For three years, hardly anyone noticed the quirky little Web site Maciej Ceglowski created to keep track of bedbugs.
That was fine with Ceglowski, because it was more of a personal matter to him after bedbugs bit him one night in a Travelodge in San Francisco.
“It was good psychological therapy for me to get back at the bedbug,” Ceglowski told me in a recent interview.
But bedbugs are in the news these days, with numerous reports about a rise in infestations nationwide
in apartment buildings, hotels and other buildings. And suddenly Ceglowski’s website, bedbugregistry.com
, is not so little anymore.
At the beginning of the year, Ceglowski’s website might have had 3,000 visitors a day and 20 reports of bedbug sightings. Now, the site gets up to 40,000 visitors and 100 new reports a day. (That’s down from a peak of 50,000 visitors a day in August.)
Intended or not, bedbugregistry.com has become a source of news. For some, it’s an example of the potential of crowdsourcing, where thousands of anecdotal reports come together to identify clusters of bedbugs in cities around the country. That relies on the assumption, though, that the information reported is accurate. And that gives some people pause.
Ceglowski says public health officials have called his site irresponsible, and hotel owners have threatened to sue him for allowing people to anonymously report the names of hotels where they claim bedbugs were found. Gawker has mocked the site.
Ceglowski, a 35-year-old freelance computer programmer who lives in San Francisco, does not consider himself a journalist. Journalists, he says, go out and gather information and then use that information to tell a story. “I sit in my underpants and have a database that fills up,” he said.
But Ceglowski is careful to preserve his independence. There are ads on his site, but they are handled by Google. “So I have no say in what ads will run on the site, except for the ability to turn off ads altogether if I choose,” Ceglowski told me in an e-mail. “I like this arrangement because it puts me at arm’s length from sponsors.”
Accuracy of bedbug reports raises questions
No one has collected more anecdotal information about bedbug infestations than Ceglowski, who makes them available in a searchable database and a series of searchable maps. The reports come from all over the place, more than 20,000 reports about 12,000 locations at last count.
Ceglowski tries to weed out prank claims, but otherwise posts whatever comes in. The person making the report is not named on the site, but Ceglowski insists on having an e-mail address he can respond to if a post draws questions.
And then he tells those reading his site to beware. One of the questions in the site’s FAQ
is: “How can you be sure these reports are true?”
The answer? “We can’t — this is the Internet!” the site reads. “All our bedbug reports are submitted through this site, and have not been vetted for accuracy. We do our best to flag posts that have been disputed, but we remind our readers to take things with a grain of salt.”
That has not been enough to stop local reporters from using Ceglowski’s site as the basis for stories about bedbug infestations in their communities. Their reports rarely have the sort of cautionary red flags that Ceglowski waves on his website.
A recent headline in the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune read: “Bedbug problem creeping toward New Orleans
.” The story was based on a search of Ceglowski’s registry. “Despite multiple bedbug reports in the case of several hotels, the suspected infestations couldn’t be definitively confirmed,” the story read.
Ceglowski’s website was discussed during a recent media ethics seminar hosted by Poynter at Kent State University. Sarah Cohen, a journalism professor at Duke University and former database editor for The Washington Post, said she would have difficulty publishing data from the site. “Some of it’s true and some of it’s not,” she said. “You would have absolutely no idea if any of this were true.”
Most troubling, Cohen said, was not knowing what information might be missing from the site. Those who report bedbug sightings are motivated — by anger, public service, fear — to take the time to file a report. How many others are not filling reports, either because they don’t know about the site or because they lack adequate motivation?
“How do you judge what’s not on it rather than what’s on it?” Cohen asked.
Adrian Holovaty of EveryBlock.com
, a member of Poynter’s national advisory boad, did not have the same reservations.
“When you design a system like this, you have to set the proper expectations,” Holovaty said during the panel discussion. “It should be very clear that, hey, this is only stuff that’s reported to us by these random people. It’s not complete. It’s just basic Internet 101, setting expectations and being fair and honest about it.”
, a University of North Carolina journalism professor who did his dissertation on crowdsourcing, says the site advises users about the possible shortcomings of the information. He says the warnings should probably be featured on the home page, but he’s impressed by what Ceglowski has assembled.
“I like the site and I like what it’s doing,” Brabham told me. “It’s pretty straightforward.”
Anonymity worries hoteliers
The volume of reports he is receiving makes it impossible to verify the accuracy of each post, says Ceglowski, who frequently gets complaints from hotel and apartment owners. He says he urges them to post their side of the story, but is reluctant to take a post off the site.
“The sheer volume of submissions vouches that something is going on,” Ceglowski said.
Ceglowski says he allows people to post reports anonymously because people fear retribution from landlords.
“That’s the main reason,” he said. “A secondary reason is that not many people want bedbugs coming up when you search their name.”
Kathryn Potter, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, says hotel owners and managers are bothered by the anonymity and the lack of a vetting process.
“I’m hearing a lot of angst from our hotel companies,” Potter told me. “Their currency is their good reputation.”
Ceglowski allows hotels to post a “dispute” to a report
about their hotel. But Potter says that’s not always sufficient. “Once your name is up on the bedbug registry, it’s very difficult for hotels to overcome that,” she said.
After his own encounter with bedbugs, Ceglowski did a lot of reading and concluded that hotels are often victims as well.
“It was pretty obvious from what I read that hotels were powerless to prevent the problem (though they could take steps to treat it once it happened)…” he told me in an e-mail. “The only hotels I have animosity for are the small group that knowingly allows infestations to persist, either because they serve an impoverished clientele, or because they deal mostly with tourists who only spend a night or two and never come back.”
Public service does not equal journalism
Brabham said sites such as bedbugregistry.com — put together by someone with a very narrow, but intense interest in a subject — are increasingly part of the journalism mix whether their creators consider themselves journalists or not.
“I think that’s what makes journalists and journalism professors nervous,” he said, noting that the people behind such sites may not place much importance on traditional journalistic values such as verifying information before publishing and being transparent about the source of the information.
“It’s up to sites like these to see themselves as serving a public information service,” Brabham said. “When somebody denies they are a journalist when they are doing journalistic work, it’s a little problematic.”
Ceglowski has mixed feelings about such concerns. He says he’s not comfortable with people using his site as a “black list” for hotels, but says there is a need for the information his site provides.
“This is a good example of where the Internet can do something that wasn’t possible before,” he told me.
Ceglowski says there is a cultural divide between people who are comfortable with the Internet and those who are not. “If you go into the site with your critical thinking facilities turned on, it’s extremely helpful,” he said.
Coverage misses subtleties
Ceglowski deals regularly with reporters for traditional media outlets, and he’s often disappointed by their work. He says everyone seems to write the same article at the same time; they often fail to get basic facts correct; and it’s not uncommon for them to use a photo of something other than a bedbug.
“The time pressure they operate under, especially for TV reporters, is so ridiculous,” he said. “They take a lot of shortcuts. It’s been a frustration to some of the entomologists I talk to.”
Brabham said news and information consumers must be smarter, and more diligent, about determining what sources they can rely on in what he calls the “Wild West” of today’s journalism landscape.
But Brabham admits he probably would not stay in a hotel listed on bedbugregistry.com — despite qualms he has about whether the information on the site is accurate.
“Unfortunately, this sort of stuff does have an impact,” he said, “even on people like me who are trained to look at information.”