Last week Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society launched Herdict, which encourages Internet users around the world to report blocked, or otherwise inaccessible Websites. The name is a portmanteau of "herd" and "verdict," and true to its name, Herdict allows people to track blackouts in order to determine whether the problem is innocuous and temporary, or the result of government censorship. Dig the trailer (Does anyone launch anything without a trailer anymore?)
The project is the brainchild of the author, law professor, and all around brillionaire Jonathan Zittrain, who not only co-founded Berkman ten years ago, but also conducted pioneering research on Internet filtering earlier in this decade. He eventually helped create the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), which tracks online censorship in countries like China, Iran and Uzbekistan. Herdict is an outgrowth of ONI's work. But whereas ONI gathers anecdotal evidence and technical analysis for academic study, Herdict hopes to aggregate massive amounts of user data to create real time reports. It is essentially, if I understand the technology correctly, a public version of the testing software that ONI operatives (my word choice) used to test sites used to monitor government filtering from within the borders of repressive states. Herdict, then, is part of a larger movement to enlist crowds in an effort to create transparency in government. While it can't stop censorship, it can cast a light on it.
The site's designers clearly took to heart one of the most elemental (and most ignored) principles of crowdsourcing: modularity. Translation: Break a task down into snack-sized bites so it can be performed by what one might call the "coffee break labor force." You can test a few dozen sites in less than five minutes. Modularity is what made Google Image Labeler and the NASA Clickworker such a success. It's fun, and it takes something like .003 seconds to contribute. (For you crowdsourcing geeks out there: Berkman fellow Yochai Benkler has written about modularity and how the relationship between the granularity of tasks and a project's ability to elicit participation. See pages 100-103 in The Wealth of Networks.)
To succeed Herdict will depend on large-scale participation—and not just by the folks in the English-speaking blogosphere. To this end Herdict has put out the call to help translate the site into other languages (using the excellent community translation site, dotSUB). If you're bilingual and happen to believe in a free Internet (and really, who doesn't?), pitch in to help put the herd into Herdict.