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April 19 2012

13:31

Public Lab's Community-Created Maps Land on Google Earth

We've just announced that community-generated open-source maps from the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) -- captured from kites and balloons -- have been added to Google Earth. The 45-plus maps are the first aerial maps produced by citizens to be featured on the site, and are highlighted on the Google Lat Long Blog.

The Public Laboratory is an expansion of the Grassroots Mapping community. During an initial project mapping the BP oil spill, local residents used helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high-resolution DIY "satellite" maps documenting the extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- at a time when there was little public information available. Expanding the toolkit beyond aerial mapping, Public Laboratory has been growing into a diverse community, both online and offline, experimenting with new ways to produce information about our surroundings. The lab's DIY kits cost less than $100 to assemble.

"We're very excited to be able to include some of the balloon and kite imagery from the Public Laboratory in Google Earth. It provides a unique, high-resolution view of interesting places, and highlights the citizen science work of the Public Laboratory community," said Christiaan Adams of Google Earth Outreach.

"The Public Laboratory is demonstrating that low-cost tools, in the hands of everyday people, can help generate information citizens need about their communities," added John Bracken, Knight Foundation program director for journalism and media innovation.

a mission of civic science

Especially exciting is a map of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, N.Y., that was created during the winter of 2011 and has been added to the primary layer of Google Earth/Google Maps. The New York chapter of Public Laboratory has begun an ongoing periodic monitoring campaign in partnership with local environmental advocacy group the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. Designated a Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 due to pollution from decades of coal tar accumulation in canal sediments, and suffering from 300 million gallons of untreated sewage which are released into the canal yearly, local activists have adapted and improved many of the techniques developed for monitoring the effects of oil contamination in the Gulf of Mexico. That a group of local activists could create a high-resolution map of an area they care about -- and that such imagery could replace commercial and government data as a recognized representation of that place -- is a powerful example of the civic science mission of Public Laboratory.

nyc.JPG

Democratizing diy

Public Lab is a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible "Do-It-Yourself" techniques, Public Laboratory creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.

The core PLOTS program is focused on "civic science" in which we research open-source hardware and software tools and methods to generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health. Our goal is to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns. PLOTS achieves this by providing online and offline training, education and support, and by focusing on locally relevant outcomes that emphasize human capacity and understanding.

Please watch for the follow-up post by Public Lab's Stewart Long in the next week.

November 19 2010

17:30

Covering a crisis more like molasses than quicksand

How do you cover a crisis that is not a crisis in the way we generally think of one — sudden, frenzied, tragic — but rather a tragedy that builds, slowly, tragically, over time? From the BP oil spill to Haiti’s pre- and post-earthquake heartbreaks to the world financial crisis to the war in Afghanistan — the latest conflict to be nicknamed, with only slight hyperbole, “the forever war” — to the even more insidious crises that are wounded social and political institutions: Some of the most important stories journalists can cover are not singular stories at all, but phenomena that stretch and wind through time. And doing them justice, in every sense, requires not only attention to context and nuance and explanation, but also patience: keeping up with them, unpacking them, and finding ways to sustain reader interest in and outrage about them, over long — sometimes years-long — stretches.

So how do you do it?

In a panel discussion at MIT yesterday evening, co-sponsored by the school’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, four experts tackled that questions, considering, from their areas of expertise, the idea of continuity as it relates to journalistic narratives. MIT technology historian Rosalind Williams discussed theoretical approaches to history as a function of human impact; investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten discussed his experience covering slow-moving stories for ProPublica; and our own Andrea Pitzer, editor of our sister site, Nieman Storyboard, discussed the role that narrative itself can play in unpacking stories and sustaining consumer interest in them over time.

“Journalism itself is in the midst of a slow-moving crisis,” the panel’s moderator, MIT writing instructor and science journalist Thomas Levenson, noted by way of context for the event. The web allows not only for a new immediacy in news coverage, but also for, of course, a new democratization of it. “There is this lovely possibility here,” he said. But our new tools also necessitate rethinking what “news coverage” is in the first place — and how we think about representing crises that are fluid, rather than solid.

“Slow-moving crisis’ is a contradiction,” Williams pointed out; when it comes to what we think of as crises, “our language has not caught up with the events” it tries to describe. The intricacies of the institutions we’ve developed for ourselves lead, she said, to what another MIT historian, Leo Marx, has has called a “semantic void”: a state of affairs for which we lack language — words, concepts, frameworks — that can adequately convey import and magnitude.

The word “crisis” itself, Williams pointed out, which comes from Greek word kerein (“to separate or shear”), originally had the sense of a static event: a singular, sudden rip in the continuity of human events. It’s since evolved into something much more amorphous and, thus, hard to capture — the result in part, she said, of a changing attitude toward humans’ relationship with the wider world.

It’s a problem we’ve seen throughout the history of technology, Williams noted, the result of an evolving recognition that the world is not a constant in the great equation of human experience, but rather another variable. In the past, she said, our general concept of history was rooted in the idea that history itself “consists of deeds and words that take place on the stable stage that is the world” — and the stage itself was predictable and solid, in contrast to the frailty of the human condition. Now, though, we generally recognize the universality of movement: Our context moves with us.

What that can lead to, though, when it comes to narrative, is a kind of reductive continuity. “If the sun never sets on history, then historians are really challenged,” she said — as are, of course, journalists. When there’s no arc to maintain, no ending to know, there’s no conclusion by which to calibrate context. There’s nothing to root our narratives. “If it’s a never-ending story, then you don’t understand the world — you don’t understand human life,” Williams said.

What we can understand, though, is the present moment. So it’s incumbent on us, Williams concluded, to try to match our rhetoric to the realities of the movements of history. “The point is to join up the crisis-feeling,” she said, echoing William Empson, with the realities of lived experience.

And, for that, simple storytelling — the ancient art of weaving together characters and plots and excitement — can be crucial, Pitzer said. Narrative “is really how people understand public crisis,” she noted; “it’s how they understand public policy issues.” Study after study has suggested the power of story not just as an artistic product, but as a cognitive function. Narrative buys people’s attention, allows them to retain complex information longer, she said. It is a teaching tool as much as an aesthetic feature. Indeed, if we journalists don’t provide narratives in our work, Pitzer noted — if we don’t consciously weave disparate facts into some a recognizable arc of action — “we are in some way denying them the ability to understand.”

Lustgarten applied that idea to his own coverage of the recent BP oil spill — a series of related reports that he and his ProPublica colleagues tackled (and are still tackling) over a long stretch of time. ProPublica’s aim with its stories, he said, is to capture reader interest with “a bit of a drumbeat of communication”: “rather than have one critical climax,” the idea is to “publish again and again, in incremental bits,” to help readers “find a pathway through the clamor that’s so distracting.”

In the outlet’s BP reporting, realizing that idea “was an exercise in commitment,” he said — a challenge of setting, and then sticking to, a vision for contextual, continual coverage rather than discrete reports. There were certainly moments, Lustgarten noted, when smaller scoops threatened to distract them; “it was very difficult to stay focused on what we had decided to do,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay disciplined.”

As to the broad question of completeness — how do you define an “event” against other events? How do you know when your reporting is finished? — Lustgarten gave a nod to Williams’ dissatisfaction with our current framings. ProPublica’s unique setup allows its reporters to see stories through “until their organic conclusion,” he noted; but determining that end point is a matter of serendipity and sensibility as much as anything else. Often, the conclusion point often comes down to reporter interest, he said. There are no clear borders between story and not-story.

So it was more fitting that ironic that the panel didn’t reach a conclusion in its own discussions. How could it? It highlighted, though, an idea that any journalist can put to practice: the crucial necessity of the long-view mindset, the insistence on placing even the most seemingly isolated events into the broader context of history. Always asking, in other words, “Why does this matter?” And that may involve being selective about the this we share. As Williams put it: “Our biggest responsibility is to determine which facts are worthy of being discovered.”

September 14 2010

20:29

Social Media Helps Drive Traffic, Engagement at NewsHour

When the PBS NewsHour relaunched both on-air and
online in December, a new homepage was unveiled, a news blog was born and a new
correspondent joined the team. But another big change unfolded behind the
scenes as well: The addition of a social media desk assistant (myself) dedicated to
fostering an online community and better distributing PBS NewsHour content
digitally. In just a few months, the PBS NewsHour has pushed social media sites
into the top 10 referrers to our website, and they will eventually leave organic search results on Bing and Yahoo in the dust.


Beyond the numbers is a shift in newsroom attitudes toward social media. When I first arrived, Twitter was only tolerated as an online trend. It has since expanded into something that most of our on-air correspondents -- Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Margaret Warner, Hari Sreenivasan, David Chalian, among others -- and many behind-the-scenes staff use on a regular basis. They gather information, track breaking news, crowdsource questions and share details that couldn't quite make it into the broadcast's in-depth analysis of the day's happenings. 

   

Twitter

Breaking News

By focusing on breaking news that suits our audience, we've covered subjects that have become a "Trending Topics" on Twitter several times. While the short-term value is a spike in traffic for our content on the subject, the longer-term value is exposure to new audiences. We retain on
average 150-200 new followers during each event (in addition to our usual addition of about 250 to 300 followers on weekdays). While the return on investment remains lower than that of Facebook, the exposure -- and the immediate clickthroughs -- do bring in new unique visitors. We are working to determine precisely how many visitors we are retaining.

Last week, another oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Given that one of our major traffic drivers for the past four months has been BP's Horizon oil
disaster
, we immediately tweeted the news, credited to @ap. That tweet was retweeted at least 155 times over the course of the day, including more than 100 within the first hour. The followup article, which was posted within 45 minutes of the news and updated throughout the day, received 541 clickthroughs on its aggregate bit.ly link and, per that site, was retweeted more than 100 times. It also generated at least 39 comments on Facebook. According to our Google Analytics, the page was viewed 1504 times with 233 referrals from Twitter compared to only seven hits from Google News. The
biggest referrer? Facebook, with 270 hits.

facebook_referrals_versus_yahoo!,_bing (2).png 



Why it matters: In addition to exposure to new audiences, it gives us a demonstrable way of measuring the return on investment for our web content that, in turn can shape the way we structure our emerging, web-conscious newsroom, and the bridge between our traditional broadcast practices and the "early adopter" status online that some of our team members maintain. 



Features Designed for Social Media


By comparison, consider a piece that was designed for the web and meant to spread rapidly online. Our arts team, @NewsHourArtBeat, interviewed musician Andrew Bird, whose fan base is largely online-oriented. Bird himself retweeted the link, as did 97 other Twitter entities. The story (published Sept. 2) has seen more than 8,000 individual page views on an otherwise slow weekend
for web traffic. A throw from the broadcast on Monday night, plus a well-timed tweet during the show added another 55 clicks to the main bit.ly link. 


Why it matters: We're pushing content before an audience that is aware of -- but not involved with -- our brand, while maintaining the editorial standards that have supported the show over the past 34 years. While web traffic is never the whole reason we do a
piece -- we've come to recognize that content needs an impetus to spread, and to matter to our viewers, new and old.
 

Social Media Use for Reporting

In addition to the shift toward pushing content into the social media space, we're also drawing on social media as a source by pulling content into our pieces and using Twitter especially to gain insight into events and places that we can't physically cover. As Sreenivasan has said, Twitter has become an "immersive sonar" of sorts, enabling us to monitor multiple sources and streams of information simultaneously.

While it is more work to verify sources, it's easier to see trends, directions and questions around a topic that readers and consumers are likely going to want answers to. This enables us to reach and expand our audience more effectively over the long-term. 



#Blagojevich


Across the newsroom, PBS NewsHour reporters and correspondents -- including Sreenivasan -- had Tweetdeck and HootSuite running in the background awaiting news of a verdict in the former Illinois governor's corruption trial.

As news broke of Blagojevich's conviction on one count, it was precariously near air time. Twitter beat out the AP for reporting facts from the scene, which we could then cross-check against primary sources. It also helped us uncover live-streams from Chicago media that the newsroom watched until our own broadcast went live.



#Prop8



As news of the Proposition 8 verdict broke in California, the newsroom turned to Twitter, sourcing a copy of the judge's verdict before the court's official document was posted on PACER. We supplied it to our on-air team before the broadcast, informing their discussion of the subject as much as possible, in addition to republishing it via DocumentCloud on our own website.



Engagement on Facebook



We've come to depend on -- and ask questions of -- our ever-faithful Facebook audience. When I started engaging the community on our page, we had about 5,000 fans and an RSS feed was used to add content to the page. Today, we have more than 15,000 fans and, according to Facebook's Insights toolset, we have in excess of 5,000 active users on the page every day, and an average of about 50 new "likes" per day.

According to those same statistics, about 13,000 of our fans were active on our page in the past month. On Sept. 3, for example, 15 minutes before our regular political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks were due into the studio, I posted to our Facebook page a request for topics for the online-only segment they tape every week. Within 10 minutes, I had several substantive questions. The video of Brooks, Shields and Sreenivasan answering those questions (and two more from Twitter) was posted later that evening, and we have since thanked each of the contributors personally for sharing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that social media has an established presence at the PBS NewsHour, we're examining how we can further embrace it both as a way to push our content -- via targeted advertising and search engine optimization, etc. -- and to pull people in by encouraging correspondents and staff members to use social media as a resource for stories, ideas and audience development.

So far, we've started to run Facebook advertising campaigns with incredibly small budgets ($10 to 15 per day) and very high returns (between .05-.078 percent conversion). Combined with a recent PBS
Facebook push, we've seen a jump from 14,900 fans (on a Friday) to 15,448 (on the following Wednesday). We spent, on average, $.63 per new fan. This represents a turning point. We will continue our organic efforts -- consistent posting, integrating other fan pages' into our content shares, targeted distribution, etc. -- in addition to our new paid endeavor.


Our ultimate goal is to maintain our incredibly high (87 percent) interaction rate as we grow our fan page to 30,000 fans and beyond. Ultimately, we expect Facebook's utility to keep up with market trends -- and rival the ROI of Google search in our quest for relevant, engaged users. 

Outside of the numbers that prove our success, our users' appreciation of our efforts has become something that we look for and appreciate as a team.

Our brand, one of the oldest and most respected in television, has morphed from a group that had an erratic and undefined presence on the Internet to one that has become a place to test new ideas and reach into new parts of the media space, in addition to being a hub of the traditional in-depth reporting and analysis.

What do you think of our efforts at NewsHour? How do you think they could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments.

@KateGardiner (kategardiner.com)
is the PBS NewsHour's first-ever social media desk assistant and a
recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of
Journalism. She frequently consults on social media development for
media companies.


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July 12 2010

21:01

5 Digital PR Lessons from BP's Oil Spill Response

Just like late night talk show hosts who salivate over a fresh political sex scandal, professional communicators can't stop analyzing and talking about BP's public relations work during the current Gulf Coast oil spill disaster. More to the point, they can't shut up about BP's inability to relate to the public, and its poor use of digital and social tools available.

It seems a communications or social media conference now isn't complete without obligatory mentions of the "BP PR Disaster," complete with sly references to verbal gaffes by BP CEO Tony Hayward. The still-unfolding environmental disaster has already been fodder for reams of blog posts, articles and dissections.

Everything BP has done over the past two months has been picked apart and critiqued. From the retaining of outside PR firms, to the company's (lack of) use of social channels and the hiring of a Bush-Cheney-era communicator, BP has done little to impress the critics.

The move to hire Anne Womack-Kolton, a former aide to Dick Cheney, caused an Economist blogger to nearly blow a gasket:

The first law of disaster-management in the United States is that you appoint somebody from the "in" party rather than the "out" party. The second law is that you avoid anybody with connections to George Bush and Dick Cheney.

BPFakeTwitter.jpgTo top it off, some of the most effective critiques of the company and its clean-up are coming in 140 character bursts from the unknown acerbic voice behind the satirical Twitter account, @BPGlobalPR. The caustic and laugh-out-loud funny nature of the tweets sets off a chain of retweets, creating online waves that reach much farther and faster than the spread of the oil (or BP's message for that matter).

The general consensus in the public relations industry is that BP ran its crisis communications in the same ham-fisted manner they've run the clean-up operation in the Gulf. But are pundits being too hard on BP? And what can we learn about conducting PR in the digital age from this example? Below are my five suggested lessons, and a list of links to 15 must-read articles about BP's response to the crisis.

Five Big Lessons

It's become all too easy to knock around the communicators at BP. The harsh reality is most major corporations and organizations would have reacted in the same textbook manner. This spill has changed the way communicators will plan for and execute strategies around crises of all kinds. New questions are being asked and long-held assumptions are being challenged. Here are the top five communications trends I see coming from the BP Gulf spill:

  1. Consider the ethics of social channels. BP makes a regular habit of turning off the comment function on social media channels and not allowing other views to be shared on its profiles. This is presumably to help control the message and avoid issues of liability -- but how should Facebook or YouTube react to this? Twitter said it wouldn't touch the satirical account mocking the oil company, but in early June it asked the author to make it clear they were not connected to BP. Are social networks simply platforms anyone can use to distribute a message, even if that message isn't 100 percent accurate or there is no room for response or debate?
  2. One vs. many spokespeople. How would a Zappos, IBM, Starbucks or Dell (to use a few oft-cited examples of more open and connected corporate cultures) handle a BP-like situation with their brands? Classic communications strategy suggests to follow BP's lead and anoint a single spokesperson. But these go-to models of crisis control are challenged when hundreds speak for a brand, even if informally. The Internet is an organizational tool. If an organization facing a crisis is socially connected and understands the networks they have created, they'll know what to do. The clearest way forward is to ask your online team members to follow some basic guidelines about when and how to respond in the specific situation at hand. The three main tasks for the formal and informal social media teams are: Thank people, correct facts, and share updated information. Remember to keep responses short, accurate and polite, and to link to a place where aggregated information about the crisis can be found. Remind your online team not to apologize for the incident, never to debate or engage in defense or explanations.
  3. Tactics are not directly transferable across mediums. A common refrain from many analysts is that BP ripped pages from an old playbook to use on the new field of communications. Good communicators understand that communications strategy must be tool-agnostic, but that tactics are tool-specific. In other words, BP used classic communications methods in new mediums. This dissonance was immediately seized upon by organizations like Greenpeace and the satirical BP account on Twitter.
  4. The old paradigm of broadcasting to persuade is being challenged. BP's communicators took to YouTube and created what seemed like television ads. They would have been better served by attempting to stimulate a conversation, providing a realistic portrait of the work being done, or engaging in a live, viewer-centric Q&A session. Overall, the BP website and spokespeople lacked a human or colloquial tone.
  5. Sometimes you just can't win. BP has failed to realize that sometimes trying to "win" PR battles actually results in an organization losing the overall communications war. Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" suggested in his Vancouver Sun/Montreal Gazette column that perhaps BP never really had a chance. "If the basis of social media is based on trust and credibility, how can BP be expected to engage and truly connect?" he wrote. "For now, it's hopeless. But that was probably also true long before a drop of oil ever touched the Gulf of Mexico."

15 Great Articles About BP's Response

In the course of reading over 100 articles about BP's PR response, I came across several pieces that offered valuable insight and information. Here are the 15 best:

  1. Why social media won't help BP: Vancouver Sun
  2. BPs woes start a the top: Globe and Mail
  3. Failures made worse by PR mistakes: MSNBC
  4. BP PR blunder carries high political cost: Reuters
  5. BP and the long tail PR crisis: SMI
  6. BP is attempting to cram the square peg of the traditional mass media into the round hole of social media: Derek Devries
  7. BP can't tweet: Merriam
  8. Adweek reports on BP's major social media push -- with disabled comments: Truthout
  9. Do social media complaints make a difference to a brand?: ComMetrics
  10. BP should fix the problem, not "join the conversation": OpposablePlanets
  11. What BP should be doing with social media: Socialnomics
  12. Review of BPs social media campaign: Bruce Clay
  13. BP's Gulf PR disaster - give them a break!: PR Disasters
  14. Social media won't help big, bad BP: Canwest
  15. BP Social Media Response to the Spill: Social Technology Strategy slide show

Ian Capstick is a progressive media consultant. He worked for a decade in Canadian politics supporting some of Canada's most charismatic leaders. He is passionate about creating social change through communications. Ian appears weekly on CBC TV's Power & Politics, weekly radio panels, and is regularly quoted online and off about the evolution of public relations in a connected world. He describes his small communications firm, MediaStyle.ca, as a blog with a consulting arm.

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June 27 2010

07:38

BP OIL SPILL REPORTING: MEDIA LESSONS

s10_23903863

Media has failed to cover, before, during and after, the Gulf spill in such a dramatic way that some lesson must be learned.

1. If you get too close to your sources, you follow their agenda.

2. PR dominates and controls business and financial coverage more than ever.

3. “Embedded journalists” get access but a high credibility cost.

4. Online and social media networks react to the news, but are unable to anticipate or prevent them.

5. Politicians and local authorities are trap and neutralized by the constant lobby efforts

6. If you want to report these mega-events you need to be there: virtual journalism is not enough.

7. Filtering, double-checking, asking questions, going back to the past, leaning from similar disasters, and using visual journalism techniques are essential to deliver reliable and compelling news and stories.

8. Avoid to become an activist, fair coverage includes to check with all the involved players.

9. Be aware that PR intoxication is becoming very sophisticated with online webs, search engines, and social networks.

10. As always, report the facts before the opinions. As INNOVATION’s Andrew Mango said: “facts are expensive, opinions are cheap”.

The BP big story has to be told in a different way.

Just some revealing cases to understand how the media missed the story:

•  The New York Times Andrew Revkin reports about “a wild bit of faux journalism recently concocted by BP as part of its  public relations efforts related to the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. On his blog, a BP “reporter,”  Tom Seslar, describes  a two-hour helicopter flight over the gulf with a team charting oil patches… He somehow finds space in his post to describe the scope and vital importance of the oil industry and the beauty of the coastal marshes. He fits in a plug for the  Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival scheduled for early September… and includes the festival’s promotional line describing “the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally” — with no hint of the deep irony, of course… But he doesn’t include a single line describing the spreading gulf slicks that the flight is supposed to chart.”

Just search anything including the word BP and you will get in the top a “sponsored link” with the BP Oil Spill Response.

Oild Florida reports that “Florida has received $75 million to date from BP Keys get BP money, Key West Citizen, June 26, 2010: The Monroe County Tourist Development Council announced Friday it will receive $400,000 for an advertising campaign to counter the misconception that the Gulf oil spill is fouling Florida Keys beaches and waters.”

(Picture by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

June 17 2010

09:51

Video: Evidence of more media restrictions on BP oil spill beaches

Interesting footage from Louisiana TV station WDSU-TV showing its reporter arguing the toss with BP security guards attempting to stop him from interviewing clean-up workers on a local beach affected by the oil spill.

The station’s reporter is particularly interested in testing out a recent memo to the media from BP’s chief operating office Doug Suttles, that says “BP has not and will not prevent anyone working in the clean-up operation from sharing his or her own experiences or opinions.”

Last month reports suggested that journalists from CBS, Mother Jones and the Times Picayune had been denied access to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Via News Videographer…

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