To many who saw images from the video of U.S. journalist James Foley's murder in August, the backdrop looked like a barren desert landscape. But Eliot Higgins, the British founder of online journalism site Bellingcat, saw clues waiting to be unlocked and analyzed.
In late August, Higgins released his in-depth location analysis of the video, pinning the location to a point in the hills of Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold in north-central Syria. Although there is still no confirmation that the location is accurate, his process dazzled more than a few admirers on social media.
That Higgins wasn’t previously a journalist, doesn’t speak Arabic and has no special knowledge or formal experience with this technology proves the power of open source tools in a digital age. He makes use of open source, publicly accessible material, such as online photos, video, open source tools and social media updates to piece together information and verify details that news organizations might miss.
In 2012, when Higgins began following the Syrian civil war, he was an unemployed finance and administrative worker taking care of his child at home, according to a 2013 profile of him in The New Yorker. His Brown Moses blog, named after the Frank Zappa song, began as an effort to make sense of the vast amount of information being posted online related to the conflict in Syria. Initially, it was an eclectic collection of videos, from explosions to street protests. Then, he began going deeper, asking questions and sourcing things online and via the crowd when he couldn’t understand on his own. His audience grew, and before long, Higgins was being hailed as an expert, by CNN and by major newspapers around the world. The New Yorker’s eight-page profile described him as “perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the [Syrian] war.”
According to Australian independent news site The Conversation, “two overlapping developments in particular have greatly influenced the growth of open-source intelligence.” Those are the explosion of social media and the rise of big data, both of which are clearly expressed in Higgins’ work.
According to some estimates, about 1,200 exabytes of data now exist in the world, and 90 percent of it was created in just the last two years. Every minute, more than 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.
“This networked society has spawned new analytical approaches and opportunities,” according to The Conversation. “From everyday policing to counter-terrorism to civil war, information gleaned from open sources can provide insights into world events like never before.”
But that doesn’t mean deciphering and explaining it is easy. And that’s why Higgins’ new venture, Bellingcat, which launched in July, is dedicated to teaching others how to do what he does. "By and for investigative journalists," it will unite citizen investigative journalists to use open source information to report, plus offer tutorials on how best to do it.
“One of the key aims of Bellingcat is not just to show people what tools and techniques are available for investigating open source information, but also to engage people with investigations,” according to a post on the Bellingcat website that explains how to use the tool Checkdesk.
Bellingcat will also include interviews with designers of the technology, so people can learn directly from the developers, according to VICE.
As a citizen journalist, Higgins turned to Kickstarter for funding for Bellingcat. In August, Bellingcat surpassed a £47,000 (US$75,700) crowdfunding goal on Kickstarter, raising about US$82,000, which will cover basic costs.
Jessica Weiss is a Bogotá-based freelancer.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user AlanCurran with a Creative Commons license.