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June 27 2013

16:27

Sensor journalism, storytelling with Vine, fighting gender bias and more: Takeaways from the 2013 Civic Media Conference

mit-knight-civic-media-conference-2013Are there lessons journalists can learn from Airbnb? What can sensors tell us about the state of New York City’s public housing stock? How can nonprofits, governments, and for-profit companies collaborate to create places for public engagement online?

There were just a few of the questions asked at the annual Civic Media Conference hosted by MIT and the Knight Foundation in Cambridge this week. It covered a diverse mix of topics, ranging from government transparency and media innovation to disaster relief and technology’s influence on immigration issues. (For a helpful summary of the event’s broader themes check out VP of journalism and innovation Michael Maness‘s wrap-up talk.)

There was a decided bent towards pragmatism in the presentations, underscored by Knight president Alberto Ibargüen‘s measured, even questioning introduction to the News Challenge winners. “I ask myself what we have actually achieved,” he said of the previous cycles of the News Challenge. “And I ask myself how we can take this forward.”

While the big news was the announcement of this year’s winners and the fate of the program going forward, there were plenty of discussions and presentations that caught our attention.

Panelists and speakers — from Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and WNYC’s John Keefe to Columbia’s Emily Bell and recent MIT grads — offered insights on engagement (both online and off), data structure and visualization, communicating with government, the role of editors, and more. In the words of The Boston Globe’s Adrienne Debigare, “We may not be able to predict the future, but at least we can show up for the present.”

One more News Challenge

Though Ibargüen spoke about the future of the News Challenge in uncertain terms, Knight hasn’t put the competition on the shelf quite yet. Maness announced that there would indeed one more round of the challenge this fall with a focus on health. That’s about all the we know about the next challenge; Maness said Knight is still in the planning stages of the cycle and whatever will follow it. Maness said they want the challenge to address questions about tools, data, and technology around health care.

Opening up the newsroom

One of the more lively discussions at the conference focused on how news outlets can identify and harness the experience of outsiders. Jennifer Brandel, senior producer for WBEZ’s Curious City, said one way to “hack” newsrooms was to open them up to stories from freelance writers, but also to more input from the community itself. Brandel said journalists could also look beyond traditional news for inspiration for storytelling, mentioning projects like Zeega and the work of the National Film Board of Canada.

Laura Ramos, vice president of innovation and design for Gannett, said news companies can learn lessons on user design and meeting user needs from companies like Airbnb and Square. Ramos said another lesson to take from tech companies is discovering, and addressing, specific needs of users.

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Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said one solution for innovation at many companies has been creating research and development departments. But with R&D labs, the challenge is integrating the experiments of the labs, which are often removed from day-to-day activity, to the needs of the newsroom or other departments. Bell said many media companies need leadership that is open to experimentation and can juggle the immediate needs of the business with big-picture planning. Too often in newsrooms, or around the industry, people follow old processes or old ideas and are unable to change, something Bell compared to “watching six-year-olds playing soccer,” with everyone running to the ball rather than performing their role.

Former Knight-Mozilla fellow Dan Schultz said the issue of innovation comes down to how newsrooms allocate their attention and resources. Schultz, who was embedded at The Boston Globe during his fellowship, said newsrooms need to better allocate their developer and coding talent between day-to-day operations like dealing with the CMS and experimenting on tools that could be used in the future. Schultz said he supports the idea of R&D labs because “good technology needs planning,” but the needs of the newsroom don’t always meet with long-range needs on the tech side.

Ramos and Schultz both said one of the biggest threats to change in newsrooms can be those inflexible content management systems. Ramos said the sometimes rigid nature of a CMS can force people to make editorial decisions based on where stories should go, rather than what’s most important to the reader.

Vine, Drunk C-SPAN, and gender bias

!nstant: There was Nieman Foundation/Center for Civic Media crossover at this year’s conference: 2013 Nieman Fellows Borja Echevarría de la Gándara, Alex Garcia, Paula Molina, and Ludovic Blecher presented a proposal for a breaking news app called !nstant. The fellows created a wireframe of the app after taking Ethan Zuckerman’s News and Participatory Media class.

The app, which would combine elements of liveblogging and aggregation around breaking news events, was inspired by the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing and manhunt. The app would pull news and other information from a variety of sources, “the best from participatory media and traditional journalism,” Molina said. Rather than being a simple aggregator, !nstant would use a team of editors to curate information and add context to current stories when needed. “The legacy media we come from is not yet good at organizing the news in a social environment,” said Echevarría de la Gándara.

Drunk C-SPAN and Opened Captions: Schultz also presented a project — or really, an idea — that seems especially timely when more Americans than usual are glued to news coming out of the capitol. When Schultz was at the Globe, he realized it would be both valuable and simple to create an API that pulls closed captioning text from C-SPAN’s video files, a project he called Opened Captions, which we wrote about in December. “I wanted to create a service people could subscribe to whenever certain words were spoken on C-SPAN,” said Schultz. “But the whole point is [the browser] doesn’t know when to ask the questions. Luckily, there’s a good technology out there called WebSocket that most browsers support that allows the server and the browser to talk to each other.”

To draw attention to the possibilities of this technology, Schultz began experimenting with a project called Drunk C-SPAN, in which he aimed to track key terms used by candidates in a televised debate. The more the pols repeat themselves, the more bored the audience gets and the “drunker” the program makes the candidates sound.

But while Drunk C-SPAN was topical and funny, Schultz says the tool should be less about what people are watching and more about what they could be watching. (Especially since almost nobody in the gen pop is watching C-SPAN regularly.) Specifically, he envisions a system in which Opened Captions could send you data about what you’re missing on C-SPAN, translate transcripts live, or alert you when issues you’ve indicated an interest in are being discussed. For the nerds in the house, there could even be a badge system based on how much you’ve watched.

Schultz says Opened Captions is fully operational and available on GitHub, and he’s eager to hear any suggestions around scaling it and putting it to work.

followbiasFollow Bias is a Twitter plugin that calculates and visualizes the gender diversity of your Twitter followers. When you sign in to the app, it graphs how many of your followers are male, female, brands, or bots. Created by Nathan Mathias and Sarah Szalavitz of the MIT Media Lab, Follow Bias is built to counteract the pernicious function of social media that allows us to indulge our unconscious biases and pass them along to others, contributing to gender disparity in the media rather than counteracting it.

The app is still in private beta, but a demo, which gives a good summary of gender bias in the media, is online here. “The heroes we share are the heroes we have,” it reads. “Among lives celebrated by mainstream media and sites like Wikipedia, women are a small minority, limiting everyone’s belief in what’s possible.” The Follow Bias server updates every six hours, so the hope is that users will try to correct their biases by broadening the diversity of their Twitter feed. Eventually, Follow Bias will offer metrics, follower recommendations, and will allow users to compare themselves to their friends.

LazyTruth: Last fall, we wrote about Media Lab grad student Matt Stempeck’s LazyTruth, the Gmail extension that helps factcheck emails, particularly chain letters and phishing scams. After launching LazyTruth last fall, Stempeck told the audience at the Civic Media conference that the tool has around 7,000 users. He said the format of LazyTruth may have capped its growth: “We’ve realized the limits of Chrome extensions, and browser extensions in general, in that a lot of people who need this tool are never going to install browser extensions.”

Stempeck and his collaborators have created an email reply service to LazyTruth, that lets users send suspicious messages to ask@lazytruth.com to get an answer. Stempeck said they’ve also expanded their misinformation database with information from Snopes, Hoax-Slayer and Sophos, an antivirus and computer security company.

LazyTruth is now also open source, with the code available on GitHub. Stempeck said he hopes to find funding to expand the fact-checking into social media platforms.

Vine Toolkit: Recent MIT graduate Joanna Kao is working on a set of tools that would allow journalists or anyone else to use Vine in storytelling. The Vine Toolkit would provide several options to add context around the six-second video clips.

Kao said Vines offer several strengths and weaknesses for journalists: the short length, ease of use, and the built-in social distribution network around the videos. But the length is also problematic, she said, because it doesn’t provide context for readers. (Instagram’s moving in on this turf.) One part of the Vine Toolkit, Vineyard, would let users string together several vines that could be captioned and annotated, Kao said. Another tool, VineChatter, would allow a user to see conversations and other information being shared about specific Vine videos.

Open Space & Place: Of algorithms and sensor journalism

WNYC: We also heard from WNYC’s John Keefe during the Open Space & Place discussion. Keefe shared the work WNYC did around tracking Hurricane Sandy, and, of course, the Lab’s beloved Cicada Project. (Here’s our most recent check-in on that invasion topic.)

keefecicadas

As Keefe has told the Lab in the past, the next big step in data journalism will be figuring out what kind of stories can come out of asking questions of data. To demonstrate that idea, Keefe said WNYC is working on a new project measuring air quality in New York City by strapping sensors to bikers. This summer, they’ll be collaborating with the Mailman School of Public Health to do measurement runs across New York. Keefe said the goal would be to fill in gaps in government data supplied by particulate measurement stations in Brooklyn and the Bronx. WNYC is also interested in filling in data gaps around NYC’s housing authority, says Keefe. After Hurricane Sandy, some families living in public housing went weeks without power and longer without heat or hot water. Asked Keefe: “How can we use sensors or texting platforms to help these people inform us about what government is or isn’t doing in these buildings?”

With the next round of the Knight News Challenge focusing on health, keep on eye on these data-centric, sensor-driven, public health projects, because they’re likely to be going places.

Mapping the Globe: Another way to visualize the news, Mapping the Globe lets you see geographic patterns in coverage by mapping The Boston Globe’s stories. The project’s creator, Lab researcher Catherine D’Ignazio, used the geo-tagged locations already attached to more than 20,000 articles published since November 2011 to show how many of them relate to specific Boston neighborhoods — and by zooming out, how many stories relate to places across the state and worldwide. Since the map also displays population and income data, it’s one way to see what areas might be undercovered relative to who lives there — a geographical accountability system of sorts.

This post includes good screenshots of the prototype interactive map. The patterns raise lots of questions about why certain areas receive more attention than others: Is the disparity tied to race, poverty, unemployment, the location of Globe readers? But D’Ignazio also points out that there are few conclusive correlations or clear answers to her central question — “When does repeated newsworthiness in a particular place become a systemic bias?”

April 13 2012

14:00

Top 5 Tech Ideas for Creating Better Explanatory Journalism

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How can technology help journalists make sense of complex issues and explain them to the public in a clear, understandable manner?

Last year, Jay Rosen's journalism students spent an entire semester researching and making explanations in partnership with ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom which focuses on investigative journalism. The class did amazing work to highlight notable examples and develop their own "explainers," essential background knowledge to help people follow events and trends in the news. One of my favorite examples is this project from 2011, where students redesigned the same ProPublica background article as a video, a podcast, and an FAQ.

NYU's Explainer class focused especially on two things: presentation and conversation. They talked to cognitive psychologists like George Lakoff to learn how audiences take in what we read. They highlighted numerous presentation examples -- videos, timelines, infographics, mini-sites, aggregators, podcasts, interactive guides, flowcharts, and even a picture book by Google! The class at NYU also pointed out that explaining is often a conversation. In their journalist's guide to developing FAQs, the class suggests techniques for discovering what people need to know. I loved their advice on listening to readers.

Where can we innovate?

This term, I'm taking Ethan Zuckerman's Participatory News class from the point of view of a technology designer who wants to build tools to support great journalism. As we write stories and review other people's work, we're keeping our eyes open for parts of the process which technology can improve. As a startup guy, I also keep an eye open for alternative business models. Here are my top tech recommendations for supporting better explainers:

1. Peer Production

Jay points out in his "National Explainer" essay that it's OK to start with the clueless journalist. When learning how to explain something, our initial ignorance helps us appreciate where our audiences are coming from. This approach assumes that a professional journalist is doing the work; where else might we find uninformed, capable people to develop explainers?

I think we should take inspiration from Wikipedia to develop strategies for peer production of explanatory journalism, especially for issues that journalists can't or don't cover. Online communities like Metafilter have proven their ability to cooperate on investigations on occasion. How can we extend that to explanations? We could also draw inspiration from Instructables and CommonCraft, online communities of people who share video instructions and explanations.

Building online communities is hard. Instead of developing an "explainer" community, I would build a toolkit which existing communities can use when they feel the need to investigate and explain an issue.

2. Finding Voices

Many of the explainers in Jay's class involve narrative. "The Giant Pool of Money" succeeded because This American Life found the right cast of characters to illustrate a complex issue. But finding the right people is really hard, especially if you're not a mainstream media organization. Source databases such as The Public Insight Network can help, but it's a closed system unavailable outside of newsrooms. Social media networks through groups like Global Voices get us part of the way, but only as far as the people who might know those we're looking for.

I'm not sure the crowd can help here. In many cases, the people you want to interview might not be outspoken online. Instead, I would develop tools and research practices for individuals or small teams to find representative voices. Perhaps the tool could offer encouragement and ideas for following the trail from an effect to an individual.

We could support one workflow in particular. Given a set of articles which are already about a topic, we could automatically extract the names of the organizations and individuals who are quoted and referred to, creating a quick map of the issue in the media. A canny storyteller might be able to spot gaps in the story or simply remix existing material into an explainer.

3. Organizing Research

Explainers are by definition hard to organize and research. They're the messy, complicated issues that don't appear to make much sense. Often the story arc isn't apparent until partway through the project. It can become easy to get lost in the forest of information. As the pile of research grows, it can be difficult to follow the structure of a complex system or pull together the information you need for that next interview.

The most widely used writing tools are terrible at helping people organize and understand their information. I have written elsewhere about my use of software like Eastgate's Tinderbox to organize research around a complex issue. I think we need more of that kind of software (James Fallows' article on "Mac Programs that Come with Thinking Caps On" is a great place to start).

4. Rhetorical Forms

All storytelling on computers is in its early stages; we haven't agreed on very many common literary forms. Beyond the FAQ, the Timeline, and the illustrated lecture, most explainers require a custom rhetorical form. That's bad for anyone who wants to put a deadline on a project.

That's why I love The Explainer Awards that Jay and his students held. Awards are a great way to create norms and highlight innovation -- they have been an effective model as far back as 5th century Athens. But we need to take this further. An effective awards program would bring together finalists in each category to discuss common challenges and build technologies to solve those problems.

5. Conversation

Why not re-imagine explaining as a social movement rather than content production? Some of the best explaining comes from a two-way conversation, not a piece of content. We could start a service called Meet the News, a geolocated service which invites anyone to have coffee with someone affected by a news story. Participants could pay for the coffee and might be expected to contribute back to the community with a few paragraphs about the conversation, just like couch-surfing reviews. It could be a human library for the news.

Do you have more tech ideas for explanatory journalism? Let us know in the comments!

A version of this post first appeared on MIT Civic Media Center's blog.

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