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.

Why did Ricardo Rosselló Create Puerto Rico’s “Statehood Commission”?

Six months ago, Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood Governor, Ricardo Rosselló, signed a bill establishing the “Puerto Rico Equality Commission” – known today as the “Puerto Rico Statehood Commission”. The goal of the Commission is to help the Puerto Rican government lobby the U.S. Congress to admit the unincorporated U.S. territory as the nation’s 51st state. The bill stipulates that the Commission is part of ” the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA)” and as such PRFAA “shall request and justify before the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Legislative Assembly the allocation of funds for the operations of the Commission as part of the budget thereof.”

Inspired by the Tennessee Plan, the Commission’s seven members serve as “shadow lawmakers” asking Congress to recognize them as Puerto Rico’s representatives. Thus, two of these members serve as “shadow” senators and the rest are “shadow” congressmen. The strategy went into effect this week. On January 10, 2018, Jennifer González Colón, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, in a speech in the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives asked the U.S. Congress to recognize and seat the Commission’s members in their respective chambers.

After her “historic” speech, she joined the Commission’s member and Governor Rosselló for a press conference to explain their strategy’s rationale. In many ways, Rosselló and the Commission’s members noted that they wanted to end the island’s colonial history and its second-class status, while also fulfilling the will of the voters who favored statehood in the controversial plebiscite held on June 11, 2017.

Why has Rosselló and the leaders of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) pursued this strategy? After all, the island and its residents are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In addition, while the statehood option received 97% of the votes in the June plebiscite, only 23% of registered voters participated in the process – raising question about the validity of the vote. Both the White House and Congress have demonstrated little interest in Puerto Rico’s status question and statehood does not enjoy widespread support among Democratic or Republican lawmakers at this time.

Also, the strategy seems to be poorly executed. Here are at least two criticisms. First, the Commission’s website has not been updated recently. For instance, the site fails to mention that Alfonso Aguilar, who replaced Felix Santoni, is a member of the Commission. It also fails to explain who the “shadow senators” and “shadow congressmen” actually are. Plus the site fails to provide biographical notes for each of its members. Even worse, it is not clear how people can contact the Commission.

Second, the press conference was not even transmitted via C-SPAN. The best we have is a shaky Facebook Live video captured with a cell phone. If this was a serious effort, the Governor should have paid a videographer to tape the conference and share segments of the press conference with major news outlets and make a full copy available via YouTube.

If the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about Puerto Rico’s statehood aspirations, it is not clear that this was achieved. Google Trends data for January 10, 2018 does show that interest in Puerto Rico among Google users in the United States increased. But interest was not driven by the announcement of the Statehood Commission, but by the tsunami alert issued for Puerto Rico following a 7.6 earthquake off Hondura’s coast.

A search in the TV News archive for January 10 and 11, 2017 also shows that the tsunami alert dominated the news coverage during the morning of the 10th, while the news coverage connected to Puerto Rico for the rest of the 10th and the 11th was connected to a national shortage of IV bags, many of which are produced in Puerto Rico. The single mention of the Statehood Commission is linked to a C-SPAN video of González Colón’s speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

An although some print and online media did cover the news conference and Rosselló’s plan, a MediaCloud search shows that coverage of the Statehood Commission was overshadowed by other issues connected with the island’s slow recovery after Hurricane Maria.

In many ways, the goal of González Colón’s speech and the subsequent press conference was to try to unify the NPP and to try to remake Rosselló’s image as leader of the NPP and of Puerto Rico. Before Hurricane Maria, Rosselló was seen by many as a competent leader. Today, that is not the case. Some prominent lawmakers and Trump administration officials have questioned his decisions, many Puerto Ricans seem to be losing hope that he (and his administration, including the First Lady) can lead the Puerto Rican government forward, and many of the NPP’s leaders have either undermined his authority or are ready to do so in the near future. This last point especially applies to the Republican members of the Commission and the NPP who have raised questions of Rosselló’s criticisms of the Trump administration and the Republican Party following passage of the federal tax bill.

It is difficult to foresee what impact Puerto Rico’s slow recovery or the current state of US-Puerto Rican relations will have on the aspirations of the pro-statehood movement. But if Rosselló cannot find ways to secure the island’s streets, rebuild the electricity grid and get Congress to finance Puerto Rico’s recovery, many Puerto Ricans are not only going to question Rosselló’s governorship but his strategy of combining his fight for statehood with the island’s post-Maria recovery.  If this happens, the Commission’s credibility will weaken and pro-statehood Puerto Ricans’ dreams will also fade with time.


How Many Puerto Ricans are Still Living in Government-Run Shelters after Hurricane Maria?

In trying to understand Hurricane Maria’s political and socio-economic effects on Puerto Rico, I have been doing research on Hurricane Georges’s impact on the island in 1998. Georges made landfall on September 21 as Category 3 hurricane. The storm’s eye-wall entered the island south of Humacao and exited north of Cabo Rojo. A lot of the destruction was associated with Georges’s heavy rainfall which topped at 30 inches in Jayuya.

On October 30, 1998, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that the Puerto Rican government administered 416 shelters, housing around 28,000 individuals.  Georges claimed the lives of 8 Puerto Ricans; one as a direct result of the hurricane and seven were classified as indirect deaths. The CDC collected this information from Puerto Rico’s Institute for Forensic Science.

How many shelters did the Puerto Rican government establish before Hurricane Maria made landfall and how many Puerto Ricans have resided in these facilities?


Surprisingly, the Puerto Rican government only operated 160 shelters after Hurricane Maria. Even though Maria was more destructive than Georges, data collected from demonstrate that these shelters housed up to 11,105 people.


As of December 10, the government is administering 39 shelters with 737 still living there. At this rate, some of these Puerto Ricans will be celebrating the holidays in these shelters.

The difference between Georges and Maria are quite stark in terms of the number of shelters and people living in these facilities. Why? Did Georges destroy more homes than Maria? How do these numbers compare to Hurricane Hugo?

In terms of Hugo, a CDC study found that the Puerto Rican government established 161 shelters, housing an estimated 10,300 persons. Compared to Georges and Maria, Hugo was less destructive, mostly affecting Vieques, Culebra and the towns of Humacao, Ceiba, Fajardo, Luquillo, Rio Grande and Canovanas.

Why are we seeing such a low number of shelters and shelterees today? Can the island’s shrinking population explain this anomaly?

 Hurricane Estimated Total Population Highest Number of Shelterees Percentage of Population in Shelters
Hugo 3,487,000 10,300 0.30%
Georges 3,770,000 28,000 0.74%
Maria 3,411,000 11,105 0.33%

It is important to note that the total population estimate was calculated by the U.S. Census. The figure for Maria represents the U.S. Census estimate for 2016 as this year’s estimate is not available. But what is clear is that today’s numbers are comparable to Hugo’s and lower than the Georges’s.

This issue deserves more research. It would be interesting to see whether we could have a better understanding of where the shelters were established, how many people resided in these facilities and for how long. I wonder if these data are available for Hurricanes Georges and Hugo too. More importantly, how many shelters were opened before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico? How many people rode out the storm in these buildings? How many people resided in these shelters in the first days after the storm?

Given the available data, it seems that more people lived in shelters following Hurricane Georges than Hurricane Maria. This reality raises one important question: how accurate are the Puerto Rican government’s current statistics? Are there any shelters established by private donors, such as churches or the Red Cross, not included in the government’s tallies? And if so, how many people have they helped?

This is an interesting puzzle and I will further investigated in future posts.