Citizen everything

Veteran journalist Lynn Greiner considers the impact when the amateur and professional worlds collide - in her field and in IT development. Who polices the "citizen developer"?

We live in a world where lines are blurring between professionals and amateurs. Except we’re no longer calling them “amateurs” – they’re now “citizen” something-or-others.

We have citizen journalists and citizen developers who, according to some, will work for free and supplant the pros. Advocates are trumpeting the death of journalism, and the obsolescence of professional developers. It’s certainly a way to make the products cheaper – an ego-stroke costs nothing – but does it make sense in the Real World? And how far can this “citizen” trend go? Let’s take a look.

Wikipedia provides multiple definitions of citizen journalism, including “an alternative and activist form of newsgathering and reporting that functions outside mainstream media institutions, often as a response to shortcomings in the professional journalistic field, that uses similar journalistic practices but is driven by different objectives and ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than traditional or mainstream journalism.” (Radsch, Courtney C. The Revolutions will be Blogged: Cyberactivism and the 4th Estate in Egypt. Doctoral Dissertation, American University, 2013.)

Often a citizen journalist is just someone with a smartphone who’s at the right place at the right time, and has the presence of mind to record an event as it’s happening, but there are others who actively seek out the news to cover. Now that data is increasingly available, thanks to the Open Data movement, they can troll through public records and uncover interesting things.

But where professional journalists have had certain disciplines drilled into them, citizen journalists usually haven’t had the benefit of that training. That doesn’t mean they can’t write – many are superb writers – but it can mean that they are unaccustomed to doing things like fact checking, finding multiple sources and getting a variety of opinions to flesh out a story. They’re usually not subject to editorial oversight. And that can lead to factual errors that may not be later corrected, hurting the subjects of their stories, the release of information that shouldn’t go public, and introducing bias in stories where there shouldn’t be.

When they get their teeth into a story, sometimes the heat of the moment they make choices that a pro wouldn’t make, choices that may compromise the safety and security of others. Think about people who, in their excitement, tweet out information about police responses during an active incident, giving the criminals a heads-up on what’s being done to apprehend them. Or they may put themselves in danger, and be injured or killed.

This is not to say that professional journalists don’t make the same errors. They do, but they have editors who work to keep them on track. And we just have to look at the recent election campaigns to see the results of the errors and biases that do slip through, and read the news to learn about members of the media who are casualties in conflicts. The difference is, accredited media in conflict zones have at least some protection. Citizen journalists usually don’t. And, sadly, some have ended up dead because of it.

Now, how about citizen developers.

Gartner defines the citizen developer thusly:

A citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT. In the past, end-user application development has typically been limited to single-user or workgroup solutions built with tools like Microsoft Excel and Access. However, today, end users can build departmental, enterprise and even public applications using shared services, fourth-generation language (4GL)-style development platforms and cloud computing services.

In 2009, Gartner predicted that at least 25 percent of new business applications would be built by citizen developers by 2014. It now thinks that half of all business-to-employee mobile apps will be created by enterprise citizen developers by 2018. Assisted by “low code” platforms (a $3 billion US market by 2020, according to Forrester Research) that let users generate applications quickly with a minimum of coding, often via a drag and drop interface, these citizen developers are usually not attached to the IT department. In fact, they tend to be part of the so-called shadow IT group that does its best to stay under IT’s radar. They have other jobs within the organization, and they’re developing apps because they need to get those jobs done. And they often do cool stuff, producing sorely-needed applications in a timely manner.

That’s the upside, and it’s huge. The bonus: it frees up development staff to work on more complex projects that need to be coded.

Lynn Greiner, IT journalist and frequent contributor to InsightaaS

The downside, however, could be significant as well. Citizen developers are often self-taught. And many are very good at what they do – but again, they aren’t subject to the discipline that IT’s developers are ruled by. They build an app to do a job, and in the process things like security and privacy don’t make the cut. Then they may pass the app on to co-workers, who in turn pass it on to others who may need it, and it may even escape the company and move into the wild.

It may be a perfectly good app (in fact, these custom apps often do their jobs very well because they’re designed by people who know precisely what needs to happen). It may save a ton of time and money. But if it exposes confidential data, or compromises employee, partner, or customer privacy, it can also be a huge liability and cost the company a bundle.

Some of the problems can be fixed by having the tools take care of some of the housekeeping. Others can be mitigated by providing checklists and best practice guidelines to all staff, assuming that they will at some point dabble in development, and yet others will need attention from IT or the security team, who will need to audit the apps to ensure they don’t inadvertently expose company data.

As you can see, there’s a place for talented amateurs in some fields, but only with oversight from professionals who can teach them best practices and keep them from getting themselves or their employers into trouble. In time, some of them may become professionals in their chosen fields, in turn guiding newcomers.

We can’t squash the enthusiasm and fresh ideas that drove people to become “citizen” developers or journalists. The reason they did so was dissatisfaction with the way things are done now. All we can do is nudge them in the right direction so their avocation doesn’t end up doing themselves or others harm. And maybe adopt some of their better ideas to improve our professions.