Do Crowds Know Best? Some Reflections on CBS Correspondent David Begnaud’s Experiment in Crowdsourcing Journalism on Puerto Rico #6MonthsAfterMaria

One area of research that has fascinated me for the longest time is whether or not crowds’ responses to a particular question are correct. This is an issue that has been widely debated in academic circles. And the literature on this subject is far from conclusive.

While experiments in crowdsourcing are not always successful, thanks to the growing influence of social media, journalists have used these experiments to great effect. In 2015, Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism released its Guide to Crowdsourcing, highlighting different reasons why so many news organizations have adopted these techniques. One of the report’s main takeaways is that when done right crowdsourcing empowers “people to share what they know individually so that journalists can communicate the collective information” (p. 14).

Journalists who are willing to use these techniques recognize the limits of their own knowledge. Thus their “call-outs” are designed to help them get a deeper-understanding of their news stories and hence improve the quality of their reporting. Crowdsourcing journalism changes the dynamics between the journalist and readers, giving readers an opportunity to shape how media organizations cover a particular event.

A good example of crowdsourcing journalism is CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud’s March 16, 2018 “call-out” to his social media followers for suggestions on issues to cover and places to visit in Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria. His reports echoed his followers’ suggestions, as he noted in a video he recorded at the end of his trip to the island. For more information on Begnaud’s methods, read my earlier post.

Begnaud’s crowdsourcing experiment gives us an opportunity to test how knowledgeable the respondents are about Puerto Rico’s challenges post-Maria.

As I noted in an earlier post, using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 responses to Begnaud’s “call-out” for information in Facebook. I utilized Julia Silge’s and David Robinson’s Tidytext package to tokenize the responses, to remove stopwords (i.e. prepositions) and to put together a corpus we can analyze. Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to visit Yabucoa, Humacao, Utuado and other towns in the southeast as well as in the mountains.

Any person following Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery knows that one of the top news stories is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) troubles repairing the island’s electric grid. The lack of electricity serves as a good proxy to the many problems that have affected Puerto Ricans since September 20, 2017: lack of access to reliable healthcare, traffic lights not working, troubles with the distribution of potable water, access to banking services and so forth. And Begnaud’s followers identified electricity as the top issue of concern.

My corpus included over 30,000 words and his followers’ references to electricity represent 4% of this total – a really high number! The main words associated with the electric’s grid repair are included in the following pie chart.

chart (12)

How much do Begnaud’s followers know about Puerto Rico’s challenges  post-Maria? As noted above, any person who has paid attention to the island’s struggles would have encouraged Begnaud to cover how the lack of electricity has affected Puerto Ricans’ lives. Thus, this piece of “collective information” by itself is not too interesting. But combining these data points with the towns Begnaud followers’ encouraged him to visit demonstrates that most of his followers do have a deep understanding of the island’s post-Maria struggles.

As detailed in the next table, PREPA groups the island’s 78 municipalities into seven administrative regions. The figure in the last column aggregates the municipalities mentioned by Begnaud’s followers. For example, PREPA’s San Juan Region aggregates all the times San Juan, Guaynabo, or Trujillo Alto were mentioned in the responses, which was 107 times.

PREPA Region Number of Meters Percent of Meters Number of Municipalities Per Region Sum of Municipalities Mentioned By Begnaud’s Followers By Region
Arecibo 153,407 10.4% 12 519
Bayamón 226,041 15.4% 8 127
Caguas 214,396 14.6% 17 1,288
Carolina 133,861 9.1% 9 226
Mayagüez 229,290 15.6% 15 200
Ponce 207,784 14.1% 14 207
San Juan 308,227 20.9% 3 107
TOTAL 1,473,007 100% 78 2,674

For the last two months, the USACE has been publishing the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each of PREPA’s regions. The biggest challenge has been reconnecting the meters in the Caguas Region followed by the Arecibo Region, as demonstrated in the graph below.

chart (14)

If we only look at the municipalities that were mentioned 20 times or more, then we can appreciate how informed Begnaud’s followers are. Note that those who responded to his “call-out” mentioned 15 out of the 17 municipalities located in the PREPA’s Caguas Region.

PREPA Region Number of Municipalities Per Region Number of Municipalities with 20 Mentions or More
Percentage of Top Municipalities Mentioned
Arecibo 12 7 58%
Bayamón 8 3 38%
Caguas 17 15 88%
Carolina 9 2 22%
Mayagüez 15 4 27%
Ponce 14 4 29%
San Juan 3 1 33%
TOTAL 78 36 46%

What can we learn from this analysis? First, it was a very good idea for Begnaud to crowdsource information from his Facebook and Twitter followers regarding his trip to Puerto Rico.

Second, Begnaud’s experiment in crowdsourcing was successful because his reporting has been closely followed by Puerto Ricans both in the island and in the mainland. As I noted in two earlier posts (here and here), Begnaud’s social media audience started to rapidly grow when he was in Puerto Rico reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Thus, many of the followers that responded to his “call-out” probably had some type of personal connection to the island and its people.

This second point is important because crowdsourcing works best when a majority of the people who responded to his “call-out” have some prior knowledge of the issues being considered. Thus, this particular analysis does not answer whether or not crowds are always right. But it does demonstrate that a majority of the followers who responded to Begnaud’s call for information knew quite a bit about Puerto Rico’s and its challenges following Hurricane Maria.


Which Towns in Puerto Rico Should CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud Visit?

On March 16, 2018, David Begnaud, a correspondent for CBS News, posted a video in his Facebook and Twitter accounts, announcing his return to Puerto Rico and asking his followers to provide suggestions of places he and his team should visit to get a sense of how Puerto Rico is doing six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Before we consider his followers’ suggestions, let’s look at Begnaud’s reporting record and why he has been such an influential figure in the Puerto Rican community. If you are already familiar with Begnaud’s work jump to the next section.

Begnaud & Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

As I noted in an earlier post, for most Puerto Ricans living either in the U.S. mainland or in the island, Begnaud has become a household name. What has made Begnaud’s style of journalism different from his colleagues? On top of his news stories for CBS News, Begnaud has used to great effect his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Many of his tweets or Facebook posts included video interviews of federal and Puerto Rican officials shot with his iPhone and photos of the island’s devastation, which helped his followers appreciate the serious humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. And even when he was in other parts of the United States covering other news events, Begnaud kept providing coverage of Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery sharing his insights or retweeting other news stories.

Begnaud’s coverage of Puerto Rico recently earned him a George Polk Award for Public Service. Furthermore, his reporting helped him grow his audience in Facebook and Twitter. For example, in early September 2017 Begnaud had around 10,000 followers in Twitter, increasing to around 75,000 by November. Today, he has around 85,300 followers in this platform. In Facebook, he currently has over 350,000 followers, growing from around 10,000 followers shortly before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.

Crowdsourcing a News Story: Beganaud’s Facebook Followers & Their Suggestions

As of 18 March 2018, over 200,000 have viewed his video in Facebook. His post has received over 11,000 likes, more than 5,000 shares and over 2,600 comments. I started to read the comments and it became clear that there were two groups of people reacting to Begnaud’s video. The first group lived in Puerto Rico and the second where people living outside the island, but with deep knowledge of its geography and the events that have affected the recovery process. Begnaud followers encouraged him to visit different towns across the island. Which towns or municipalities received the most attention?

Using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 comments. Utilizing David Robinson’s and Julia Silge’s Tidytext package, I tokenized the comments and removed ‘stopwords’ to see which towns or municipalities received the most mentions. Sixty-two of the island’s 78 municipalities received at least five mentions. San Juan and the metropolitan area were mentioned over 100 times, but I decided to exclude the capital city from the bar graph below as most of Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to pay less attention to the metro area and concentrate his reporting to smaller towns and cities.

The bar graph below details the 15 municipalities that received the most mentions. Yabucoa with 407 mentions tops the list. It is followed by Humacao with 250 mentions and Utuado with 170.

chart (11).png

The fact that Yabucoa and Humacao head this list is not surprising. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Yabucoa and the town has not recovered since then. Humacao a small city of 50,000 residents, a few miles north from Yabucoa is also still struggling to return to normal. The other towns are mostly in the island’s mountainous interior, where the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have had difficulty repairing the electric grid.

Concluding Thoughts

Begnaud’s decision to ask his followers where to visit and what issues merited his attention was a very good idea. His followers overwhelmingly believe that he should spend some time in the island’s interior and coastal towns in the southeast. Begnaud’s method raises an important question about crowdsourcing and whether journalists and other researchers should adopt this strategy. But this is an issue I will tackle in a future post.

Restoring Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid at the Municipal Level: Does the Mayor’s Party Affiliation Matter?

AJ Vicens, a reporter who covers Puerto Rico issues for Mother Jones, noted in a tweet:

Someone I met in San Juan tonight compared electric grid restoration in different parts of town to gerrymandering.

I found this tweet interesting so I replied to Mr. Vicens’s tweet, asking what he thought the person meant by that statement. And he promptly replied:

I think it was implying that power resources are distributed based on political and other factors, not necessarily on need or in an even way.

When I visited the island last week, to visit family and do some research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) efforts to restore electricity, I also heard similar opinions. In addition, many people talked about countless alleged cases of corruption in PREPA. Some of these were covered by the local press – a subject that will be explored in a future Congressional hearing.

For now, let’s ignore the bribery allegations. I am interested in the following question: has politics played a role in the efforts to restore electricity to the island’s municipalities? In other words, does political party affiliation or political favoritism determined the USACE’s and PREPA’s efforts? And why do Puerto Ricans feel that this is the case?

Before we answer these questions, it is important to first note that Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each with an elected mayor and an elected legislative assembly.

In terms of population, the biggest municipality is San Juan with 347,052 people and the smallest is Culebra with 1,818 people. While the pro-statehood, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) won all the territory-level  institutions (i.e. the governorship, the legislature and the resident commissioner seat) in the 2016 general election, the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won 45 of the municipalities. Over 2 million people live in municipalities controlled by the PPD, while close to 1.4 million live in municipalities controlled by the PNP. 

As of this morning, 179 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, 92% of the island’s 1,473,000 electricity customers have power, leaving around 120,000 customers without power. As the graph below shows, since 2 January 2018, around 545,000 customers have been reconnected to the electric grid.

chart (5)

Unfortunately, we don’t have these customer level data for the last months of 2017 as PREPA’s computer systems could not calculate how many meters were connected to the grid. But the graph shows that the process to repair the electric system has been very slow and has frustrated many Puerto Ricans.

Another problem with this graph is that it does not actually tell us how many people have electricity at the municipal level. Since mid-January 2018, the USACE has been sharing the number of connected meters by regions. The regions corresponds to PREPA’s division of the islands into the following clusters: Arecibo, Bayamon, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, Mayaguez and San Juan.

Since mid November 2017, some PPD mayors have questioned whether PREPA and the USACE have spent more time and resources addressing the electricity needs of municipalities controlled by the PNP. While PREPA officials have denied these claims, in mid January 2018, more PPD mayors, frustrated by the slow pace of the recovery, raised the same concerns. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló asked the mayors not to politicize the recovery efforts, his chief of staff, William Villafañe, admitted that the mayors needed access to more information on PREPA’s efforts. Villafañe’s efforts however have not addressed these mayors’ concerns, as many of them noted in a meeting hosted by the governor on 28 February 2018.

Given the island’s politics and Puerto Ricans’ frustrations with the slow recovery process, it is not surprising that many believe that the efforts to repair the island’s electric grid has been shaped by political connections to La Fortaleza – the governor’s residence. But, is this the case?

On 19 January 2018, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a reaction to PPD mayors’ growing criticisms, published the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each municipality. As noted in the table below, 60% of the island’s electric customers had power. The average of customers with electricity in municipalities controlled by either political party was the same.

I recently received a copy of a map prepared by the USACE and PREPA for the 28 February meeting mentioned above. At the time, 80.5% of the island’s electric customers had power. The figures suggest that the average number of customers with electricity in municipalities administered by mayors of the PPD and PNP is roughly the same. But given that more Puerto Ricans today reside in PPD-controlled municipalities, the total number of customers connected to the grid is larger in PPD-controlled municipalities than in PNP-controlled ones.

chart (8)

Although I do not have recent figures, these numbers suggest that political favoritism probably did not influence the USACE‘s and PREPA’s efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers. Looking at averages is a tricky undertaking as these numbers can hide important trends. In future posts, I will break these numbers at the regional level. This may provide new ways to look at the data, discover new trends, and reveal insights that may answer these important questions.

While more research is still need, it is also critical to take this opportunity and reflect as to why the mayors and so many Puerto Ricans believe that the USACE and PREPA’s efforts are driven by political favoritism and corruption. Lack of trust in the island’s political parties or political institutions is not a new development. The slow recovery process has only heightened these sentiments and these will further complicate efforts to reform Puerto Rico’s economy and political structures.

Similarly, this lack of trust is also an outcome of a poor public relations strategy on the part of the Puerto Rico’s government. To be fair to the USACE and PREPA, they have used their various social media accounts to inform the world about their efforts. Although their communications do help us understand why it has taken so long to repair the electrical system, they have not addressed Puerto Ricans’ frustrations or anxieties.

Moreover, Puerto Ricans’ negative view of PREPA’s record of poor service has shaken their confidence on the public utility’s capacity to restore power to the island. Similarly, Governor Rosselló’s repeated criticisms of the USACE’s efforts has forced many Puerto Ricans to question its personnel’s commitment and resolve.

It is too late to correct these problems. But lessons need to be learned as Puerto Ricans start to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Emergency Power Installation in Post-Maria Puerto Rico

In my last post, I broke down the U.S. Army Corps’ Engineers’ (USACE) four-part strategy to restore Puerto Rico’s electric system post-Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The first of these parts is the installation of temporary emergency power generation.

On 1 November 2017, the USACE reported that its 249th Engineering Battalion established a record 366 temporary generators, beating the previous record of 310 installations set in 2007. The old record was connected to the USACE’s recovery efforts in Louisiana and neighboring states following Hurricane Katrina.

As of 16 February 2018, the USACE has installed 1,633 temporary generators and 782 are currently in operation. The graph below demonstrates the relationshop between the number of generators requested by FEMA and the Puerto Rican government to power  the island’s critical infrastructure facilities and other buildings providing emergency services and the amount of generators installed. The graph shows that the USACE and its contractors have so far met 95% of all requests.


The USACE has been making these data available via its social media accounts since 18 October 2017, which I have been collecting since late October 2017.

Because most of these generators are not meant to operate for long periods of time, the USACE’s personnel and its contractors have provided countless of hours of maintenance to its generators. The USACE has also fixed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) and Puerto Rican government’s temporary generators.

In an effort to bring electricity to towns devastated by Hurricane Maria, the USACE has recently established several micro-grids throughout the island. So far, the USACE has installed micro-grids in Patillas, Maunabo, Naguabo, Yabucoa, Culebra, Lares, Villalba and Arecibo.

In the next post, I will review the USACE’s work in the second element of its four-part strategy to help the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority restore the island’s electric grid.

Note: Please note that these posts on the USACE’s work in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Maria and Irma are part of a wider academic project. Feel free to contact me if you have any more information.


Consequences of an Unrealistic Timeline: The Politics of Restoring Electricity to Puerto Rico’s Customers

BACKGROUND NOTE: In a previous post, titled “The Risk of Unrealistic Expectations”, I examine why restoring electricity to the island has been so slow. Since then, I have been researching this issue and it is now part of a wider academic project examining U.S.-Puerto Rico relations after Hurricane Maria. In this post, I focus on Governor Rosselló’s criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps Engineers’ (USACE) strategy and efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers following Hurricane Maria. The next posts look at the USACE’s strategy and examines the data connected to these efforts.

On 27 September 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered the U.S. Army Corps of the Engineers (USACE) to work with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to restore the island’s electric system, which was devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

From all the issues Puerto Rico has faced since Hurricane Maria, restoring electricity to the island’s customers has probably received the most media attention. It probably ranks as the most controversial topic of discussion among Puerto Ricans. The USACE’s efforts have not been  free from controversy. The main sticking point has been the timeline to restore electric service.

On 14 October 2017, writing in FEMA’s Blog, Brigadier General Diana Holland, the USACE’s Commander for the South Atlantic division, noted:

We believe that 80% of the system is affected, but that is only an estimate. We know that it took five months to restore the majority of power following Hurricane Georges… and I have been told that the damage this time is more extensive.

On that same day, Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, announced PREPA’s timeline to restore electric service, promising that his administration would reestablish power to 95% of customers by 15 December 2017. Table 1 captures the governor’s timeline.

Table 1. Rosselló’s Timeline for Restoring the Electric System 


Generation Goal

Actual Generation


31 October 2017




15 November 2017




1 December 2017




15 December 2017




A week later Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the USACE, said that most Puerto Ricans should have power by the end of May 2018. The USACE’s timeline has not really changed since mid-October 2017. USACE officials believe that most customers will have power restored by the end of February 2018 and they hope to complete the entire project by May 2018.

Given the USACE’s views, why did Governor Rosselló announce such an unrealistic timeline? In an interview on 27 December 2017 with Agencia EFE, Rosselló insisted that USACE officials had personally assured him that they could meet his timeline. Of course, it is plausible that the governor was under this impression. But, it is unlikely that USACE agreed to this plan as PREPA’s executive director, Ricardo Ramos, told the press on 27 September 2017 that it would take six months to reestablish power to Puerto Rico’s customers. Moreover, repeated statements from the USACE personnel contradict Rosselló’s opinions on the matter.

In one of her recent columns, Sandra Rodriguez de Cotto argues that Ramos’s remarks did not sit well with the governor’s closest advisors. She also writes that the experience may have affected his connections to Rosselló’s inner circle and that his demeanor and body language had changed after the incident. Was Ramos pressured to conform with the governor’s timeline, even though he believed that it would take longer to reestablish power?

Two days before Rosselló’s announced his timeline, Ramos was asked by a reporter to explain when he thought power would be restore to the island’s customers, he said:

In terms of the power system restoration, for cultural reasons, we’re not saying exactly what the date is, because we will get expectations that will put pressure on the utility and its employees.

David Ferris of E&E News seems to have been surprised by Ramos’s remarks. He noted:

That statement would make the typical utility executive raise his or her eyebrows in disbelief. Confronted with angry customers, the CEOs of mainland U.S. power companies might prefer not to raise expectations about when a blackout will end. Yet they usually give their best guess, knowing that shrugging would only incur the wrath of customers and after them regulators and politicians.

Citing Puerto Rican lawmakers, Ferris concludes that Ramos’s statement is an outgrowth of PREPA’s corporate culture which places little value on transparency or public accountability. While his assessment is correct, his analysis fails to understand that Ramos’s statement was more calculated. Under pressure to conform with Rosselló’s more aggressive timeline, he decided to punt and let others answer the question.

It is this background that may explain why Ramos approved two controversial contracts with Whitefish Energy for $300 million and Cobra Energy for another $200 million. It could also explain why PREPA and the Rosselló administration did not sign mutual assistance agreements with the American Public Power Association (APPA) or other U.S. utilities in the mainland. Once these contracts were signed, PREPA officials believed these companies would help its crews meet the governor’s timeline.

But these decisions proved to be disastrous for the recovery efforts. FEMA and the USACE had not been informed of these two contracts and they did not approve them. Given Whitefish’s lack of experience, exorbitant charges and problems connected to the bidding process, the Rosselló administration was pressured by the U.S. Congress and FEMA to cancel the contract. While Rosselló distanced himself from the Whitefish scandal, emphasizing that he had little say in PREPA’s decisions, this strategy undermined Rosselló’s timeline and tainted his credibility with Puerto Ricans, lawmakers in Washington, and Trump administration officials.

After the cancellation of the Whitefish contract and frustrated by all the criticisms, Rosselló met with Nick Brown and Jessica Resnick-Ault of Reuters and during the interview he lashed out at the USACE blaming the slow progress to a “lack of urgency” among USACE officials. He noted that: “Everything that has been done right now has been done by PREPA or the subcontractors PREPA has had.” In addition, Rosselló told Brown and Resnick-Ault that because of the USACE’s slow efforts, his administration was pushed to sign mutual assistance agreements with utilities in New York and Florida to speed-up the recovery process.

Rosselló’s current views of the USACE’s efforts are still the same, but he has recently argued that the slow pace of the recovery efforts is tied to the island’s territorial status, suggesting the federal government has treated Puerto Rico’s disaster differently than other states’ natural disasters. Are Rosselló’s opinions correct? Has the USACE, when it comes to the the restoration of electric services, dropped the ball or treated Puerto Rico differently from other missions in the U.S. mainland?

I will explore in future posts. But for now, it seems clear that one reason why the restoration of electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers has been so slow can be linked to Rosselló’s decision to unveil an unrealistic timeline that pressured Ramos and his colleagues at PREPA to device an equally unrealistic strategy.