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August 01 2011

11:26

The Takeaway, Gas prices, Haiti - crowdsourced maps: how to get started and stories to consider

Reynolds Center :: As the ranks of journalists at news organizations shrink, one of our biggest news-gathering assets is our audience. We increasingly rely on users for tips and information via social media, and some companies are working overtime to make crowdsourcing news easier. One of the most interesting emerging uses for all that crowd sourced news is in mapping.

All kinds of individual stories can include mapped components. NPR’s “The Takeaway” set up a national gas prices map. The New York Times and WNYC asked users to share bird-watching spots. Following Haiti’s earthquake, users all over the world cobbled together a map of earthquake damage and relief sites to assist aid workers.

Continue to read Rebekah Monson, businessjournalism.org

January 27 2011

17:17

How WNYC Used Texts from Citizens To Map Snowstorm

The radio station WNYC is creating on-air and online stories using two things that are very familiar to people in the Northeastern United States: mobile phones and snow.

A snowstorm over the holidays was the heaviest December snowfall in six decades. It dumped up to 20 inches in many parts of New York City. The story quickly became one of snow removal and how the city was not removing the snow as quickly as people had hoped.

Jim Colgan and the WNYC newsroom wanted to get a sense of what was happening on the streets. Problem was, there was no good or easy way to do this. The station couldn't rely on the city for real-time information, and reporters couldn't get to many of the areas. The answer was to have the listeners share their own reports and stories, via mobile phone.

"The Takeaway" is broadcast from WNYC and distributed by Public Radio International. The program is no stranger to mobile technology. "Part of what we are trying to do with the show is be more multi-platform and use interactive tools," Colgan said. The program has used mobile technology in sourcing through texting endeavors and frequently receives SMS reports from subscribers ahead of a given show. "The Takeaway" and WNYC also reach out to audiences on Facebook and the Internet, but Colgan said the most direct response comes from connecting with people via mobile phone.

How WNYC Reported on the Snowstorm

To report on the first major snowstorm, WNYC asked a very simple question: Has your block been plowed? On-air, they asked people to text the word PLOW to the shortcode 30644. Once they did so, that person received a message asking for their address and their response to the question.

After this, the person was sent another message asking if they would like to contribute more details, in their own voice. If the person responded to this SMS message, they were connected to a voicemail line at WNYC and could describe how the snowstorm and roads were affecting them. The station received hundreds of reports, especially for the first snowstorm, and close to 100 people left voice messages with detailed stories.

Some stories included issues of access to emergency services, getting to and from work, and the ensuing trash buildup after the storm.

A Multi-platform Approach

The station took a multi-platform approach to the snow story. In addition to mobile and voice responses, it also mapped the reports. Because they had good, clean data from the mobile texts, the team was able to map the information via Google Fusion to create a visual sense of the situation.

TheTakeawaySnowMapedit.jpg

The day after the initial snowstorm, when the city had made some headway in clearing snow, WNYC asked for more mobile reports from the public and made a second-day map. On the third day, the station texted everyone that had already participated and asked about their current situation. (Here is a link to all three maps.) At this point, most people texted that local roads were clear, and they were finally able to get out. Visually, this was evident between the three different maps.

A Texting Service Can Be a Big Help

One key to the team's success was to partner with a texting service, in this case, Mobile Commons. "The Takeaway" and WNYC had worked with the company in the past, and knew what they could do based on prior experience, Colgan said. Mobile Commons had the infrastructure in place to help launch the campaign quickly.

"It was about 20 minutes between the time we decided to do it and the time we could promote it on the air," Colgan said.

All WNYC had to do was set up the campaign and the key word. This timeliness is key, especially in breaking news situations.

The Mobile Commons system also worked well in that the texted data came in and could be easily exported via CSV to the Google Fusion map, including a public link to the MP3 of a citizen's voice report. So, for everyone that called in to leave a message, a site visitor could click on the map and link to hear the detailed audio story associated with that report.

Not Meant For Every Story

On the day of my interview with Colgan, fresh snowfall was predicted for the region. I asked if the PLOW campaign would be promoted that day. Colgan warned against overusing a service like this.

WNYC doesn't want to badger people into sending reports, he said. If it serves the reporting, it is justified. But if it's evident that streets are being cleared, the reports are obviously not useful.

After the December snowstorm, it became clear that trash was not being picked up, so the station called upon the people who had already texted in about snow removal to see if their trash was being picked up. In this case, the trash reports were not mapped, but the program did get voice stories about the situation to play on air.

During a second storm, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was under pressure to show that snow removal was under control, the station did the same thing. This time, the story became one of how quickly streets had been plowed.

"Some people even complained about how many times their streets had been plowed," Colgan said. "But it's really great to know that we have it as a resource the next time this happens."

This mobile, multi-platform approach to newsgathering and storytelling has potential for uses outside of snowstorms, too.

17:17

How 'The Takeaway' Used Texts from Citizens To Map Snowstorm

National morning radio program The Takeaway is creating on-air and online stories using two things that are very familiar to people in the Northeastern United States: mobile phones and snow.

A snowstorm over the holidays was the heaviest December snowfall in six decades. It dumped up to 20 inches in many parts of New York City. The story quickly became one of snow removal and how the city was not removing the snow as quickly as people had hoped.

Jim Colgan and his team at "The Takeaway" wanted to get a sense of what was happening on the streets. Problem was, there was no good or easy way to do this. The program couldn't rely on the city for real-time information, and "Takeaway" reporters couldn't get to many of the areas. The answer was to have the listeners share their own reports and stories, via mobile phone.

"The Takeaway" is broadcast from WNYC and distributed by Public Radio International. The program is no stranger to mobile technology. "Part of what we are trying to do with the show is be more multi-platform and use interactive tools," Colgan said. The program has used mobile technology in sourcing through texting endeavors and frequently receives SMS reports from subscribers ahead of a given show. "The Takeaway" also reaches out to its audience on Facebook and the Internet, but Colgan said it has the most direct response when it connects with people via mobile phone.

How "The Takeaway" Reported on the Snowstorm

To report on the first major snowstorm, "The Takeaway" asked a very simple question: Has your block been plowed? On-air, they asked people to text the word PLOW to the shortcode 30644. Once they did so, that person received a message asking for their address and their response to the question.

After this, the person was sent another message asking if they would like to contribute more details, in their own voice. If the person responded to this SMS message, they were connected to a voicemail line at "The Takeaway" and could describe how the snowstorm and roads were affecting them. The program received hundreds of reports, especially for the first snowstorm, and close to 100 people left voice messages with detailed stories.

Some stories included issues of access to emergency services, getting to and from work, and the ensuing trash buildup after the storm.

A Multi-platform Approach

The program took a multi-platform approach to the snow story. In addition to mobile and voice responses, it also mapped the reports. Because they had good, clean data from the mobile texts, the team was able to map the information via Google Fusion to create a visual sense of the situation.

TheTakeawaySnowMapedit.jpg

The day after the initial snowstorm, when the city had made some headway in clearing snow, the Takeaway asked for more mobile reports from the public and made a second-day map. On the third day, the program texted everyone that had already participated and asked about their current situation. (Here is a link to all three maps.) At this point, most people texted that local roads were clear, and they were finally able to get out. Visually, this was evident between the three different maps.

A Texting Service Can Be a Big Help

One key to the team's success was to partner with a texting service, in this case, Mobile Commons. "The Takeaway" had worked with the company in the past, and knew what they could do based on prior experience, Colgan said. Mobile Commons had the infrastructure in place to help launch the campaign quickly.

"It was about 20 minutes between the time we decided to do it and the time we could promote it on the air," Colgan said.

All "The Takeaway" had to do was set up the campaign and the key word. This timeliness is key, especially in breaking news situations.

The Mobile Commons system also worked well in that the texted data came in and could be easily exported via CSV to the Google Fusion map, including a public link to the MP3 of a citizen's voice report. So, for everyone that called in to leave a message, a site visitor could click on the map and link to hear the detailed audio story associated with that report.

Not Meant For Every Story

On the day of my interview with Colgan, fresh snowfall was predicted for the region. I asked if the PLOW campaign would be promoted that day. Colgan warned against overusing a service like this.

"The Takeaway" doesn't want to badger people into sending reports, he said. If it serves the reporting, it is justified. But if it's evident that streets are being cleared, the reports are obviously not useful.

After the December snowstorm, it became clear that trash was not being picked up, so the program called upon the people who had already texted in about snow removal to see if their trash was being picked up. In this case, the trash reports were not mapped, but the program did get voice stories about the situation to play on air.

During a second storm, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was under pressure to show that snow removal was under control, the program did the same thing. This time, the story became one of how quickly streets had been plowed.

"Some people even complained about how many times their streets had been plowed," Colgan said. "But it's really great to know that we have it as a resource the next time this happens."

This mobile, multi-platform approach to newsgathering and storytelling has potential for uses outside of snowstorms, too.

September 23 2010

15:30

'Sourcing Through Texting' Brings Public into Radio Investigations

If a large truck illegally barrels through a neighborhood and no reporters are around to see it, does it make the news? It does if local residents with mobile phones can text truck sightings to a local public radio station.

This is the premise behind a new pilot project called Sourcing Through Texting from a team at "The Takeaway" radio program. Sourcing Through Texting provides a way to connect citizens with journalists via mobile phones.

Picture 1.pngThe Takeaway is a co-production of Public Radio International and public radio station WNYC in collaboration with the BBC World Service, the New York Times, and WGBH Boston. It can be heard live online or on the radio at about 60 stations in "Takeaway cities" across the U.S.

The program is trying to explore how to better connect with communities that are not a typical public radio demographic. John Keefe, executive producer for news and information at WNYC, said that typical listeners tend to be educated, older, and non-Hispanic whites.

"We want to be able to have connections and sources in communities where we're not heard or where people aren't going to our website," Keefe said. "In communities where people are communicating primarily via text."

Studies show that Hispanics and African Americans use their phones, and text messages in particular, more than non-Hispanic whites.

Sourcing Through Texting allows people to communicate with journalists by sending tips or information via text message in response to story topics or specific questions. The pilot project also won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism in which judges said "the experiment opened the doors for engaging non-listeners in ways they liked."

Origins of Sourcing through Texting

Sourcing Through Texting is as much a story about process as it is about a product. The basic question was how to use standard mobile phones to connect journalists with people in communities where public radio was not typically popular.

"We didn't have an answer," Keefe said. After a summit, a planning group formed that included journalists, mobile technology experts, members of the Public Insight Network (a web-based citizen participation platform at American Public Media), and people from the targeted community in Detroit.

Keefe said the process was a combination of experimentation and design thinking in journalism to come up with -- and eventually try out -- various ideas. On the first morning of the summit, the group brainstormed.

"And then we said, it's lunch time. By 2:00 we're taking a bus to the neighborhood, and we're going to try it out," Keefe said. (Read more about design thinking and process experimentation on Keefe's blog or watch this screencast:

One outcome from the summit, which included some prior planning and visits to the neighborhood, was the idea to work with radio station WDET to help people in Southwest Detroit report large trucks that were illegally driving through the neighborhood in order to take a shortcut.

A team went to the neighborhood to make connections and demonstrate in person how to text "truck" to 69866 to send in the location of any spotted trucks. The team worked with Mobile Commons, a commercial mobile service provider in the United States, on the text messaging platform.

Rob St. Mary, a WDET reporter, said that since this initial launch they have received about 300 text messages from 25 to 30 sources. (There have been two subsequent pushes to encourage people to send texts about the trucks.)

Ultimately, Keefe said the response "wasn't overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it. It gave them enough energy to go about it." The information that was received led to a week-long investigative series on the trucks at WDET.

Later, the group also invited people in the same community to send via text message their favorite things about the neighborhood in six words or less. Responses included: "proud alive latino growing hardworking home" and "multiculturally divided, but strong when united."

The responses were not used for any specific aired program. "It was more of an experiment to see what would engage people," Keefe said. Over the course of the afternoon, WDET received about 20 texts.

For Keefe, the process was as promising as the product.

"Radio stations, software platforms like Mobile Commons, community leaders, Public Insight -- the fact that we're all working on this together to me is exciting," Keefe said. He stressed the experimental nature of the development process and the importance of bringing together people to brainstorm and talk about issues.

"People are wrestling with this and having conversations together about it," Keefe said. "This is almost more valuable than anything that we actually did on the ground."

The Takeaway for The Takeaway?

Sourcing Through Texting is beneficial for both the local radio station and for The Takeaway. Local stations rely on the resources of the national program to help connect with citizen sources. And "the national show benefits in the end, with stronger stations and content that bubbles up," Keefe said. (The trucks story later became a segment on the national program.)

The citizen text reports also function as a form of journalism assistance, as in the case of the truck sightings. "We can't have reporters canvassing the neighborhood and waiting for trucks to go by," Keefe said. "But we can have neighbors doing that. It's a way to get them involved in our crowdsourcing."

Future iterations of Sourcing Through Texting may include voice and call-in features to allow for longer messages and more community interaction.

h2.Challenges and Approaches to Sourcing Through Texting

Keefe said there are larger, longer term benefits involved in growing a database of contacts. Those who participate are identified "as somebody who has expressed him or herself as someone who wants to participate in covering their community, that we can turn to as citizen sources."

The sourcing project ultimately comes down to ensgaging a new audience. "We're really focused on figuring out ways to develop that soure base from people who aren't listening to the radio and aren't going to our website," Keefe said. He calls this outreach imperative. "I'm trying to use texting to get people into our sphere," he said.

Sourcing Through Texting is not without challenges. One has to do with the role of activism in journalism. If someone in a neighborhood has a specific bias toward an issue or specific company (the trucking industry, for example), this could be reflected in their citizen reports.

Another challenge is figuring out the best way to promote the service and the right level of interaction via texting. "If you ask someone six questions," Keefe said, "how often do you get an answer to the sixth one?"

Adjusting to language and culture issues is another challenge. Cost may be a limit to participation, too, especially since mobile users in the U.S. typically have to pay to send and receive text messages, although Keefe said this hasn't been an issue yet.

One success of the Sourcing Through Texting project was that the topic -- illegal trucks in Southwest Detroit -- was an issue that people were interested in. In other words, they had something to say about it.

"It was really easy to get people in communities engaged in the issue of tracking trucks because people felt like it was a violation of their neighborhood, and that they were being taken advantage of," Keefe said.

A more general or blanket request to ask people to help cover any story may not work as well, Keefe said. "It's harder to try and jazz people when you just ask them to be sources in general."

September 03 2010

16:00

An open and shut case: At the new TimesOpen, different models for attracting developers to a platform

One phone rings, then another, then four more, now a dozen. The 15th-floor conference room is suddenly abuzz with an eclectic mix of song snippets and audio bits, an intimate peak at their owners before each is picked up or silenced. Having impressed the audience with the telephony technology behind the product, the presenter moves on to the next demo.

The intersection of mobile and geolocation is still an unknown world, waiting to be invented by hackers like the ones at round 2.0 of TimesOpen, The New York Times’ outreach to developers, which launched Thursday night. We wrote about the first TimesOpen event last year: It’s an attempt to open the doors of the The Times to developers, technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs, who can use Times tools to help answer some of the field’s big questions. This iteration of TimesOpen is a five-event series this fall, each focusing on a different topic: mobile/geolocation, open government, the real-time web, “big data,” and finally a hack day in early December.

On the docket Thursday were Matt Kelly of Facebook, John Britton of Twilio, Manu Marks of Google, and John Keefe of WNYC. Kelly presented Facebook Places; Britton gave one of his now New York-famous live demos of the Twilio API; Marks dove deep into the various flavors of the Google Maps API; Keefe — the only non-programmer of the bunch — discussed lessons learned from a community engagement project with The Takeaway.

Building community around an API

An API, or application programming interface, allow applications to easily communicate with one another. For example, any iPhone or Android application that pulls information from a web-based database is most likely it through an API. If you search local restaurants through Yelp, your location and query are passed to Yelp and results given in return. For any company with an API, like the three at TimesOpen, the challenge is to convince developers they should spend their time innovating on top of your platform. Strategically, when there’s an entire ecosystem living on top of your platform, your platform then becomes indispensable and valuable.

What’s most fascinating to me, however, are the approaches each company is taking to build a community around its API. The community is the most important key to the success of an API, a major source of innovation. One of the keys to Twitter’s explosive growth has been its API; rather than depending on its own developers for all new innovation, Twitter inadvertently created an entire ecosystem of value on top of their platform.

Let’s contrast Facebook and Twilio, for example. Facebook hopes Places, launched in mid August, will become the definitive platform for all location data. Interoperability can happen, but it should happen over Facebook’s infrastructure. Facebook envisions a future where, in addition to showing you where your friends are in real time, Places will also offer historical social context to location. Remember the trip through South America your friend was telling you about? Now you don’t have to, all of the relevant information is accessible through Places.

At the moment, though, Facebook’s only public location API is read-only. It can give a developer a single check-in, all check-ins for a given user, or check-in data for a given location. They have a closed beta for the write API with no definitive timeline for opening it publicly. Expanded access to the API is done through partnerships reserved for the select few.

Twilio’s demo power

Twilio, on the other hand, is a cloud-based telephony company which offers voice and SMS functionality as a service, and whose business depends wholly on extensive use of its API. Developer evangelist John Britton made a splash at the NY Tech Meetup when, in front of hundreds, he wrote a program and did a live demo that elegantly communicated the full scope of what their product offers. On Thursday, he impressed again: Using the Twilio API, he procured a phone number, and had everyone in the audience dial into it. When connected, callers were added to one of three conference rooms. Dialing into the party line also meant your phone number was logged, and the application could then follow up by calling you back. All of this was done with close to a dozen lines of code.

At TimesOpen, Britton stressed API providers need to keep a keen ear to their community. Community members often have ideas for how you can improve your service to solve the intermediate problems they have. For instance, up until a week ago, Twilio didn’t have the functionality to block phone numbers from repeatedly dialing in. For one company using the platform, the absence of this feature became a significant financial liability. Once rolled out, the feature made Twilio much more valuable of a service because the company could more closely tailor it to their needs. To make experimentation even easier, Twilio also has an open source product called OpenVBX and brings together its community with regular meetups.

Facebook already has the scale and the social graph to make any new API it produces a player. But for wooing the hackers — at least when you’re a small and growing platform — open and inclusive seems to win out over closed and exclusive.

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