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May 18 2013

18:56

Net2 Houston: Using the City of Houston's Open Data to Do Good

Houston open data portal

The City of Houston’s Bruce Haupt led a discussion at Net2 Houston’s May 14 meetup.
The topic? The City of Houston has a big heap of data and they want your ideas on how to use it!

read more

April 08 2013

11:46

April 01 2013

18:15

Shaping technology to the story: The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is finding its niche

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation just began accepting applications from students or alumni of Columbia and Stanford for its second round of Magic Grants. Helen Gurley Brown made headlines last year when she donated $30 million jointly to Columbia and Stanford to found the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a bicoastal effort toward helping students build “usable tools” for the proliferation of “great content.”

The idea was that combining the engineering prowess of Stanford students with the journalistic know-how of Columbia students would propel innovation in the news industry. To that end, Columbia would construct a $6 million state-of-the-art newsroom within its j-school building (now under construction), and the institute would offer serious grant money — up to $150,000 per team, or $300,000 if it features members from both schools — for projects. Its next batch of Magic Grantees — due to be announced at the end of May — will go a long way toward further defining what a direct collaboration between computer science and journalism can produce.

The quest for personalized TV

The first three Magic Grants were awarded last June. Connecting the Dots is a project by two Stanford students dedicated to drawing out large, complex, data-heavy news stories through logic mapping, similar to the way that metropolitan transit maps simplify networks of trains and busses. Dispatch, a joint startup that already has an app for sale through Apple, helps journalists in crisis scenarios conceal their identities while publishing via mobile device.

The largest team belongs to the third winner, EigenNews — 10 members from both campuses combined. The idea: personalized television, built around a playlist of of national news clips based on the user’s selected preferences (by both category and by show) and by viewing behavior and user voting. (You can sign up and get a daily email update from EigenNews — it works pretty well.)

eigennews-screenshot

The design is meant to provide the user up-to-the-minute broadcast news while filtering out certain types of stories, but to maintain a sense of immediacy, some current very popular current stories make the playlist no matter what. “The playlist strikes a balance between presenting the most important stories currently and those stories that might be of particular interest to you,” wrote Stanford-based team member David Chen in an email. “For the second factor to be more evident, the user’s view history has to contain a sufficient number of samples.” As the project’s description puts it:

We forecast that next-generation video news consumption will be more personalized, device agnostic, and pooled from many different information sources. The technology for our project represents a major step in this direction, providing each viewer with a personalized newscast with stories that matter most to them…

Our personalized news platform will analyze readily available user data, such as recent viewing history and social media profiles. Suppose the viewer has recently watched the Republican presidential candidates debate held in Arizona, an interview with a candidate’s campaign manager, and another interview with the candidate himself. The debate and the candidate’s interview are “liked” by the viewer and several friends on Facebook. This evidence points to a high likelihood that a future video story about the Republican presidential race will interest the viewer. The user’s personalized news stream will feature high-quality, highly-relevant stories from multiple channels that cover the latest developments in the presidential race.

Chen said the EigenNews team wants to incorporate more sharability in the future — currently, you can generate a link by click a button on the player, but they hope to add comments soon. He also said they’re looking toward a future model that would incorporate more local coverage and user-generated video content.

“Seeing situations where the journalism is leading”

Mark Hansen, who was appointed director of the Columbia side of the Brown Institute last fall, says he imagines some form of the EigenNews project will probably live on. “That work is work that Bernd [Girod, his Stanford counterpart] does as part of his research program, so my guess would be that some part of that work will be funded consistently.” Hansen will be overseeing the administration of the second round of funding. Coming from the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA, where he gradually began to realize the implications of data journalism, he is a blend of journalist and statistician.

“Over the course of my ten years at UCLA, the Center shifted…to more participatory systems, where we were encouraging the public to get involved with data collection. As we started working with community groups, as we started reaching out to high schools, the character of the enterprise changed,” he says. While sensor networks are opening up the power of public data, coordinating the gathering, calibration, analysis, and dissemination of that information is no small order. Hansen says that realization has honed his understanding of the important role that journalists play. His students learn to code — not just how to work with engineers who code — but what he’s most interested in are projects whose genesis is a journalistic question, not a technological advancement.

“I’m interested in seeing situations where the journalism is leading. Where there’s some story that needs to be told, or some aspect of a story that can’t be told with existing technology, but then drives the creation of a new technology,” he said. “As opposed to, ‘Look, we made tablets — okay, now you guys tell stories around tablets.’”

Since moving to Columbia, Hansen has had ample opportunity to observe the interplay of hard science and journalistic practice. He teaches a course on computational journalism, and he says the transition from teaching statisticians to journalism students has been enlightening. “When you teach a statistician about means, for example, their comment on the data will end with ‘The mean is 5.’ The journalist will say: ‘The mean is 5, which means, compared to this other country, or five countries, or other neighborhood…’ The journalists will go from the output of the method to the world. They contextualize, they tell stories — Emily Bell calls this narrative imagination — and they are hungrier than any other students I have ever worked with.”

Hansen plans to use the resources of the Brown Institute to recreate the open dialogue and experimentation of the classroom, in hopes of uncovering ideas for projects and prototypes to receive Magic Grant funding. “I’m usually the one writing the grants, not the one giving them away,” he joked. To that end, he’s been in conversation with industry professionals from the likes of ProPublica, The New York Times and Thomson Reuters, trying to figure out “what the interesting questions are,” he says. Defining what Brown can do that is distinct from the other institutes, labs, and other entities in the space is a top priority.

Organizing hackathons and other collaborative events is another route Hansen wants to explore. He is interested in a hackathon model with more concrete pedagogical objectives than the typical open-ended approach. The Brown Institute has already hosted a data hackathon, as well as a conference Hansen calls a “research threeway,” after the three sectors he aims to bring together — journalism, technology, and “opportunity” (that is, funding). Mixing speakers with journalism, media, and engineering backgrounds resulted in a “beautiful collision of language,” he said, and some intriguing ideas.

“There was a nice conversation around serendipity, especially as it connects to large data sets. I think often times we fall back on a kind of search metaphor where we are constantly googling something. If we don’t know what it is we’re looking for, how do we activate an archive, how do we activate a data set? How do you engineer serendipity?”

Building a space

Meanwhile, Hansen has also been overseeing some engineering in a more concrete sense. He hopes to unveil the Brown Institute’s newsroom by summer 2014, a two-story facility which he says draws inspiration from both traditional newsrooms and the “large, open, reconfigurable workspace” that we associate with startups and tech incubators. The space will feature a mezzanine, transparent conference rooms, and shared workspaces called “garages.” It’ll be a wireless office space with flat panel displays and a number of projectors, shared by Brown grantees, fellows, and faculty. “Emily Bell will be teaching a class on the sensor newsroom, a kind of pop-up newsroom,” Hansen says, “and that space will be the perfect space to try out the ideas that are coming out of that class.”

Hansen says one of the most rewarding parts of his directorship so far was having the chance to share the plans for the newsroom with donor Helen Gurley Brown just before she passed away last August. Both the architects and the web designers for the Institute’s new website were told to use the creative output of Brown and her husband, film producer David Brown, as a design compass. As a result, the website will feature a rotating color palette, updated on a monthly basis to reflect covers from Cosmopolitan magazine throughout Brown’s career.

Running a bicoastal institute is not without its challenges, and the hope is that the new space in New York and a newly unified website should help to deal with those. Stanford grantees and fellows don’t have a centralized office space like their New York counterparts, but travel costs are covered by Magic Grants for bicoastal projects and regular project reviews.

Still, Hansen says figuring out how to operate as one entity has been challenging. “Not only is [Stanford] 3,000 miles away, and not only is it two different disciplines,” he says, “but it’s also the quarter system and the semester system, and three hours’ [time] difference — every little thing you could imagine is different is different.” In addition, engineering grad students study for four to five years, while Columbia’s main graduate journalism program is only one year long. To allow the journalism students equal opportunity to participate, they’ll be eligible to apply for Magic Grants as part of an additional, second year. Says Hansen: “We’re doing what we can to make it feel like a cohesive whole.”

The Brown Institute is also invested in ensuring that, when it funds successful projects, they have the opportunity to live on. While grant winners can apply for a second year of funding, Hansen is also focused on communicating with private investors, companies, and other foundations. He’s particularly excited about the potential addition of computational journalism to the National Science Foundation‘s official subfields, which would open up significant additional funding for Brown Institute alums.

“It does really feel like a great moment to be thinking about technology and storytelling, technology and journalism,” Hansen says. But in addition to using technology to propel the journalism industry into the future, he takes cues from the memory of the Browns, and hopes to shape the Institute into something that reflects them both.

“Helen and David were showmen, if you will,” Hansen says. “They really understood audiences and how to tell a good story.”

April 26 2012

01:03

Design-Thinking Hackathon: The *Weekend Movement

The TechSoup Global Network team is in action today over at the Stanford Social Innovation Review. My good buddy Glenn Fajardo recently went to Malaysia where he spent time with the organizers of the *Weekend Movement, a community of people that builds crafty projects and innovative solutions to real-world problems -- over the weekend.

 

Glenn explores some of the critical success factors for the *Weekend Movement in his piece today in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. How they select participants, how they hook in potential project supporters, and how they understand the motivations and interests of their participants all factor into their success and productivity.

 

Check it out, and be sure to comment if you have any questions or ideas to add.

April 24 2012

14:00

Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Sponsors Dual Journalism Hack Days

There's no better example of the global scale of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project than the dualing hack days we recently sponsored in New York City and Buenos Aires.

In New York, we gave money for travel scholarships to bring top-notch developers to town to take part in the Wall Street Journal's Data Transparency Weekend, which brought more than 100 developers and privacy experts to town to create tools to help people see and control their personal data online. The "hackathon" grew out of the Wall Street Journal's excellent ongoing series that looks at how your online footprint is being used by corporations.

The three-day event (documented extensively here, here, and here) resulted in code for almost 30 different projects with winners in "Scanning," "Education," and "Control" tracks.

hacks.jpeg

Five-thousand miles to the south, we sponsored the Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires ShowTimeLine Hackathon, which brought 45 developers together to work on making new timeline-based visualization tools. The OpenNews sponsorship went to hosting the hack day, as well as a small amount of seed money to keep projects going afterward.

The team of developers and journalists in Buenos Aires took a series of different approaches to displaying data over time, from automatic data-and-date extraction from documents, to translating pre-existing timeline libraries into Spanish, and more.

These are exactly the kind of topic-driven code-based events that we're looking to help sponsor at OpenNews. If you've got an idea brewing for a journalism hack day, we'd love to hear about it. Let's work together to make this year the year of journalism code.

A version of this post first appeared here.

September 20 2011

08:19

Dutch regional newspapers launch data journalism project RegioHack

In a guest post for OJB, Jerry Vermanen explains the background to RegioHack

The internet is bursting with information, but journalists – at least in The Netherlands – don’t get the full potential out of it. Basic questions on what data driven journalism is, and how to practise it, still have to be answered. Two Dutch regional newspapers (de Stentor and TC Tubantia) have launched RegioHack, an experiment with data driven journalism around local issues and open data.

Both newspapers circulate in the eastern and middle part of the Netherlands. In November, journalists will collaborate with local students, programmers and open data experts in a 30 hour coding event. In preparation for this hackathon, the forum on our website (www.regiohack.nl) is opened for discussion. Anyone can start a thread for a specific problem. For example, what’s the average age of each town in our region? And in 10 years, do we have enough facilities to accommodate the future population? And if not, what do we need?

The newspapers provide the participants with hot pizza, energy drink and 30 hours to find, clean up and present the data on these subjects.

After the hackathon, the projects are presented and participants will be named in the publications. That’s what RegioHack is all about: making unique stories with data, helping each other to develop new skills and finding out how to practise data driven journalism.

If you happen to be in The Netherlands on November 10th and 11th, contact me on jerry@regiohack.nl or Twitter (@JerryVermanen) for an invite to the final presentation.

We’re also searching for guest bloggers – and yes, that can be in English.

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February 09 2011

21:13

San Francisco GiveCamp Planning Meeting

 

GiveCamp is a national program sponsored by Microsoft, O’Reilly, Telerik and many other companies involved in software development. GiveCamp events are weekend long hackathons where developers volunteer their time to create software solutions for nonprofits. We are currently in the planning stages for a GiveCamp event in downtown San Francisco. Anyone who is interested in participating should attend the planning meeting on the evening of Tuesday, February 15 at the Microsoft office on Market Street. Please see our Meetup group for details and to sign up for the meeting.

We’re looking for designers and developers regardless of your platform and specific expertise; if you don’t have software development skills to share you can still be a great help by becoming an assistant organizer or project manager. We also encourage non-profits to attend the planning meeting to make sure we can put the right team together to fit your needs. 

 

November 24 2010

15:30

A/B testing for headlines: Now available for WordPress

Audience data is the new currency in journalism. I don’t just mean the traditional Costco buy-in-bulk kind — “our readers are 52 percent male, 46 percent over $75,000 household income, 14 percent under age 35,” and so on. I mean data that looks at how individual readers interact with individual pieces of content. And beyond that shift there’s also the move from observational data — watching what your audience does — to experimental data, testing various ways of presenting or structuring content to see what works and what doesn’t.

My desire for more experimental data is one reason why I’m very happy to point you to a new resource for sites built on WordPress (like this one): a new Headline Split Tester plugin, built by Brent Halliburton and Peter Bessman, two Baltimore developers.

Not sure if you want a straight, newsy headline or something with a little more pizzazz? Something keyword-dense and SEO friendly or something more feature-y? This plugin lets you write two headlines for each post and have them presented at random to readers. The plugin records how often each version of the headline has been clicked and, once it has enough data, swaps full-time to the most effective one.

If you’re in the kind of operation that has regular debates over headline strategy, here’s a great way to test it. (Although note that this is measuring clicks on articles within your site — it doesn’t tell you anything about the SEO effectiveness of a headline. You’d have to wait for Google data for that.)

We have lots of debates over the appropriate role of audience metrics in journalism. But personally, I’d rather have those debates armed with as much data as possible. If you want your site to be filled with puns and plays on words instead of SEO-friendly nouns, fine — but it’s worth knowing how much of a traffic impact that decision has when you make it.

I’m happy to say we apparently played a small role in its creation: Halliburton writes that he was inspired by an old Lab post that described how The Huffington Post uses A/B split testing on some of its headlines:

Readers are randomly shown one of two headlines for the same story. After five minutes, which is enough time for such a high-traffic site, the version with the most clicks becomes the wood that everyone sees.

Give it a try — and if you’re a PHP coder, try to make it better, as patches are welcome. (Another, more ambitious A/B testing project for WordPress, ShrimpTest, is also in development and in preview release.)

Halliburton (who runs Cogmap and Deconstruct Media) and Bessman (who’s an engineer at marketing firm R2integrated) built the plugin in as 2010 a way as possible: at last weekend’s Baltimore Hackathon, where the plugin won a prize for best prototype. Have a good idea, bang out code in a weekend, share it with a potential audience of millions using the same platformthat’s the promise of open source and collaboration in a nutshell.

November 12 2010

15:00

Hacking data all night long: A NYC iteration of the hackathon model

In the main room of the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center’s massive 15,000-square foot office and lab space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, more than sixty developers, designers, and journalists pore over their computer screens. A jumble of empty coffee cups and marked up scraps of butcher paper litter the tabletops while networks of power cords fan out underneath.

The event is The Great Urban Hack, a two-day overnight hackathon, organized by the meetup group Hacks/Hackers, that took place over an intense 30-hour stretch this past weekend. Starting early Saturday morning journalists and developers came together to “design, report on, code and create projects to help New Yorkers get the information they need while strengthening a sense of community.”

The eleven teams that participated in the event worked on a varied set of projects that ranged in scope from collaborative neighborhood mapping to live action urban gaming.

Rearranging and visualizing data

The team that worked on the project “Who’s My Landlord?,” based off of Elizabeth Dwoskin’s article of the same name in the Village Voice last Wednesday, concerned itself with the task of helping residents determine who owns a given piece of property. Dwoskin’s article points out that for many of the most derelict buildings in the city this link is obfuscated, a huge barrier for city agencies in their task of regulation to protect tenants. The team built a tool that draws from three databases: two from the city to pull the names of building owners, and one state database to look up the address of the owner when there is an intermediate company.

Several groups worked on visualizations of some form of city data. The “Drawing Conclusions” team created a “Roach Map” using the raw data set of restaurant inspection results from the NYC Data Mine. The group wrote a script that scans the data line-by-line and counts each violation by zip code. They then analyze the data, taking into account variation in the number of inspections across zip codes, and plot it on a map of the city which auto-generates every week.

How hackathons work is simple: They define goals and create artificial constraints (like time) to catalyze the process of innovation. The closest journalistic equivalent might be the collaborative rush of a good newsroom working a big breaking story. But is this really the best environment to incubate projects of a journalistic nature? What are the different circumstances that foster the healthiest practices of innovation? And what is the best way to set expectations for an event like this?

The hackathon model

Hackathons like this are a growing trend. A lot can be said for bringing these groups together and into a space outside of their normal work environment. What’s maybe most fascinating to me is the opportunity for cultural interplay as these two groups find themselves more and more immersed in each other’s creative work. As John Keefe, one of the hosts of the event and a senior producer at WNYC, says: “It’s not really journalistic culture to come together and build stuff like this.”

Chrys Wu, a co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers and both a journalist and developer, talked about the group’s different philosophy’s of sharing information: “Your traditional reporter has lots of lots of notes, especially if they’re a beat reporter. There’s also their rolodex or contacts database, which is extremely valuable and you wouldn’t want to necessarily share that. But there are pieces of things that you do that you can then reuse or mine on your own…at the same time technologists are putting up libraries of stuff, they say: ‘I’m not going to give you the secret sauce but I’m definitely going to give you the pieces of the sandwich.’”

Lots of questions remain: what is the best way to define the focus or scope for an event like this? Should they be organized around particular issues and crises? And what’s the best starting point for a journalistic project? Is it with a problem, a data set, a question, or as in the case of the landlord project: the research of a journalist? For all of the excitement around hackathons, this seems like just the beginning.

Photo by Jennifer 8. Lee used under a Creative Commons license.

November 09 2010

16:08

Get Involved with the International Open Data Hackathon

Do you like to build cool things with cool people based on cool ideas that help the world? If the answer is yes, then you need to check out the upcoming Open Data Hackathon. It's a grassroots and distributed network of events across the world all with the same goal in mind: to write applications using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.

Sound like something you want to get involved with? Here are the details:

read more

October 21 2010

19:43

Creating an emergency notification system in 15 hours

I’ve written a post on the Scraperwiki blog about a hackathon I attended where a small group of developers and people with experience of crowdsourcing in emergencies created a fantastic tool to inform populations in an emergency.

The primary application is non-journalistic, but the subject matter has obvious journalistic potential for any event that requires exchanges of information. Here are just some that spring to mind:

  • A protest where protestors and local residents can find out where it is at that moment and what streets are closed.
  • A football match with potential for violence (i.e. local derby) where supporters can be alerted of any trouble and what routes to use to avoid it.
  • A music festival where you could text the name of the bands you want to see and receive alerts of scheduled appearances and any delays
  • A conference where you could receive all the above – as well as text updates on presentations that you’re missing (taken from hashtagged tweets, even)

There are obvious commercial applications for some of the above too – you might have to register your mobile ahead of the event and pay a fee to ensure you receive the texts.

Not bad for 15 hours’ work.

You can read the blog post in full here.

July 30 2010

02:10

What should we call hackathon-like events run by Hacks/Hackers?

We're looking to do more events like the one we had with KQED/NPR in May 2010 (see http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=184232).

The last one was called Hacks/Hackers Unite -- we're wondering if you like that name or have any other ideas?

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