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July 01 2011

18:26

Smartphone Sensors Could Revolutionize Digital Magazines

We've all done those personality and health quizzes in magazines. You know, the ones where you suspect that answer A will categorize you as the personality type you're trying to avoid, so you choose B instead.

Everyone does that, right?

These evasive strategies for magazine quizzes, though, could be a thing of the past as smartphones and tablet devices evolve to incorporate a variety of new sensors that will keep us honest. While they might not be able to assess your personality yet, sensors are rapidly becoming capable of detecting all kinds of information about you and your surroundings. These sensors will not only change digital magazines' editorial content and advertising, but also lead to entirely new ways of authoring content and serving readers.

Location Services Have Room to Grow

Many consumers already use location-sensing tools, such as GPS features on smartphones, to find nearby businesses. Some magazine and media applications have also integrated location-based features that display relevant content for a user's local area. But there's a lot more that can be done with location information as sensors improve, and as media companies take fuller advantage of what they will offer.

iphone-location.jpg

Location-based services still have space to evolve, said Wayne Chavez, an operations manager for the sensor division of Freescale, a semiconductor company that is developing a variety of sensors for mobile devices, among other products. Chavez said improved location sensors and related applications will combine both GPS data and magnetometer readings to determine the device's orientation and know which way the user is facing. That detail allows greater customization of information.

For example, imagine a tourist taking a picture of a notable building. The picture can easily be geo-tagged already with today's GPS sensors, but new sensors and related applications could gather more information, including "what direction you took the picture from. It can tell you based on your previous interests and queries what's around you near that building. You might be around the block from another historic building," Chavez said.

Software on the device -- such as, perhaps, a local magazine's app -- could then use the sensor's data to push to the user details of how to navigate to that next location of potential interest, as well as ways "to read more about a historical marker, at any length, with instant access to that media," Chavez said.

Magazines' editorial content could even dynamically change to reflect more detailed location information. Joseph J. Esposito, an independent media consultant, offered an example of how it might work.

"If you're reading a future edition of The New Yorker, maybe a story about a young couple that falls in love in New York, and you're walking along, then the story changes because you just walked in front of a Mexican restaurant," Esposito said. The story could update its content to harmonize with the reader's location and activity.

While some digital magazines have already experimented with contextual advertising based on location data, Esposito said the use of this sensor information eventually "will start to have an editorial direction as well."

google-earth-dot.jpg

There's room to improve contextual advertising based on location, too, for digital magazines and other media applications. Chavez suggests that location data could eventually be combined with information from "the cloud" -- online compilations of user information -- for more precise targeting.

"I see many providers saying, based on the location of your handset and your history, I can pre-filter and stream to you information that might be relevant to you," he said.

Sensor Publishing

Esposito's example of the dynamically updated New Yorker story, mentioned above, is just one way that sensor data might alter magazine content. As Esposito puts it, our phones are, in reality, sensors that we carry everywhere we go. Users of sensor-equipped mobile devices could serve as passive authors of projects that gather, analyze and present data from these sensors. Esposito calls this "sensor publishing" to distinguish it from crowdsourcing because it doesn't require participants' active involvement.

Digital magazines and other media applications could collect sensor data -- such as location, temperature, ambient light or other readings -- and find ways to incorporate the data into stories, or to make them stories in themselves.

"We become carriers or hosts, collecting data passively all the time," Esposito said. "It's different from how we like to think about our phones, but there's also passive use of the phone, when it picks up temperature or humidity. When you're collecting information from 350 million phones, now it's starting to get meaningful. Those little data aggregation points start to mean something."

Esposito noted that all types of sensors -- anything scientists use in laboratories, including spectroscopes or Geiger counters -- could eventually be incorporated into mobile devices, making all kinds of data-gathering opportunities possible for the creation or enhancement of digital magazine content and other media.

Sensing Health Information

Sensors might also mean the end of cheating on magazines' health quizzes, along with new ways of experiencing health-related content. A range of health sensors are already available and, as their cost falls, media companies could distribute them so that the data users gather about themselves as part of daily life could be integrated into various types of content.

Carré Technologies is a Montreal-based company developing health sensors that can be integrated into clothing. The sensors will interact with mobile devices to collect and analyze health information, and could have intriguing media-related uses.

"People in general are taking more responsibility for managing their own health," said Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, president of Carré Technologies. "It's going to help preventive health [care] ... A lot of this monitoring can be done remotely now because of the Internet."

Fournier said health sensors like his company's are useful for a variety of fitness and health applications, such as games, biofeedback, and health observation.

"The sensors we make are meant to be worn 24/7, so there's a huge amount of data created by just one person," he said. "There are a lot of creative ways to show that data, to make it useful for the users."

One way to experience that data might be to have it integrated with media content. For example, a digital magazine application that collected health data from a reader using these sensors could then offer customized diet or exercise recommendations within the context of the magazine, as well as pool data from users anonymously to produce sensor publishing projects. Articles could describe the activity patterns of the publication's audience, contextualizing the individual reader's activity level within that broader picture, and then offering suggestions for improvement.

iphone-health-folder.jpg

This approach to providing personally relevant health information might be an opportunity for health-related magazines and other media seeking to capitalize on demographic trends in their mobile applications.

"One of the megatrends here is our aging population," Chavez said. "As our baby boomers reach their mid-60s now, many of them are very tech aware, and looking for telehealth solutions, whether that's out of personal interest or clinically driven."

Naturally, there are privacy concerns related to the collection of health and other personal data. "I'm not sure how much people want the media company to have access to their physical data," Fournier said. "Media companies already collect a lot of data on people. I'm not sure how far people will be able to go before they start to react."

It seems inevitable, though, that we'll see more integration of varied sensors into our mobile devices, and more creative applications for them in magazine and media applications, for both editorial content and advertising. What we've seen so far are just the earliest stages of sensors' uses in the media world.

"We [just passed] the fourth anniversary of the iPhone, and it's been transformative. The first app for reading books on a phone came in July 2008," Esposito said, offering a reminder of how recently these digital possibilities have evolved. "All this world we're talking about here is so preciously new. But it's difficult to imagine turning back the clock."


Maps and graphs image by Courtney Bolton on Flickr

Smartphone photo by Gesa Henselmans on Flickr.

Google Earth image by Miki Yoshihito on Flickr.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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July 16 2010

18:35

Google News revamps its revamped design

Late last month, Google News launched a redesign of its site. The basic idea was to make the news platform — and the news itself — more easily customizable for users: Google added a “news for you” section (a personally tailored headline stream), and the ability to indicate preferred news sources “to give you more control over the news that you see.”

In theory, the changes were useful: a way to empower users to personalize their news experience while — through the platform’s Spotlight and Top Stories sections — still preserving a bit of serendipity. In practice, though…it was a different story. At least on our site, users’ reactions to the redesign were rather negative pretty scathing. Some of the feedback we received on our post:

It sucks. I used to have customized sections, with a specific layout and number of news items in each section.
The new layout throws everything up in random order, in one very very long column, without any sections.

And it forces me to read a very very very long list of Spotlight items that don’t interest me. I can’t seem to change the number of items in Spotlight, nor the location of it (very prominent on the right hand side column).

I hate the new Google News. I really really really hate it.

[...]

I hate it too. Google, please put it back the way it was!

[...]

I also do not like the new layout. I like being able to scan various topics and not have my sports, world news, tech, medical, EVERYTHING mixed in together. Sometimes I feel like looking at the top entertainment stories first, sometimes I want to look at medical news first. Everything now is just jumbled together and I am suddenly forced to read headlines that maybe I am not all that interested in this moment in time.

[...]

The new format is terrible. Where to start: Way too busy, can’t find anyting, visually unappealing.
Yuck! bring back the old one, I am already looking for alternatives!

[...]

I have had to find new source for my news because:

*1* The new page is a jumble of information, it’s impossible to find anything.

*2* My carefully constructed page disappeared overnight replaced by this jumble.

*3* Personalization results in stories from Los Angeles being featured even though LA is over 700 miles from where I live and has no relevance to us here at all.

*4* I could care less about sports, but the World Cup dominated the page for days.

Watch my stats, google. I’m done with your jumbled-up mess of what was the best news aggragator in the world. So, from the comments above, are many other of your loyal followers and we’re only the ones who care enough to try to stop your leap off the cliff.

There’s much more in that vein. And while our commenters, in number, don’t make for a scientific sample, it seems that those who shared reactions weren’t alone in their dislike of Google News’ new interface. Last night, in a blog post titled “Google changes reflect your feedback,” Google News product manager Chris Beckmann announced the rollout of updates in the platform’s appearance and, therefore, its usability. While pointing out that “hundreds of thousands of you have already customized your Google News homepages,” Beckmann also noted that “some of you wrote in to say you missed certain aspects of the previous design, such as the ability to see results grouped by section (U.S., Business, etc.) in two columns.”

At Google, we’re all about launching and iterating, so we’ve been making improvements to the design in response to your feedback. For example, we’re now showing the entire cluster of articles for each story, rather than expanding the cluster when you hover your mouse over it. We’ve given you the ability to hide the weather forecast from your local news section. We made the option to switch between List view and Section view more obvious. And today we’re adding a third option in “News for you”: Two-column view, which shows the three top stories from each section…

Here’s what it looks like:

The changes, in all, are fairly minor; the average user, having not read Beckmann’s post, might not even notice the updates. (Since, when it comes to online interfaces, users tend to like things the way they’re used to, that’s a smart way to roll out changes: incrementally and, for the most part, unobtrusively.) But the subtle revamp indicates Google’s willingness — a willingness that’s part of its organizational DNA — to tweak its news platform according to the feedback it receives. Guiding users while also being receptive to them: seems a pretty good balance to me.

June 30 2010

22:00

Google News revamps with “news for you” angle

A few moments ago, the Google News homepage rolled out a redesign — a revamp meant to make the algorithm-driven news site “more customizable and shareable.”

“There’s an old saying that all news is local,” writes Google software engineer Kevin Stolt in a blog post announcing the design changes. “But all news is personal too — we connect with it in different ways depending on our interests, where we live, what we do and a lot of other factors. Today we’re revamping the Google News homepage with several changes designed to make the news that you see more relevant to you. We’re also trying to better highlight interesting stories you didn’t know existed and to make it easier for you to share stories through social networks.”

In other words, the new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.

The more specific purpose of today’s changes, Google says, is threefold: first, to have consumers tell Google what stories most interest them; second, to help those consumers keep track of ongoing stories; and third, to help them share stories with others.

Among the changes being implemented, per Stolt’s explanation of them:

Customizable interest areas: “The new heart of the homepage is something we call ‘News for you’: a stream of headlines automatically tailored to your interests. You can help us get it right by using the ‘Edit personalization’ box to specify how much you’re interested in Business, Health, Entertainment, Sports or any subject you want to add (whether it’s the Supreme Court, the World Cup or synthetic biology). You can choose to view the stories by Section view or List view, and reveal more headlines by hovering over the headline with your mouse. We’ll remember your preferences each time you log in.”

Customizable news sourcing: “To give you more control over the news that you see, we’re now allowing you to choose which news sources you’d like to see more or less often. You can do so in News Settings. These sources will rank higher or lower for you (but not for anyone else) in Google News search results and story clusters.”

An emphasis on local news: “And then there’s local news; we’re now highlighting weather and headlines about your city or neighborhood in their own section, which you can edit with whichever location you want to follow.”

An increased emphasis on the Spotlight section: “We’re also more prominently displaying the Spotlight section, which features stories of more lasting interest than breaking news and has been one of our most popular sections since we introduced it last fall.”

Communal (read: non-customized) story highlights: “There are the subjects that interest you and then there’s the major news of the day. To make it easy for you to find the big stories like Hurricane Alex, we’re adding links to topics that many outlets are covering. You’ll find these topics in the Top Stories section on the left side of the homepage as well as in linked keywords above headlines. Clicking on a topic link takes you to a list of related coverage that you can add to your news stream.”

(This is also a nod, I’d add, toward serendipity — a goal Google News has expressed interest in before, most notably through its Spotlight and its Editors’ Picks features.)

The changes are pretty fascinating, all in all (especially in the context of Google’s rumored move into Facebook territory); we’ll likely have more to say on them later on. In the meantime, here’s more on the changes, from the horse’s mouth:

March 01 2010

05:01

Loving mobile and print: Five key findings from Pew’s new news study

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has just released a new study on news consumption habits across platforms.

The big takeaway: Americans want their news portable (33% of cell phone users now access news on their devices), personalized (28% of internet users have customized home pages) and participatory (37% of Internet users have contributed to a news story or shared it in some way).

Project director Tom Rosenstiel told me the findings have serious implications for online news business models: “The data suggest that the notion of a primary news source is almost obsolete. People graze. I think it’s increasingly clear that conventional popups and display advertising aren’t going to work.”

The 51-page report is packed with fascinating findings. But here are five that struck me as particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

1. Just because you love to scan headlines on your cell phone, that doesn’t mean you don’t also love ink on your fingers:

While [mobile news consumers] are no more likely than other adults to say they follow the news “all or most of the time,” they utilize a greater number of news platforms. More than half of the on-the-go news consumers (55%) use at least 4 different news platforms on a typlical day. They are 50% more likely than other adults to read the print version of a national newspaper (23% of on-the-go v. 15% all other adults). The only news platform they are less likely than other adults to use on a typical day is their local television news, and this difference is only slight.

2. Get your news only from the Internet? You’re in a tiny minority:

Americans today routinely get their news from multiple sources and a mix of platforms. Nine in ten American adults (92%) get news from multiple platforms on a typical day, with half of those using four to six platforms daily. Fully 59% get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day. Just over a third (38%) rely solely on offline sources, and 2% rely exclusively on the internet for their daily news.

3. Users want to remix your news site:

Some 42% of the internet users who get news online — or 30% of all internet users — say that it is important to them when choosing news sites to be able to customize the news they get at that site. It is fascinating to note that this feature applies equally as much to those who say they prefer to follow specific topics (51% of them like being able to customize news on a site) and those who say they rely on others to keep them abreast of news (52% of them like this feature on a news website). At the same time, disproportionate numbers of those under age 50, blacks, wide-ranging platform users and browsers for online news, and social media users say this is a preference for them on a news website.

4. The devotion to objectivity isn’t as popular outside newsrooms:

Only half [of Americans] say their preference is for objective, straight news: 49% say they prefer getting news from sources that do not have a particular point of view; 31% prefer sources that share their point of view; and 11% say they prefer sources whose point of view differs with theirs. The rest say the don’t know their preference or don’t want to declare it.

5. Local news is nowhere near the top of most people’s news wishlists:

The most popular online news subjects are the weather (followed by 81% of internet news users), national events (73%), health and medicine (66%), business and the economy (64%), international events (62%), and science and technology (60%). Asked what subjects they would like to receive more coverage, 44% said scientific news and discoveries, 41% said religion and spirituality, 39% said health and medicine, 39% said their state government, and 38% said their neighborhood or local community.

Photo by Ian Lamont used under a Creative Commons license.


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