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February 01 2011

15:30

Could BiblioBouts, an online sourcing game for academia, offer lessons for media literacy?

Karen Markey had a fairly straightforward idea: Teach students to steer clear of unreliable sources of information through the use of a game.

What the University of Michigan professor wants her students to focus on navigating is academic research. But instead of citing credible references on the rise of the Medici family, what if we could apply a similar game to distinguishing the credibility of news sources?

“The problem is today’s students still don’t know where to go for authoritative, good information that is trustworthy,” said Markey. “But they sure do know how to go to the web.”

If we swapped out “students” for “readers,” you’d have the basis of an argument for media literacy and the importance of finding a way for readers (and journalists themselves) to find good information.

The game Markey created, BiblioBouts, could potentially be an example to educators, j-schools or nonprofits on how to teach media literacy. It’s an idea that’s getting investment, like the Knight Foundation’s funding of the expansion of a civics and news literacy program in West Virginia called Globaloria.

In BiblioBouts, students gather citations from library databases or online sources and rank them against each other based on credibility, content, and relevance to assigned topics. The game is built off Zotero, an open-source online citation tool that lets users organize and share research. In a way, the game is a little like the academic equivalent of Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft: You assemble the best team possible and hope to come out on top. Though maybe it’s a little like the Legend of Zelda in a “gather the tools you’ll need for the journey” way. (Then again, I may just be a big nerd.)

Through rating and tagging each other’s citations, students evaluate what makes a good source, with (hopefully) the more thorough and useful sources rising to the top. If competitiveness is any kind of factor students will look at the winning sources and want to emulate that process, Markey said. “It puts people in situations where the game-like features encourage them to continue playing,” she said. “And if they continue playing, hopefully they’ll learn more.”

It’s arguable that doing research has never been easier, thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Markey said professors aren’t surprised by studies saying students lend too much credence to search rankings in Google rather than relevance or authority. But Markey is clear that she’s not entrenched in an anti-Internet camp when it comes to research. She said there are plenty of good tools (Google Scholar, for instance), as well as sources for surfacing information — but students need to learn to be more discerning and know when to look deeper.

BiblioBouts may seem like a technology solution to a technology problem, in that you’re using one system to try and bring order to another (solving the “there’s too much information” problem, or perhaps the filter failure problem). But Markey thinks making more critical readers is the answer, and in that way BiblioBouts is just a tool.

“I think we need to teach people methodologies,” she said. “When you retrieve something on the web, you need to ask questions about what I am looking at and whether the information can be trusted.”

Markey can see a ready analog in journalism and the idea of media literacy. A similar game, call it truth-squading or BS-detecting, could be used either in training would-be journalists how to ferret out information, or creating more shrewd news consumers. “We need to be critical consumers of information to make decisions that impact our lives,” she said.

Image by Kimli used under a Creative Commons license.

December 19 2010

18:00

Games, systems and context in journalism at News Rewired

I went to News Rewired on Thursday, along with dozens of other journalists and folk concerned in various ways with news production. Some threads that ran through the day for me were discussions of how we publish our data (and allow others to do the same), how we link our stories together with each other and the rest of the web, and how we can help our readers to explore context around our stories.

One session focused heavily on SEO for specialist organisations, but included a few sharp lessons for all news organisations. Frank Gosch spoke about the importance of ensuring your site’s RSS feeds are up to date and allow other people to easily subscribe to and even republish your content. Instead of clinging tight to content, it’s good for your search rankings to let other people spread it around.

James Lowery echoed this theme, suggesting that publishers, like governments, should look at providing and publishing their data in re-usable, open formats like XML. It’s easy for data journalists to get hung up on how local councils, for instance, are publishing their data in PDFs, but to miss how our own news organisations are putting out our stories, visualisations and even datasets in formats that limit or even prevent re-use and mashup.

Following on from that, in the session on linked data and the semantic web,Martin Belam spoke about the Guardian’s API, which can be queried to return stories on particular subjects and which is starting to use unique identifiers -MusicBrainz IDs and ISBNs, for instance – to allow lists of stories to be pulled out not simply by text string but using a meaningful identification system. He added that publishers have to licence content in a meaningful way, so that it can be reused widely without running into legal issues.

Silver Oliver said that semantically tagged data, linked data, creates opportunities for pulling in contextual information for our stories from all sorts of other sources. And conversely, if we semantically tag our stories and make it possible for other people to re-use them, we’ll start to see our content popping up in unexpected ways and places.

And in the long term, he suggested, we’ll start to see people following stories completely independently of platform, medium or brand. Tracking a linked data tag (if that’s the right word) and following what’s new, what’s interesting, and what will work on whatever device I happen to have in my hand right now and whatever connection I’m currently on – images, video, audio, text, interactives; wifi, 3G, EDGE, offline. Regardless of who made it.

And this is part of the ongoing move towards creating a web that understands not only objects but also relationships, a world of meaningful nouns and verbs rather than text strings and many-to-many tables. It’s impossible to predict what will come from these developments, but – as an example – it’s not hard to imagine being able to take a photo of a front page on a newsstand and use it to search online for the story it refers to. And the results of that search might have nothing to do with the newspaper brand.

That’s the down side to all this. News consumption – already massively decentralised thanks to the social web – is likely to drift even further away from the cosy silos of news brands (with the honourable exception of paywalled gardens, perhaps). What can individual journalists and news organisations offer that the cloud can’t?

One exciting answer lies in the last session of the day, which looked at journalism and games. I wrote some time ago about ways news organisations were harnessing games, and could do in the future – and the opportunities are now starting to take shape. With constant calls for news organisations to add context to stories, it’s easy to miss the possibility that – as Philip Trippenbachsaid at News Rewired - you can’t explain a system with a story:

Stories can be a great way of transmitting understanding about things that have happened. The trouble is that they are actually a very bad way of transmitting understanding about how things work.

Many of the issues we cover – climate change, government cuts, the deficit – at macro level are systems that could be interestingly and interactively explored with games. (Like this climate change game here, for instance.) Other stories can be articulated and broadened through games in a way that allows for real empathy between the reader/player and the subject because they are experiential rather than intellectual. (Like Escape from Woomera.)

Games allow players to explore systems, scenarios and entire universes in detail, prodding their limits and discovering their flaws and hidden logic. They can be intriguing, tricky, challenging, educational, complex like the best stories can be, but they’re also fun to experience, unlike so much news content that has a tendency to feel like work.

(By the by, this is true not just of computer and console games but also of live, tabletop, board and social games of all sorts – there are rich veins of community journalism that could be developed in these areas too, as theRochester Democrat and Chronicle is hoping to prove for a second time.)

So the big things to take away from News Rewired, for me?

  • The systems within which we do journalism are changing, and the semantic web will most likely bring another seismic change in news consumption and production.
  • It’s going to be increasingly important for us to produce content that both takes advantage of these new technologies and allows others to use these technologies to take advantage of it.
  • And by tapping into the interactive possibilities of the internet through games, we can help our readers explore complex systems that don’t lend themselves to simple stories.

Oh, and some very decent whisky.

Cross-posted at Metamedia.

November 17 2010

15:00

The Magic 8 Ball of News: The Future-Jobs-O-Matic

American Public Media has built a better Magic 8 Ball. Okay, not exactly, but it’s just as fun to shake things up on the Future-Jobs-O-Matic game and find out your destiny. And better than the 8 Ball, it’ll tell you what your salary will be.

Released by the team at public radio’s Marketplace, the Future-Jobs-O-Matic is a game-ified (or maybe app-ified) way of breaking out data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specifically they’re breaking down the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the guide released every two years by the bureau outlining the jobs and industries that are expected to grow.

The guide is already available and searchable online (or in paperback, weighing in at more than 800 pages). But the team at Marketplace figured they could make the information more accessible — and maybe even fun — for their audience.

Taking a spin on the Future Jobs-O-Matic is as easy and familiar as picking a flight on a travel website. You start with a career field, ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and professional, and narrow it down to specific occupations and ultimately your Job of The Future.

Going several steps better than a high school guidance counselor, the Future Jobs-O-Matic provides a competitive outlook — will your field grow or shrink? — the change in job numbers over a decade, and the median income for 2010.

(The outlook for reporter? “News tip: Keep your eyes open.” For an author/writer/editor? “The internet could be your best chance.” For a network administrator? “Your future is bright. Really bright.”)

I emailed Adriene Hill, a multimedia reporter working on sustainability issues at Marketplace who worked on the project. She said displaying the labor data as an interactive feature gives the audience a better way of understanding information than a more straightforward story.

“We wanted users to engage with the information — to play with it,” she wrote.

The release of the game was timed to coincide with the fall election, as jobs were expected to be a big issue. But with Marketplace’s broader economic focus, the game fits into their continuing coverage on the recession. Hill told me it took around a month to develop and package the game, and similar to most data journalism, one of the larger tasks was figuring out what information was important to the public.

Hill said the game serves a basic function of helping people consider potential jobs, but also provide perspective on the economy. The editorial goals of the game, Hill said, were to examine future jobs, identify trends causing changes, and to “show that some of these changes in the labor market are unrelated to the claims and promises of politicians.”

American Public Media has a history with news games, having previously released Consumer Consequences, which shows the impact of society’s consumption habits on the environment, and Budget Hero, where players could try their hand at spending and cutting the federal budget. Hill said news games need to go beyond just good design and user experience — they need to fulfill the standard of news. “It also needs to meet some need the audience has. In our case, we wanted something simple that would be fast to produce and look at serious, long-term trends (trends that actually are depressing in some cases) and present them in a fun way,” she wrote.

July 07 2010

19:51

How Immersive Journalism, Games Can Increase Engagement

The average reader spends 25 minutes a day reading the newspaper, while the average online user spends 70 seconds a day on a news site, according to data from Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. (JD Lasica has more on this presentation.)

As a journalist, I'm not satisfied when people just scan my headline and then move on. As a citizen who also wants to discuss certain developments in the world, I would like to participate in online venues where people have an attention span longer than 70 seconds.

Of course, enticing people to hang out longer on your site or blog has financial value, as advertisers value that kind of engagement. In this post, I'll suggest a few ways to encourage people to interact for a longer duration and with a higher level of engagement. I'll start out with a few fairly traditional ways to achieve this, and end with a new approach: immersive journalism.

Five Ways to Increase Engagement

1. Provide context. One interesting experiment is Google's Living Stories. This model helps provide context to news articles, which increases how much people understand the topic and better engages them. Matt Thompson, one of the participants in the Future of Context panel at this year's South by Southwest interactive conference expressed the importance of context this way:

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue. And we live with it 'cause it sort of works. Eventually you hear enough buzzwords like "single-payer" and "public option" and you start to feel like you can play along.

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn't require much understanding -- crime, traffic, weather -- or we turn off the news altogether.

It doesn't require any new kind of design or technology to provide context -- giving background information or providing links to relevant material is a good start.

2. Ask people for their take. In other words, don't just write another article; try to create and foster a conversation. People are more likely to be engaged if they have an opportunity to become part of the process, to share their views and knowledge.

3. Live-stream your newsroom. I covered this idea in a previous post for MediaShift. This is a way to open up and let people get an inside look at how things work. It could spark their interest.

4. Use video. Video-sharing services are a great resource, and video itself is hugely popular online. Don't be afraid to use smartphones, Flip cameras and other quick-and-dirty ways of shooting video. Do it as long as it helps to tell your story and moves people to interact. Also invite people to send in their video footage.

5. Use video collaboratively. Have a look at Stroome, a collaborative video editing platform with great potential for community journalism projects.

The Future

This may prove to be the more controversial part of my post. It's about how journalists and bloggers can use the rapidly growing ecosystem of virtual objects, casual games, games on social networks and virtual environments to increase engagement.
This is what some call "immersive journalism." I also think that augmented reality presents many opportunities for increasing engagement.

DeLaPena_163p.ashx.jpg

Nonny de la Peña, a senior research fellow focused on immersive journalism at USC Annenberg, is one of the people leading the way in this field. In this context, immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news and non-fiction stories.

It's a bit hard to explain, so let me show it in action using a video. The below video is about the Cap & Trade immersive journalism project, a collaboration with the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and the Center For Investigative Reporting, and is based on the PBS Frontline World story Carbon Watch. This machinima showcases the proof-of-concept Second Life experience:

De la Peña uses other techniques for immersive journalism. There was a game about Darfur and a PC game about John Kerry's Swiftboat battles, all of which are showcased on ImmersiveJournalism.com. It's a great place to learn more about this concept, and to see what's possible with it.

In terms of augmented reality, a company such as Layar provides a platform where you can build layers of digital information and then superimpose them on a physical reality using a mobile phone. It can also be combined with location-based social networks such as Foursquare and Gowalla.

Using this kind of platform, you could superimpose facts and narratives on structures and places within a neighborhood, and invite your community to add their own comments and notations. You could create location-based games using reporting and other information. You can even have your layer behind a pay wall (for those who find that of interest).

Challenges and Opportunities

The possibilities are seemingly limitless, but it's difficult to know where to start, and what to watch out for. As much as I'm thrilled by augmented reality, gaming applications and virtual environments, I'm also aware of the dangers. Here are ten points to reflect upon before and while engaging in these new media from a news perspective.

  1. Keep a close eye on costs and benefits. Realize that virtual environments are, at least for adults, a niche activity. People in general don't like to download stuff and to go through technical hassles.
  2. Ask and answer some basic questions. Who are your community members? Is access to wireless broadband Internet ubiquitous? Do they have sophisticated smartphones? Your strategy will depend on the answers to these and other questions.
  3. Choose your game format wisely. Developing even a simple game is time-consuming, and not every game will be appreciated by your community. An article by Nora Paul and Kathleen A. Hansen in Nieman Reports about news-focused game playing reports on the results of their tests of different approaches. This is essential reading for anyone thinking of building a news game.
  4. Look for collaborative platforms. Try to get help from educational institutions, for example, or others in the community. It's not just about you and your organization.
  5. Don't forget that the developers of your new media experiment need guidance. You have to provide facts and you should be able to help create storyboards and deliver a philosophy and goals for the project.
  6. Don't hesitate to use relatively low-tech solutions. Developing a full-fledged game can be expensive. Maybe a Flash-based game is okay as well (sorry Steve Jobs!). Or even organizing a quiz or a scavenger-hunt related to the kind of news you're covering could be an interesting way to animate your community.
  7. If you're not a gamer, familiarize yourself with games and virtual environments. There are lessons to be learned. For instance, did you ever think about the use of audio in the context of a game?
  8. If you start exploring games and virtual environments, you will soon find out that there are very different approaches. In some games participants follow a relatively set rule structure. Other games or environments offer a framework, a theme, and people are encouraged to respond by telling their own stories.
  9. Capture your experiments on video so you have something to show the people who chose not to participate. (And those who did participate should of course be asked for feedback.)
  10. Don't forget your ethics and best practices. These should be part of your development and execution.

*****

If you're already trying any of these strategies to increase the attention span and the engagement of your community, I'd love to hear about it. What challenges and opportunities do you see? How can we practice "affordable immersive journalism"?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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June 16 2010

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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