The Guardian Crowdsources the MPs Expense Investigation: Giving Idle Hands Direction

I’m fascinated by today’s effort by The Guardian to crowdsource investigation of the MPs expenses.

My interest isn’t in the topic investigated, really. While I agree that MPs need to be brought down from that Lala land where they can expense duck houses for our hard earned tax money to pay, I do feel that it has somewhat turned into a witch hunt. The time and energy spent by auditors and journalists to establish who should be burnt at the stake first could have been used in much better ways.

mp_expenses_guardian_smallSo The Guardian came up with a solution; use those idle hours we spent faffing around on the web when we should be working and crowdsource the investigation. Built by Simon Willison and a few others, it is a giant repository of the scanned expenses documents for us to browse.

The process is simple:

  1. Visit the “Investigate your MP’s expenses” site
  2. Hit “Start Reviewing” to see the first expense document (Bonus, they provide a progress bar telling us how many pages we’ve looked at)
  3. Decide what kind of document it is and whether it’s interesting
  4. Make observations to help the journalists investigate the right entries

So how did The Guardian manage to make it such that we have collectively crunched through 20,000 pages in the past four hours, when we procrastinate for weeks before doing our own 12 receipts worth of expenses at work? By rewarding us and feeding our voyeuristic streak.

Rewarding us

The rewards are simple; we get satisfaction in knowing we’re taking part in “justice” being made. So far, I’ve marked two items as “Investigate this!” and I feel like a mini Sherlock Holmes.

In addition to this, the use of a big fat progress bar makes us feel the power of the crowd by showing us how quickly it’s progressing. At one point, I refreshed every 60 seconds to see over 100 documents knocked off every minute. For a generation used to racing games’ lap times and Flight Control high scores, it’s just another little buzz.


Feeding our voyeuristic streak

Admit it, you’ve always wondered what these people spend their allowances. Being able to snoop around feeds that urge. Well… somewhat does. There’s enough black tape redacting out claim details to hold together the hockey sticks of an entire team for a couple of seasons, but we can make out enough to shake a finger and tut at our MPs.

How crowdsourcing could (and should) be used

This kind of manual work that cannot be handled by a computer is already widespread on the web.

Spammers use a clever tactic through which they republish a captcha they want to solve from any given site to a porn site, let an “innocent” porn site visitor solve the captcha by telling them they must fill it in to access the site. Use the solution to access the first site. The poor porn site visitor has not only killed kittens, but also helped a spammer fulfill its dirty deed.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is also using the power of crowds by enabling companies to outsource manual tasks to workers at a lesser cost than hiring staff to do colour comparisons or other tasks computers struggle with.

However, the potential for this type of crowdsourcing is amazing. Thousands of people, passionate to get something done, can achieve seemingly impossible tasks when shown a way to direct their efforts.

It makes me wonder how we can unleash our own communities’ potential; beta testing, idea shaping and customer cross-support… The possibilities stretch forever.

Cambridge Congestion Charge: Your chance to speak!

Below, I’ve copied an email I received from the administrator of the Cambridge Congestion Charge forum. I haven’t had the time to edit it or summarise it for my readers, but if you live in or work in Cambridge, please read this, go fill in the survey and let your councilors know that before they smack us with a charge, they’ll need to come up with some solutions.

In my eyes, the first changes they should make are:
1. Encourage carpooling by improving routes reserved to buses and cars with two or more people in it;
2. Improve bus service so that it doesn’t take 3 times longer to get from A to B on the bus than in your own car (see Ottawa’s OC Transpo bus service for an example of a well thought-out plan);
3. Do not include Science Parks in the areas covered, because that’s just money grabbing rather than problem-solving and makes the city look like a bunch of greedy idiots.

Without further ado, here’s the email… Share this information far and wide!



Firstly may I thank you for registering on the Cambridge Congestion Charge website. Secondly may I take this immediate opportunity to say that this will not be sending out regular emails to you.

The Cambridge City Council has launched its public consultation. This basically seems to consist of an online web questionaire and a series of public roadshows around the Cambridgeshire region. I would urge you to take the online questionaire if you haven’t already done so, and visit one of the roadshows as well as contact your local Councillor (easy to use contact details are at the bottom of this email). In the run up to Christmas and New year this important issue may slip your mind and then it may be too late for you to get your point of view across.

As you may know one of the main driving points behind introducing a congestion charge in Cambridge is the investment of a substantial amount of central government money into Cambridge’s transport infrastructure. This money has been offered in return for introducing a congestion charge.

The full proposal document which will form the basis of the City councils bid to get the central government money has been written and is available for download from (copy and paste this link if you need to). The document gives insight into the extensive planning that the council has already made and pinpoints the locations of cameras that would catch motorists that don’t pay, along with plans for mobile vans operating at random locations. I strongly urge you to read this document as either way it will change your way of life in the near future. It is quite long and you have to read it closely to establish exactly what they want to do (such as make Huntingdon Road a one way street for cars going out of the city) but it really is worth it. If you don’t find out about it now and make your views known you may regret it in just a couple of years time.

It also seems that normal “Joe Public” will have to pay a charge of £5 per day at current pricing which doesn’t take into account inflationary increases.

Some useful links and information for you:

City Council Proposal Download
City Council Online Survey (watch out for closed and / or misleading questions & note that this is very difficult to find on the City Council website)

City Council Road Show Locations (watch out for odd opening times)

  • The small hall, Guildhall, Cambridge – December 11 – 3-9pm
  • The recreation ground, Histon and Impington – December 12 – 3-9pm
  • The dining hall, Chatteris Community College – January 10 – 4-9pm
  • King Edward VII Memorial Hall, High Street, Newmarket – January 21 – 3-9pm
  • Sawston Village College, Sawston – January 23 – 3-9pm
  • Commemoration Hall, Huntingdon – January 24 – 3-9pm
  • The Grafton centre, Cambridge – January 26 – 9am-5pm
  • The Grafton centre, Cambridge – January 27 – 11am-4pm
  • Trumpington park and ride, Cambridge – January 30 – 6.30-8.30am and 5-8pm
  • Madingley Road park and ride, Cambridge – January 31 – 6.30-8.30am and 5-8pm
  • The Maltings, Ship Lane, Ely – February 5 – 3-9pm
  • Haverhill Arts Centre, Haverhill – February 6 – 3-9pm
  • The Free Church, Market Hill, St Ives – February 13 – 4-9pm

Link to Contact details for all Cambridge City Councillors including email addresses, postal address and phone numbers:

Please remember to make your view known, especially directly to the council, and please feel free to come back to the website and continue contributing.

If I can be of any assistance to you regarding this matter or using the website please do not hesitate to ask.

Best Wishes,

Cambridge Congestion Charge Website Administrator