Bellingcat, one of the most successful investigative-journalism operations in the world, began in the way so many great ideas do: with someone in a boring, dead-end job, staring down middle age. Eliot Higgins was working at an office in Leicester, a midsize city in the English Midlands. He was 32, with a baby on the way, settling into what looked like a life of white-collar drudgery—his one escape being online computer games. “From afar, I watched politicians and celebrities and journalists as if they were another breed,” he writes in We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News. “I found no place in the larger world, and had no prospect of ever having an impact.”

Protesters fill Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February of 2011, shortly before President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation—world-shaking events that Higgins watched from his desk.

It was 2011, and the Middle East was exploding in the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Higgins, like many of his generation, had a childhood and young adulthood bookended by the first Gulf War and 9/11. When protesters converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February of 2011, Higgins was watching the events unfold from his desk. Security forces stormed in, beating foes of the regime and driving them away. Information from official news sources was scarce. But Andy Carvin, a blogger for National Public Radio, began piecing together the story about what was unfolding by posting information from people who were there on the ground and were sharing what they witnessed via social media and messaging apps.