A Beginner’s Guide to Open Source Investigation

A new wave of open source, ‘couch-investigators’ are transforming investigative journalism. We asked the team at BBC Africa Eye to share their top tips for getting started.

with Daniel Adamson and Ben Strick, BBC Africa Eye

 

A new brand of techniques dubbed ‘open-source investigations’ are making use of open data sets, satellite imagery and social media to uncover evidence and verify facts.

To utilise these new techniques, BBC Africa Eye have built a highly specialised open source investigations team which has allowed them to produce powerful investigations such as Anatomy of a Killing and Sudan’s Livestream Massacre.

At our latest industry day event, we asked some members of the brilliant BBC Africa Eye investigations team to share their insights and tips for getting started as an open source investigator. 

 

Before we start – just to recap, what does open source investigation mean?

Open source investigation is using open source intelligence to conduct research and find evidence that confirms the veracity of your story. Open source intelligence consists of everything you might obtain from publicly available sources – from Google maps, to public data sets and free online tools.

 

Tip 1: The basic “requirements” of an open source investigator

1. WiFi – As long as you have a readily available connection to the internet, you can do almost all open source investigation with free tools; most of these “tools” you probably tinker with anyway like social media, Google earth, and iMovie!

2. Attention to detail – If you don’t already have a good eye for small details, it’s time to train yourself. Open source investigation requires sharp observational skills to detect even the slightest bit of information that might contribute to the bigger picture.

3. Patience – Open source investigation is extremely time consuming. You might not find exactly what you’re looking for right away – but that’s reasonable considering you’ve expanded your research to everything that lives on the worldwide web! 

 

For Anatomy of a Killing, the BBC Africa Eye open source investigations team spent hundreds of hours on Google maps trying to locate a mountain range that matched the profile identified in videos posted on social media.

 

Tip 2: Identify which investigation to pursue

“You need to think very hard about how you can bring these stories to life.” – Daniel Adamson, Series Producer, BBC Africa Eye

For an open source investigation to be successful you need to be able to translate your in depth research and technical data into an engaging story. These investigations are extremely time consuming, so it’s important to identify the right stories to pursue early on. BBC Africa Eye have a number of criteria they use when considering what to investigate:

  • Does this story expose serious wrongdoing?
  • Is this story centred on a significant new revelation?
  • Does this story hold power to account? (i.e. nail someone, not just allege something)
  • Do we have plenty of good visual evidence with which to tell this story?
  • Is this story important/compelling/original enough to command the attention of our audience in this saturated media environment?

If your answers are mainly yes, you know it’s a story worth diving into!

 

In Sudan’s Livestream Massacre, the BBC Africa Eye team were able to use a number of videos that were live-streamed during the event to track the exact route of the protesters.

 

Tip 3: Next steps for starting your open source investigation

Bellingcat Take advantage of Bellingcat’s guides. This is one of the best resources for those who are new to open-source investigation.

Twitter In the golden age of social media there are eyes everywhere. Whether you’re looking at general posts and threads, or receive tips via direct messages, Twitter is an underrated, but very valuable source.

iMovie This video editing software massively aids open source investigation as it allows you to slow down the video you’re investigating to hone in on details.

Google Earth An amazing source for geolocation. Use it to help locate features identified in videos or images, and to pinpoint areas you are looking for.

SunCalc A sundial technology that is very useful for figuring out when a series of events happened. The BBC Africa Eye team were able to use the shadows of soldiers to identify the time frame of the killings in Anatomy of a Killing.

 

In order to be a successful open source investigator, you need to be able to stick out the seemingly never-ending process of compiling data and research. Remember that everything you learn, no matter how useless it may seem, might prove to be of significance later down the line.

Quoting BBC Africa Eye open source analyst, Ben Strick, “That’s the cool thing about this – anyone can jump into this community.”

 


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