraco demonstrate that crowdsourcing does not need to be run by a major news organization to be successful.

"The possibility of online collaboration has decentralized the activity we call 'journalism.' In this sense, anyone can be a reporter. Look for information, conduct research, interview sources, reference reports. This is very, very cool. It's journalism without middlemen, without the 'journalist,'" Cornils said.

The project also has a blog where anyone can contribute new ideas.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.