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March 08 2011

16:52

How to Design a Simple Newsgame Authoring Tool

Our teams at Georgia Tech and UC Santa Cruz have been working on an authoring tool that helps journalists quickly create bite-sized newsgames. The Cartoonist has been the working title for the tool because our intention is to create games akin to editorial cartoons, in terms of the amount of information being conveyed and the style of representation. But despite this small scope, the promise of this tool requires intense research and design.

Over the past half-year, we have been faced with a daunting question: How do you create something that can generate games for a seemingly endless list of topics?

Where to Begin?

We started by looking at classic arcade and Atari 2600 games and broke them down into their various components. We then asked questions about what these components mean individually and when interacting with each other. Does Pac-Man eating ghosts map to something metaphorically? Does splitting a dangerous object into two pieces in Asteroids have rhetorical implications? How do familiar game mechanics like shooting, chasing, jumping, racing, and getting power-ups parallel real-world actions?

Games are good at explaining systems and can work through processes to produce variable outcomes. A journalist might report on a story about a local business that gave a politician money in hopes of securing the passage of a beneficial ordinance. What we want is for a journalist to enter this kind of simple relationship into the tool and for it to generate a game that explains the process.

A Unique Concept

Trying to understand how the dynamics of news stories relate to the dynamics of games we found a middle ground of representation in the form of a concept map. This is a way of thinking about actors, relationships, and actions in a news event.

The story is distilled into verb relations between actor nodes while the game is distilled into mechanical relations between actor nodes. The authoring tool is able to group relations and nodes together to produce patterns of events. If one politician is receiving large donations when running for office against another politician, the tool interprets the effect of the donations on the race and makes up tasks for the player and goals to achieve in a game.

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Consider the example above. Some citizens of Rio de Janeiro are buying drugs from the gangs, who terrorize the rest of Rio's population. Citizens are demanding help from the Brazilian government, which is using the police to arrest the gangs, who are fighting back. It appears to be a complicated set of relationships that don't obviously translate into a game.

But our tool can interpret these relationships as meaningful patterns: The fear of the citizens is self-perpetuating; the government is indirectly battling the gangs by enabling the police; the gangs have the resources to fight back. Rather than take each of the bubbles piece by piece, the tool looks for groups of relationships to turn into game dynamics.

Simplifying Complexity

What actually makes this happen is far more complex than this description implies. It involves picking appropriate and compatible game mechanics (things moving around the screen, colliding with each other, competing for resources, etc.). But it has been important to have a simple layer of representation that makes it easier to think about this process in our project and discuss it with the journalists who will use it when it is completed.

Our goal is for the journalist to never have to think about how the game is being built. Instead, they focus on what they do best -- synthesizing current events -- and leave the rest to us.

February 11 2011

18:08

Steve Williams, Director, Corporate Social Responsbility, SAP

Hi everyone,

As part of the global SAP Corporate Social Responsibility team, I am responsible for managing our worldwide Technology Donation program that provides free reporting and data visualizaton tools to over 900 non-profts each year in 15 countries. We have been partnering with TechSoup for quite a while now and am excited about the many possibilites to engage.

I am most interested in building capacity in the non-profit sector through technology. At SAP we can bring a wide experience in business management along with the skills of 60,000 employees aroud the world that want to contribute. We also have a large developer ecosystem part of the SAP Community Network. We have also been supporting interesting work around impact measurement for non-profits and social enterprises through the Demonstrating Value Project

What I am most interested in from collaborators is understanding how the different pieces of technology (hardware, networking, different software systems) can be integrated and easily consumed by non-profits. I'm also interested in going beyond traditional training on specific applications to helping organizations create strategies and build operational systems that can deliver better results. Finally I want to learn from, and share with, colleagues best practices on engaging employees with technology donations and how to embed these practices into the business so that CSR programs are not "off to the side" but a core part of operations.

You can find me on twitter @constructive and my (infrequently updated) blog at http://www.constructive.net

December 20 2010

16:00

Secrecy conference: In countries like Romania and Cambodia, illegal leaks can be transparency’s only hope

While, in the United States, WikiLeaks has caused a furor for its journalism-by-data-dump, similar leaks abroad are a major source of reporting on government operations — occasionally providing the only transparency available, as journalists struggle against secretive governments, corrupt media, and threatened or actual violence. At the first morning panel of the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, international reporters and editors drew connections and contrasts between the situation here and abroad.

When media is part of the problem

Stefan Candea, a Nieman Fellow and founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, was 11 when communist rule collapsed in his home country, ending 50 years of media as propaganda tool. Today, however, the media is still far from being without fear or favor.

“We were told by the chief justice in Massachusetts that a functioning democracy requires a free ballot, free judges, and a free media. We have none of those in Romania,” he said. “The traditional media is not free because it’s run by local oligarchs whose main source of income is working with the state. Their only motivation with owning media is to stay out of jail.” Candea said that one one media owner told his top news management that his company should act like the keys to his limousine: “If you turn the key to the right it should start; if you turn the key to the left it should stop.”

So Candea left Romania’s print world, which he said taught him what not to do, and formed CRJI, which began tracking and exposing the close ties between media, political power and organized crime. But to gather that information, his organization has had to be flexible on its sources. “We don’t refuse access to any databases, whether it’s a hacked database or not, because we have so few sources of information,” he said.

Desperate times, creative measures

In 1993, Cambodia saw its own revolution in the form of free elections, which also ushered in the creation of a free press. But while things were better, newly passed freedom of information laws were almost universally unenforced, according to Kevin Doyle, Nieman Fellow and founder of the Cambodia Daily. After a 1997 grenade attack on peaceful protesters outside the country’ judiciary left 16 dead, officials were widely suspected of encouraging the attacks. Weak freedom-of-information laws, however, meant journalists could do little but question the government’s flat denials. Years passed without any progress on solving the case.

And then the Cambodia Daily got creative: One of Doyle’s staff, based in the United States, suggested a Freedom of Information Act request might yield results, since the FBI had come in to investigate because one of the dead was an American. Two years later, after a long and dogged process, the FBI finally released the files.

“The FBI found witnesses that implicated the state in the attacks, to the point of the police allowing the attackers through a police brigade while those persuing them were stopped,” said Doyle. In a country with so few sources of official information, it was a major coup.

WikiLeaks with a local impact

Well before the current blockbuster leaks made WikiLeaks a household name, the organization made several releases that still had a wide ranging impact. One occurred right in the backyard of Rob Rose, a Nieman Fellow and reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times.

South Africa had convened a commission to look into banking inequality — a legacy of the country’s apartheid past — but the released report was so redacted as to be almost farcical. WikiLeaks obtained and released the unredacted report, possibly by simply removing the commission’s poorly performed blackouts. The impact was tremendous. “It accelerated change in the banking system, which I thought was a critical event,” said Rose.

Another incident, however, exposed the dangers journalists face when aggressively pursuing leaked stories. World Cup soccer is big business for the host country, but contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in public money were withheld from the public. Then the Sunday Times received a CD full of the unredacted contracts, exposing contractor and bidding corruption that cost taxpayers millions. But the day before Rose left for his Nieman Fellowship, he said, a colleague was arrested for reporting on the documents.

The prospects for improved press freedom laws in the future aren’t looking bright. “What hasn’t helped is that countries like China have seen huge economic success without a free press,” he said. “China is a huge trading partner of many African countries, and they’ve used the success of China to repeal certain press laws.”

The limits of leaks

But while leaks, even those of dubious legality, are a critical reporting tool throughout the world, they cannot begin to replace solid investigative reporting, Alejandra Matus said.

Matus, a Nieman Fellow last year and a freelance investigative journalist from Chile, spent six years investigating the Chilean court system, hoping to emerge with enough material for a book. “I found myself reporting in the courts where everything was secret,” she said. “The testimonies, the disposition, how they arrived at decisions.”

It was a long, tedious process of showing up to the courthouse, meeting people, and slowly gaining their confidence. Sometimes, Matus said, they gave her documents but more often they just gave information. “That is not the type of information you could leak to WikiLeaks,” she said. Instead, it was the explaining the procedures and systems, and the back story, that allowed such a broken court system to continue.

And at the end of her six years, Matus found she still did not have enough for her book. Instead, she went and studied other legal systems around the world for reference. “It was not that the book revealed one secret or one wrongdoing of one person, but the book put in context a whole system that wasn’t working,” she said. Part of the job was getting the secrets, she said but the bigger task was the processing of the information, much of which was already public or at least known locally, in order to create a traceable, irrefutable account of what was wrong.

“I’ve seen a lot of hysteria by journalists around WikiLeaks — they feel threatened,” she said. “I think the most meaningful part of this is he had to give the information to journalists to process it. That’s why there are journalists: to do the boring part.”

April 17 2010

20:20

Live Blog: Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at Berkeley

BERKELEY -- I'm settling into a large auditorium at the University of California-Berkeley for the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium . Not to sound too snooty, but it's an exclusive event that's run by Lowell Bergman, professor of investigative reporting at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Of course, Bergman is most famous for his work at "60 Minutes." Plus, he was played by Al Pacino in "The Insider." Each year, the symposium picks a theme, and brings you panels on that theme. This year's theme: "The State of Play: Collaboration, Consequences, and Cash."

Right now, Neil Henry, the dean at UC Berkeley, is getting things started by talking about how admissions to the J-school are up, despite the overall challenges facing the news business. He's pointing out that there's still a passion among these students to do journalism, albeit in new forms and in new venues.

Lowell Bergman: He's explaining the theme this year is a nod to the Russell Crowe flick of the same name. The investigative reporting at Berkeley has been expanding, thanks to some solid funding. That's allowed the program to bring students back for fellowships to work on interesting stories. From the beginning, the fellowships have been about collaborative reporting. They focus on stories that can run on the Web, on TV and in print.

Through the program, they realized that many organizations, like public media and traditional media, were not really prepared to collaborate. So they recruited some attorneys to work pro bono to help deal with some of the legal complications.

Bergman was also discussing the history of the Markoff Award, funded through a donation by NY Times reporter John Markoff. The money came from a settlement the Times reached after Hewlett Packard was caught spying on some reporters, including Markoff.

A New Era Of Collaboration?

David Boardman, of the Seattle Times, introduces the panel. As you know, the world of journalism is changing, more profoundly than at any time in my career. When ASNE canceled its annual meeting last year, it reflected the feeling that a bomb had dropped on our industry. Tens of thousands of journalism jobs were lost. Fear and trepidation prevailed.

Today, people have stopped wringing their hands. And now are forging new partnerships that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. The emergence of new non-profits investigative centers have fueled excitement. But there are still concerns over resources and funding. There are big questions about sustainability. Many still have small audiences and rely on Big Media for distribution. And details of collaborations are still being worked out.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

March 22 2010

16:00

Milton Wolf Seminar: Transparency International explains how it became a conversation starter

VIENNA — Every year, the NGO Transparency International releases its Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens in 180 countries view their public institutions.

Traditionally, Transparency International has used a filter to get their message out: handing the results and data to journalists, who produce stories that spread their anti-corruption message to the public. In recent years, the organization has started rethinking this strategy. Emerging online tools have allowed the organization to reach an audience in more dynamic ways, (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Georg Neumann, who works for the organization’s communications office, says the new environment creates dialogue and conversation in a way the old process didn’t

“While not only talking to the journalists, we also talk directly to the citizens,” he told me after a break out session Wednesday at the Milton Wolf Seminar. “All of these three interact much more strongly than ‘here’s our NGO, here’s the news organization and somewhere there were the citizens.’ Now, what we can do is actually have a conversation with all three.”

Transparency International hasn’t crossed the self-image line into considering itself a journalistic institution. But as NGOs increasingly deliver news and information directly to their audiences, those lines are getting blurrier. My brief chat with Neumann is above, and there’s a transcript below.

Georg Neumann: Hi, my name is Georg Neumann — I work for Transparency International in the communication department.

I want to talk to you a little bit about how social media has changed a little bit the way we work with journalists, but also more in general, how we fight corruption and we try to advocate for transparency and anti-corruption.

Maybe the best thing to do this is with an example. Let’s take the Corruption Perceptions Index, our famous ranking of about 180 countries around the world, measuring the perceived public-sector corruption. With this tool, what we did last year, in 2009, we have done something that we call the virtual launch, where we try to increase basically — make increased use of social media tools, using Twitter, using a blog to gather sort of the effects of corruption on human lives, using Facebook to cater a community of people that are already interested in corruption, and try to stimulate posts and comments — meaning a conversation about the issue of corruption, which is much deeper than simply using a table to show that.

So what it had shown is that while not only talking to the journalists, we also talked directly to the citizens. And these form basically kind of a triangle. So you have the organization here, you have the journalists here, the media organizations, and you have the citizens here. And all of these three interact much more strongly than they did before, where it was only our NGO and here’s the news organization. So now what we can do is actually have conversation about all of the three.

So one example was the Huffington Post taking our index and creating a slideshow with one slide per country, and about 300 comments within the first couple of days, actually discussing corruption in the U.S. — which really surprised us, but which was really effective in getting the message out in much deeper form than it did before. So the power of social media is not only to distribute it to a different audience, but also you get much richer discussions and comment on the issue that we advocate for.

Laura McGann: Are you spending time and resources at your organization to reach audiences directly? Are you growing that part of your organization or are you thinking more about it? Do you think that’s sort of changed how you reach an audeinc direcelty?

Neumann: I think this is one of our challenges, now that we need to find way to interact more with the citizens themselves. So we’ve created a Facebook community — we have to dedicate time to actually discuss issues, create an online discussion, a chat, these kinds of things.

What we do as a network or a team at Transparency International — we’re represented in 100 countries around the world. And every country works with their national audiences. So we have a direct way there of our organization talking to, making events for them, using social media to invite to these events, to create protests such as in Indonesia last year, where we had 2.5 million people being organized through Facebook to protest against the government’s sacking of anti-corruption commissioners.

So this is something that we do and we realize we need to invest much more time in doing so. I think the other part of this is that also we see is a need for citizens to actually talk and tell their stories. And what we’re looking into right now is how do we capture these stories. One way is allowing them to post their stories on a blog or Facebook, recording them with a Flip camera, and tell these stories. But there are many other ways to do that and we have to really find very effective tools, and that’s something we’re doing now.

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