A blogger's hobby becomes a valuable war reporting tool

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Audio Transcript: Carol Hills: Some reporting on the extremists in Syria and Iraq can be done from afar. New online tools are helping journalists do that. One example that caught our attention is the crowdfunding website, Bellingcat. Bloggers and reporters are using it to do some creative investigative work, like going through the photos and videos published online by the militants themselves to try and identify where the militants are. The site recently produced an analysis of the video posted by ISIS, showing the beheading of journalist James Foley. We'll be talking Bellingcat's founder Eliot Higgins later this week but today I asked Washington Post contributor Rick Noack to explain how the site works. Rick Noack: If you really want to know how all this works, let's just focus on one example. A few days ago, Higgins uncovered the location of an Iraqi terrorist training camp of Islamic State militants and Higgins told me how it precisely worked. So he had found photos posted by the militants themselves on the internet and first it was possible to establish a time and the direction the camera was facing using the shadows that were visible on these pictures. There was, for example, a bridge on several of the pictures posted online and Higgins wanted to find that bridge. And for that part, he used Google Earth and kind of narrowed down the possible area where the camp was presumably located and he did indeed find a bridge that looked similar. But of course that alone is not enough to be sure whether he found the right location and for the following step, he used something call Panoramio and that's also a very useful and helpful tool because Panoramio relies on Google Maps and allows users to geo-tag their photos. So if you're in Iraq for some reason and you take a picture of a bridge and tag it, you might actually help to locate terrorists in the end because in this specific case, Higgins found similarities between the design of lamp posts on the geo-tagged pictures as well as the pictures posted by the terrorists. Hills: So people at Bellingcat compare these photos and realize that the tags are tagging the very things he's trying to identify? Noack: Right, that's absolutely correct. And actually, this concept he developed is quite remarkable because basically sitting at home in front of your computer, watching Youtube videos or looking at pictures and making this connection between maps, what's happening on the ground and what's being posted on the internet, that is something - I would even call it revolutionary. Hills: But what makes it revolutionary as opposed to simply a hobbyist doing private detective work? Noack: Well, what's really amazing is theoretically everyone could, in fact, do the same but nobody has ever thought about it. If you think about it, it seems extremely easy - the software is available for free on the internet and you really just need time and an interest in such things to do it. There's this whole idea of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, so he's not financed by any institution. He really is just financed by the interests of the people out there. So finding a target, finding the truth, as his mission, as a community, that is kind of something I haven't seen before. Hills: What drives Higgins? Why does he do this? Noack: That's a really interesting question. I think what really drives him is his interest in making use of all the information that is freely available on the internet. If you think about it, all these pictures he uses is not sensitive information, they're not classified, they're freely available. Nobody has ever tried to make use of them and he's really the first person who's publicly blogging about what he finds when he looks at these pictures and I think the support he has experienced has really encouraged him to continue with all of this. Hills: Where do you believe this new kind of data investigation is headed? Noack: I think it could revolutionize journalism in a way. We're already seeing the first efforts to map developments, to kind of make sense of where the Islamic State is right now and it's really hard for journalists as well to keep track of all this and I think such tools are very helpful to understand and to kind of explain to readers, users what's happening in these countries. I think we're experiencing an extremely interesting time because given that all this information is available and now people have started to make it accessible and visible, people are going to understand much more about the world and I think that's also the mission of Higgins and I think that's something we can all benefit from. Hills: Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Thanks Rick. Noack: Thank you for having me.