Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

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.”

January 11 2012

19:00

The Philadelphia Experiment: Why a media company wants to be a tech incubator

One side effect of downsizing at most newspapers: a surplus of office space. That may be a cold blooded way of seeing the empty desks that haunt newsrooms and advertising departments, but in an era where newspapers get bought largely for the value of their underlying real estate, the fact is that’s square footage that could be put to use.

Consider the example of the Philadelphia Media Network, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, which has welcomed three startups inside their walls with the launch of the Project Liberty Digital Incubator. Thanks to some funds from the Knight Foundation the media company is offering itself up as a rent-free test kitchen for six months to CloudMine, SnipSnap, and ElectNext, early-stage tech companies starting out in Philly.

PMN isn’t offering up a couch to crash on purely out of the kindness of its heart: As a condition of the incubator they get an early look at whatever apps, tools, or projects the teams are working on. That would be great in itself, particularly because the companies are focused on markets that align with newspapers: SnipSnap is working on an app to scan and save coupons for mobile, ElectNext is building an app to help better connect voters to candidates, and CloudMine is creating a platform for seamless app development.

But what PMN wants more is to better expose their staffs to the world of startups and tech. There are clear lessons for journalism from people whose work emphasizes identifying audiences, monetization, and rapid iteration. If the journalists and geeks can bump into one another, there’s potential for some beneficial cross-pollination, Philadelphia Media Network CEO Gregory Osberg told me. The media network is working on its own digital offerings (Remember, this is the same company offering Android tablets to readers) and the best way to get that process to speed up is through learning from companies operating in markets like e-commerce and mobile, Osberg said. The three companies each signed non-disclosure agreements to gain access to PMN data that might be helpful as they progress their work. That means within the next few months, we could see apps from the three companies branded under the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com.

It’s like having a skunkworks without paying full retail price. In the media world, that’s a bonus considering the length of time it takes to recruit and build a team of developers, producers, and others who want to work in journalism. Even better: After this six-month period, they’ll bring in a fresh group of tech companies for a new round. “This takes us to market much quicker than if we were to staff up, which takes a big investment but takes a long time in the product development cycle,” Osberg said.

One thing Osberg is clear about is that while CloudMine, ElectNext, and SnipSnap are in the building and sharing the elevator with the rest of the staff of the media network, they’re not employees — their work is their property. And that’s a good thing. “We’re rooting for their success,” Osberg said. “We’re not here to absorb their companies or slow them down. We’re here to stimulate and become a catalyst for them.”

Lots of media companies are trying to adopt the methods, philosophy and talent of the independent (read: non-journalism related) tech community. In some cases, it’s through straight-up acquisitions (CNN and Zite, Financial Times and Assanka). Other times, it’s investment, as with Digital First Media, which runs the Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, announcing its own plans to invest in startups that align with corners of the journalism business like advertising, content, and audience development.

The Boston Globe has an informal incubator with people from a half-dozen small firms at various stages of development, all working out of the Globe’s headquaters. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, told me over email “We had extra space here at the Globe and wanted to create an environment around our digital lab and digital development area where we have smart people working on interesting things.” The companies (Twine, Muckrock, Schedit, among others), work in areas like video and social media, were a natural fit, and could provide support to the Globe’s own products in the future. “We figure that the more smart people we have in the room, the better our opportunities to test and explore new ideas and also to expand our network of contacts in the digital space in Boston,” he said.

In many cases, media companies are taking a quieter approach, offering hack day events like those at the Globe and The New York Times. Or it’s through grant-funded collaborations like the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Fellows, which dropped developers right in the middle of newsrooms at places like Al Jazeera English, Zeit Online, The Guardian, and the Globe.

When I asked Osberg what would the best outcome for the project, he talked in terms of the impact to the Philadelphia community, not just his media properties. “Success would be that we would have some of their technology utilitized in our product offerings, and that they were able to leverage the success of that offering in the marketplace to take their company to the next level,” he said.

Image by the University of Iowa Libraries used under a Creative Commons license

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl