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September 05 2012

13:33

Tor Project Offers a Secure, Anonymous Journalism Toolkit

"On condition of anonymity" is one of the most important phrases in journalism. At Tor, we are working on making that more than a promise.

torlogo.jpg

The good news: The Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.

The bad news: People who were used to getting away with atrocities are aware that the Internet has made it possible for journalists to talk to sources, gather video and photos from citizens, and to publish despite efforts to censor the news.

New digital communication means new threats

Going into journalism is a quick way to make a lot of enemies. Authoritarian regimes, corporations with less-than-stellar environmental records, criminal cartels, and other enemies of the public interest can all agree on one thing: Transparency is bad. Action to counter their activities starts with information. Reporters have long been aware that threats of violence, physical surveillance, and legal obstacles stand between them and the ability to publish. With digital communication, there are new threats and updates to old ones to consider.

Eavesdroppers can reach almost everything. We rely on third parties for our connections to the Internet and voice networks.The things you ask search engines, the websites you visit, the people you email, the people you connect to on social networks, and maps of the places you have been carrying a mobile phone are available to anyone who can pay, hack, or threaten their way into these records. The use of this information ranges from merely creepy to harmful.

You may be disturbed to learn about the existence of a database with the foods you prefer, the medications you take, and your likely political affiliation based on the news sites you read. On the other hand, you may be willing to give this information to advertisers, insurance companies, and political campaign staff anyway. For activists and journalists, having control over information can be a matter of life and death. Contact lists, chat logs, text messages, and hacked emails have been presented to activists during interrogations by government officials. Sources have been murdered for giving information to journalists.

If a journalist does manage to publish, there is no guarantee that people in the community being written about can read the story. Censorship of material deemed offensive is widespread. This includes opposition websites, information on family planning, most foreign websites, platforms for sharing videos, and the names of officials in anything other than state-owned media. Luckily, there are people who want to help ensure access to information, and they have the technology to do it.

Improving privacy and security

Tor guards against surveillance and censorship by bouncing your communications through a volunteer network of about 3,000 relays around the world. These relays can be set up using a computer on a home connection, using a cloud provider, or through donations to people running servers.

When you start Tor, it connects to directory authorities to get a map of the relays. Then it randomly selects three relays. The result is a tunnel through the Internet that hides your location from websites and prevents your Internet service provider from learning about the sites you visit. Tor also hides this information from Tor -- no one relay has all of the information about your path through the network. We can't leak information that we never had in the first place.

The Tor Browser, a version of Firefox that pops up when you are connected to the Tor network, blocks browser features that can leak information. It also includes HTTPS Everywhere, software to force a secure connection to websites that offer protection for passwords and other information sent between you and their servers.

Other privacy efforts

Tor is just one part of the solution. Other software can encrypt email, files, and the contents of entire drives -- scrambling the contents so that only people with the right password can read them. Portable operating systems like TAILS can be put on a CD or USB drive, used to connect securely to the Internet, and removed without leaving a trace. This is useful while using someone else's computer at home or in an Internet cafe.

The Guardian Project produces open-source software to protect information on mobile phones. Linux has come a long way in terms of usability, so there are entire operating systems full of audiovisual production software that can be downloaded free of charge. This is useful if sanctions prevent people from downloading copies of commercial software, or if cost is an issue.

These projects are effective. Despite well-funded efforts to block circumvention technology, hundreds of thousands of people are getting past firewalls every day. Every video of a protest that ends up on a video-sharing site or the nightly news is a victory over censorship.

There is plenty of room for optimism, but there is one more problem to discuss. Open-source security software is not always easy to use. No technology is immune to user error. The responsibility for this problem is shared by developers and end users.

The Knight Foundation is supporting work to make digital security more accessible. Usability is security: Making it easier to use software correctly keeps people safe. We are working to make TAILS easier to use. Well-written user manuals and video tutorials help high-risk users who need information about the risks and benefits of technology in order to come up with an accurate threat model. We will be producing more educational materials and will ask for feedback to make sure they are clear.

When the situation on the ground changes, we need to communicate with users to get them back online safely. We will expand our help desk, making help available in more languages. By combining the communication skills of journalists and computer security expertise of software developers, we hope to protect reporters and their sources from interference online.

You can track our progress and find out how to help at https://blog.torproject.org and https://www.torproject.org/getinvolved/volunteer.html.en.

Karen Reilly is Development Director at The Tor Project, responsible for fundraising, advocacy, general marketing, and policy outreach programs for Tor. Tor is a software and a volunteer network that enables people to circumvent censorship and guard their privacy online. She studied Government and International Politics at George Mason University.

August 26 2011

17:32

PANDA Aims to Make Data Analysis Easier for Journalists (And We'll Be at ONA!)

What's got rows and columns and sucks at data? Excel. Though to be fair, we misuse it. Excel was built for spreadsheets, but it's become most folks' go-to kit for poking at data. It's installed on your computer. It opens CSV files. It's what you know.

Of course, databases are great at data, but they're hard. Microsoft Access is limiting, and real databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL aren't the easiest things for a non-hacker to get up and running, let alone query. Learning a little SQL will make you a better reporter, but digging through many datasets from different sources can take more than "a little SQL."

Plus, it doesn't matter if you're an Excel maniac or a database jockey -- either way, the data is just sitting on your PC, invisible to your peers. Hidden data is sad data.

We live in a data-soaked sci-fi future. It's awesome. And in this future, every journalist must be a data journalist. But to get there, we need a better kit.

PANDA will help

We're trying do two things with PANDA: make basic data analysis quick and easy for news organizations, and make data sharing simple. I'll explain by example:

Let's say you've got an Excel spreadsheet of city employees with columns for first name, last name, department, position and salary. You visit your PANDA, upload the spreadsheet, give it a name, and tell PANDA it's a list of people. Once the data's in, you'll be able to search and sort and filter -- whatever you need.

Each news organization will have their own PANDA, so your data stays private while you work. And every time you add a new spreadsheet, you'll be building your newsroom's data library. So next time one of your peers is scrubbing a name, they'll be able to simultaneously search this and all the other lists of names your newsroom has collected.

That's just the baseline. We've got many more ideas, but we'd like to discuss them with you! So...

Hello, ONA!

The PANDA Gang is going to be at ONA 2011 in Boston in a few weeks, and we need to hear from you! We'll be roaming the halls, camping in the lobbies and crawling the bars -- furiously taking notes about your newsroom data needs.

Find us!

We'll be in the red PANDA T-shirts.

17:32

PANDA Aims to Make Data Analysis Easier for Journalists

Excel sucks. Though to be fair, we misuse it. Excel was built for spreadsheets, but it's become most folks' go-to kit for poking at data. It's installed on your computer. It opens CSV files. It's what you know.

Of course, databases are great at data, but they're hard. Microsoft Access is limiting, and real databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL aren't the easiest things for a non-hacker to get up and running, let alone query. Learning a little SQL will make you a better reporter, but digging through many datasets from different sources can take more than "a little SQL."

Plus, it doesn't matter if you're an Excel maniac or a database jockey -- either way, the data is just sitting on your PC, invisible to your peers. Hidden data is sad data.

We live in a data-soaked future. It's awesome. And in this future, every journalist must be a data journalist. But to get there, we need a better kit.

PANDA will help

With PANDA (which is a recursive acronym for "A News Data Application"), we're trying do two things: make basic data analysis quick and easy for news organizations, and make data sharing simple. I'll explain by example:

Let's say you've got an Excel spreadsheet of city employees with columns for first name, last name, department, position and salary. You visit your PANDA, upload the spreadsheet, give it a name, and tell PANDA it's a list of people. Once the data's in, you'll be able to search and sort and filter -- whatever you need.

Each news organization will have their own PANDA, so your data stays private while you work. And every time you add a new spreadsheet, you'll be building your newsroom's data library. So next time one of your peers is scrubbing a name, they'll be able to simultaneously search this and all the other lists of names your newsroom has collected.

That's just the baseline. We've got many more ideas, but we'd like to discuss them with you! So...

PANDA from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Hello, ONA!

The PANDA Gang is going to be at "ONA 2011 in Boston":http://ona11.journalists.org/ in a few weeks, and we need to hear from you! We'll be roaming the halls, camping in the lobbies and crawling the bars -- furiously taking notes about your newsroom data needs.

Find us!

We'll be in the red PANDA T-shirts.

February 08 2011

14:00

Knight, Mozilla Partner to Boost Tech-Journalism Collaboration

I'm excited to announce the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, a Mozilla Drumbeat project supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Journalism Program.

For the next three years, we will have the opportunity to engage a huge community, bring people together for trainings and in-person events, and ultimately build software and thought leadership to address the challenges that news organizations are facing today.

We'll be working with some amazing news partners: BBC, Boston.com, The Guardian, and Zeit Online, who are launching the partnership with us, and many more who we will invite to join the initiative.

If you're excited about the challenges and opportunities facing journalism, we want you to be part of this: If you're interested, please join the project mailing list.

We are creating a major new opportunity for the growing community of news innovators, sometimes called news hackers. Every phase of the partnership, from the innovation challenges to our online courses and in-person news hacking events, will help participants learn, network and build a community around their interests, develop their careers, and take leadership at the intersection of news and technology.

Over the course of the partnership, we'll be awarding at least 15 year-long fellowships to participants who demonstrate passion, great ideas and collaborative skills. This fellowship cohort might include software developers, user experience designers and statisticians. We're open to many types of candidates. The fellows will be embedded within the news partner organizations, where they will work side-by-side with newsmakers, producing experimental news applications based on open-source, open-web technologies.

In the coming months, as we get the partnership going, I will be sharing more of our thinking, announcing new partners, and so on. In the next few weeks, we'll be asking some big questions that will help to refine the plan for the project.

We're aiming to formally launch the program with a design challenge in the spring -- aimed at finding great ideas, and great people -- so, if you haven't already, please join the project mailing list and follow along with our thinking on the project wiki.

Also check out the Knight Foundation's blog post here and a post from our news innovation consultant, Phillip Smith, here.

I will be writing about the project extensively here on Idea Lab and at my site: www.nathanieljames.org. Let us know what you think of the idea in the comments.

December 20 2010

17:24

NPR's Project Argo Creates National Content at the Local Level

argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg Jason and the Argonauts were the mythological Greek heroes who set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Like its namesake, NPR's Project Argo is off on another noble quest -- to strengthen local journalism, particularly on digital platforms. Project Argo is a partnership between NPR and member stations, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its focus is building and launching niche, topic-focused websites for NPR member stations that can be models for the rest of the system.

We're proving the notion that a news organization can quickly build authority, engagement and traffic without large-scale increases in newsroom staff. Argo sites are piloted by one reporter-blogger (in a couple of cases, two reporters share one full-time job).

The topics we cover vary from Global Health to Higher Education and from Climate Change to Crime and the Courts. Argo stations include Oregon Public Broadcasting, KQED and KALW in San Francisco, KPCC in Pasadena, KPBS in San Diego, KPLU in Seattle, Minnesota Public Radio, WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, WXPN in Philadelphia and WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Although each of the Argo sites is producing very different types of content, they're linked to one another in a network dedicated to quality journalism. We think you'll find the same serendipity that carries you from a climate change story to a health care story on NPR programs such as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" will also inform and entertain you online in the Argo network. The organizing principle is that you will find the same high level of quality throughout the network.

Reporting, Aggregation, Community

Make no mistake; the Project Argo sites are local. But we are covering news that resonates nationally. WBUR's blog, CommonHealth, may become your new favorite site devoted to reporting on health care costs if you live in Boston. But it might also be required reading if you live anywhere, from Chicago to Corpus Christie, from Miami to Missoula, and anywhere else in between.

The Argo sites are based upon the principle that in order to bring the world to our readers, our reporters must report and write outstanding enterprise blog posts. But they must pay equal attention to curating the conversation by aggregating the best content from across the web that is relevant to his or her beat, and by fostering and participating in a robust community.

As a key deliverable for Project Argo, we were expected to build a new free-standing, web-based content management system using open source code and free software commonly available. By the end of the project's pilot phase (December 2011), we will open source that platform.

Platform

In building the platform, the questions we needed to answer were:

  • Will it allow journalists to publish quickly with minimal training?
  • Will it allow journalists to perform the role of content curator and community manager? In other words, can we empower a single person to run an entire site?
  • How can we ensure we use entirely, or as much as possible, open source software for easy and low-cost reuse throughout public media?

To achieve the goals, we needed to build a foundation for the Argo Network that could provide the structural underpinnings for any Argo site, and at the same time be flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of individual sites.

WordPress provided the most advanced starting point of the options we evaluated in terms of basic blog publishing. We have added a good deal of customization and also integration of other open source or free technologies like Django, Delicious and TwitterTim.es to create efficiencies, promote content and create a new way of displaying aggregated headlines.

All 12 websites were live by the end of August 2010. We will check in back here at Idea Lab from time to time to talk about various features that we roll out, and overall progress. We'll also be completely transparent about our process and training for Argo bloggers at our Argo Project blog. Let us know how we're doing and what you might like to see.

October 05 2010

16:04

LocalWiki to Create Collaborative, Community-Owned Local Media

So much of the unique knowledge and experiences we acquire through years of living in a community gets spread only by word of mouth, or worse it just stays "locked up" in our heads. But this is great stuff, valuable expert knowledge that can benefit everyone. After all, when it comes to the communities where we live, we are all experts!

What if everyone could share and collaborate on what they know about their local community? What would local media look like if everyone in the community was creating it?

The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Here's the Knight foundation video about our project:

Knight News Challenge: Local Wiki from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Background

In 2004 we started the Davis Wiki, an experimental project to collect and share interesting information about the town of Davis, California. The site is editable by anyone and it soon became the world's largest and most vibrant community wiki.

Today the residents of Davis use it for everything from learning about local news and local history, to helping return lost pets to their owners. It's become the largest, most used media source in the city. On any given week, nearly half of residents use the Davis wiki; Nearly everyone uses it on a monthly basis. And 1 in 7 residents contribute material to the Davis Wiki.

The Davis Wiki is maintained, at almost every level, by the community at large. Here's a short video clip about the Davis Wiki:

What About Local Blogs?

In 2007, when the Knight News Challenge began, local blogs were the hot new thing. The Knight Foundation was awarding grants to a variety of great local blog projects.

In 2010, blogs are a widespread, tested model for disseminating information about local happenings. A local blog -- a time-based series of updates on a particular topic -- is in many ways an extension of the time-based model of newspapers. While a local blog may sit on an easily accessible website with lots of comments and frequent updates, it is fundamentally a stream of new facts and new bits of information, day after day.

This bit-by-bit, time-based approach to providing information clearly has its origins in the printing and circulation process of newspapers. And our communities benefit from having strong, thriving local blogs and newspapers. But with the instant, always-on access afforded by the Internet we can build a new form of local media that is constantly updated, provides the full context around local issues, and is maintained by the entire community.

Local Media, By Everyone

Another limitation of blogs is that they are written by at most a handful of people. With a local blog, a few people write and everyone else reads (and maybe leaves comments).

Here's how that looks: local_blog.png

People can interact and share through comments and Twitter, etc., but this doesn't allow the community to command the full publishing power of the resource. And as new facts (often provided by commenters or via Twitter) arrive, the editorial team has to update their post (if we're lucky!) to reflect what's new. Or perhaps publish another post, leading to more information fragmentation.

With our local wiki projects, the entire community will not only read, but also contribute to and maintain the resource:

local_wiki.png

A High-Quality Online Hub For Every Community

How do you find out more information about a particular topic in your community? With only local blogs and newspapers to depend on, you'll quickly find yourself sorting through a scattered web of posts and news tidbits going back years. Wouldn't it be great to have an information hub with the full context behind these important local topics?

This is the final recommendation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy report:

infoneeds1.jpg

It's also a central objective of the LocalWiki project. We hope that our local wiki projects will offer a workable, sustainable model for building and maintaining amazing local information hubs.

We're just getting started on the LocalWiki project and we couldn't be more excited! If you'd like to get more information, or help out with the project, fill out the "Help out & get more info" box at localwiki.org.

We also need your help finding pilot communities for the project! If you know of a great place -- or great people! -- for us to work with, please fill out the pilot recommendation form.

September 20 2010

18:51

SeedSpeak To Sprout Community Improvement Projects in Phoenix

The excitement continues to build in the Phoenix community over a new mobile and web platform that will help people sow positive change in the community. Since the June Knight News Challenge funding announcement, my development partner Cody Shotwell and I have fielded dozens of calls and emails from local people. They can't wait to help us put together the project that will allow users to plant the seed of an idea for a community improvement project, allow others to add on or grow that idea toward maturity and, finally, join neighbors and local officials together to harvest the idea into a reality. Phoenix, our test city, desperately needs this.

But first we needed a name.

The project was originally called CitySeed. However, as has happened to many an entrepreneur before us, the domain was not ours to have.

So SeedSpeak was born. You can watch this video from the Knight Foundation to learn more about the project:

Knight News Challenge: CitySeed from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Here's a concise explanation on our website:

SeedSpeak is an application with mobile, web and widget components that allows users to plant suggestions, ideas and thoughts (seeds) in Phoenix communities at the exact location where you get an idea or see an unmet need. SeedSpeak then empowers other community members to discover those seeds, add to them, and help execute those ideas.

User Feedback

Now that we had a name, and buoyed by that excitement, we spent most of the summer getting development bids, talking to lawyers and business types, and getting ready to move into full-scale ideation and development.

We selected the Phoenix-based interactive agency Gate6 to design, develop and build SeedSpeak. Gate6 has been named the best development company in Phoenix by the Phoenix Business Journal a number of times. In addition to working within our budget, the company has been a wonderful partner by getting started on the work even as we hammer out a contract.

In addition to making that critical choice, Cody and I kept busy with research. As huge believers in user-centered design, we spent a portion of the summer on that. Our design began with the simple question: What does our community want in a mobile, idea-sharing social network? In order to answer that question so we can push pixels and code with confidence, we conducted in-depth user interviews to understand the needs and goals of likely users, potential users, and any other stakeholders.

We interviewed avid social networkers, mobile mavens, city officials, leaders of community organizations, and news-gatherers. As new kinds of users emerge, we'll talk to them, too. This research has already helped us make choices about SeedSpeak's feature set, layout, and other crucial aspects of the project.

From that research, we were able to hammer out a prototype website design. We will continue to reach out to the community again and again until we've created an application that Phoenix can truly use.

In addition to our future Phoenix users, we'd love to get your feedback. Please share your thoughts with us as we share the development of SeedSpeak with you.

September 02 2010

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

August 23 2010

16:21

One-Eight, Afghanistan: Social Media + U.S. Marine Corps

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

In my case, I won a Knight News Challenge grant to launch an online, social media reporting network that follows a battalion of U.S. Marines throughout their deployment to southern Afghanistan. (Congratulations! You've won a year in Helmand Province, roadside bomb capital of the world...)

Although recently upgraded from "forgotten war" to "central front," the Afghanistan conflict exists on the periphery of the American consciousness. We're nearly a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, but most Americans still have a pretty fuzzy idea of what we're actually doing over there. "Counterinsurgency" is the new buzzword, but if we held a national pop quiz to actually define the term, I don't expect we'd get good grades.

Beyond social media, this project is really about the simple, literal question: "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"

A Year to Rediscover America

While the public is clearly disconnected, I somehow don't accept the notion that they aren't interested -- personal experience over the past year tells me the opposite. I spent that year at Stanford on a Knight journalism fellowship -- mostly impersonating a college student, but occasionally impersonating an "Afghanistan expert" on the lecture circuit. (Prior to the fellowship, I hadn't read a lot of books on the subject, but I'd spent years wandering the far reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir as a photographer, sometimes embedded with military forces. My photos have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic.).

For the first time I could remember, I spent a solid year in my own country. I saw a lot more of America than I ever had before, I don't think we've got a public that doesn't care -- I think we've got a profession that doesn't know how to communicate.

Flash forward to now, I'm at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- a week from departure, without so much as a domain name registered. I'm dusting off body armor, scrambling to locate satellite transmitters and solar panels, wondering what I was thinking, and what exactly an "online social media reporting network" looks like, and how I'm actually going to materialize all this vaporware.

As far as I know, the project is a bit of an anomaly in the technology-heavy spectrum of News Challenge winners. It promises no coding, no new widgets or algorithms, and not much that could really pass for a business model.

Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that we could do a lot more with the resources that we already have. Among other things, those resources include communication tools of incredible, and untested reach. (Consider the notion that 50 percent of the activity on the Internet occurs on a single website, Facebook).

To be honest, this thing wasn't actually my idea, and I had one foot out the door on the Afghanistan business, when I got the call.

The Idea

The idea came from a Marine I'd met in Afghanistan in 2004. Back then he was a captain, leading a hundred Marines through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, just a few miles off the Pakistani border. I'd just come out of Iraq, and he was on his way over, and I remember sitting on a hillside, in total darkness one night, telling him what he was in for. I told him Iraq was a lot worse than he'd heard, and it was just starting to slide off the edge. Afghanistan, by comparison, felt like it was on the right track.

I was half right, at least.

He's a major now, with a mind-bending six tours under his belt. He's second-in-command of a battalion and about to return to Afghanistan with almost a thousand Marines. And he asked me: Did I want to come along? Would I ride out the entire tour with them?

One of these days, I have to learn how to say no.

Typically, embedded journalists spend a week or two with a military unit, reporting for a news agency or a magazine or a newspaper. The embed slot is like a revolving door, with one media outlet rotating out, as another one rotates in. Correspondents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan work on directives from editors in places like London and New York -- and if you're a photographer like me, you might find yourself in some remote desert or mountain range, hunting for scenes conjured in the imagination of a correspondent in Kabul or Baghdad.

What if we tried a different approach, something both more autonomous, and more collaborative?

Execution and distribution might come down to the question: What's the social graph of a thousand Marines? I have no idea, but when I run a Facebook app to analyze my own social network, my MacBook spins, chokes, and crashes as it attempts to crunch the data, and plot the connections around a single person. That might just be buggy code over at Facebook, but I'd still guess the numbers surrounding a battalion-strength network of 19 year-olds are some degree of real big.

It may be that the Marine Corps had the same question, because earlier this year, it lifted a long-standing ban on social media for deployed troops. Translation: Marines can tweet and Facebook from Afghanistan.

It's anyone's guess what that means practically, especially in a place that doesn't have a lot of Internet cafes. But it's worth watching how the military makes use of the social web. So far, on an institutional level, they seem to have made much more effective use of it than the professional media.

More soon from the other side...

16:21

One-Eight, Afghanistan: Social Media + U.S. Marine Corps

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

In my case, I won a Knight News Challenge grant to launch an online, social media reporting network that follows a battalion of U.S. Marines throughout their deployment to southern Afghanistan. (Congratulations! You've won a year in Helmand Province, roadside bomb capital of the world...)

Although recently upgraded from "forgotten war" to "central front," the Afghanistan conflict exists on the periphery of the American consciousness. We're nearly a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, but most Americans still have a pretty fuzzy idea of what we're actually doing over there. "Counterinsurgency" is the new buzzword, but if we held a national pop quiz to actually define the term, I don't expect we'd get good grades.

Beyond social media, this project is really about the simple, literal question: "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"

A Year to Rediscover America

While the public is clearly disconnected, I somehow don't accept the notion that they aren't interested -- personal experience over the past year tells me the opposite. I spent that year at Stanford on a Knight journalism fellowship -- mostly impersonating a college student, but occasionally impersonating an "Afghanistan expert" on the lecture circuit. (Prior to the fellowship, I hadn't read a lot of books on the subject, but I'd spent years wandering the far reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir as a photographer, sometimes embedded with military forces. My photos have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic.).

For the first time I could remember, I spent a solid year in my own country. I saw a lot more of America than I ever had before, I don't think we've got a public that doesn't care -- I think we've got a profession that doesn't know how to communicate.

Flash forward to now, I'm at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- a week from departure, without so much as a domain name registered. I'm dusting off body armor, scrambling to locate satellite transmitters and solar panels, wondering what I was thinking, and what exactly an "online social media reporting network" looks like, and how I'm actually going to materialize all this vaporware.

As far as I know, the project is a bit of an anomaly in the technology-heavy spectrum of News Challenge winners. It promises no coding, no new widgets or algorithms, and not much that could really pass for a business model.

Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that we could do a lot more with the resources that we already have. Among other things, those resources include communication tools of incredible, and untested reach. (Consider the notion that 50 percent of the activity on the Internet occurs on a single website, Facebook).

To be honest, this thing wasn't actually my idea, and I had one foot out the door on the Afghanistan business, when I got the call.

The Idea

The idea came from a Marine I'd met in Afghanistan in 2004. Back then he was a captain, leading a hundred Marines through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, just a few miles off the Pakistani border. I'd just come out of Iraq, and he was on his way over, and I remember sitting on a hillside, in total darkness one night, telling him what he was in for. I told him Iraq was a lot worse than he'd heard, and it was just starting to slide off the edge. Afghanistan, by comparison, felt like it was on the right track.

I was half right, at least.

He's a major now, with a mind-bending six tours under his belt. He's second-in-command of a battalion and about to return to Afghanistan with almost a thousand Marines. And he asked me: Did I want to come along? Would I ride out the entire tour with them?

One of these days, I have to learn how to say no.

Typically, embedded journalists spend a week or two with a military unit, reporting for a news agency or a magazine or a newspaper. The embed slot is like a revolving door, with one media outlet rotating out, as another one rotates in. Correspondents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan work on directives from editors in places like London and New York -- and if you're a photographer like me, you might find yourself in some remote desert or mountain range, hunting for scenes conjured in the imagination of a correspondent in Kabul or Baghdad.

What if we tried a different approach, something both more autonomous, and more collaborative?

Execution and distribution might come down to the question: What's the social graph of a thousand Marines? I have no idea, but when I run a Facebook app to analyze my own social network, my MacBook spins, chokes, and crashes as it attempts to crunch the data, and plot the connections around a single person. That might just be buggy code over at Facebook, but I'd still guess the numbers surrounding a battalion-strength network of 19 year-olds are some degree of real big.

It may be that the Marine Corps had the same question, because earlier this year, it lifted a long-standing ban on social media for deployed troops. Translation: Marines can tweet and Facebook from Afghanistan.

It's anyone's guess what that means practically, especially in a place that doesn't have a lot of Internet cafes. But it's worth watching how the military makes use of the social web. So far, on an institutional level, they seem to have made much more effective use of it than the professional media.

More soon from the other side...

August 20 2010

17:27

Stroome Helps Journalists Collaborate via Online Video Remixing

This post was co-authored by Nonny de la Peña

Stroome, a winner of the 2010 Knight News Challenge grant, fosters a social network that allows journalists to collaborate together by sharing content and stories that can be edited right in a browser and then pushed across the web.

Prototyped at USC Annenberg's pioneering Online Program on Online Communities in the fall of 2008, the idea was strikingly simple: Create a place where journalists can efficiently work together to create a culture that offers accurate, contextual news in real-time.

The result was Stroome, an online video editing platform crossed with a social network that allows you to upload, edit, and share thousands of clips from different users. In short, the perfect toolset for journalists aspiring to retool in the digital age. Learn more in the below video:

Knight News Challenge: Stroome from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Why Stroome? Why Now?

Anyone who has tried to work on a video project in which the stakeholders are in geographic locations knows the problems inherent in online collaboration. File transfer slows down the process; there are breakdowns in communication; the flow of critical information is often lost in the mix.

Stroome breaks that technological and communication bottleneck by offering revision histories and intuitive, collaborative editing tools that allow individuals and groups work together for the good of the whole to foster a supportive culture that can quickly produce accurate news stories.

Stroome not only enables the next generation of digital journalists to upload and edit content right in the browser but, more importantly, allows stakeholders in disparate locations to create a community around that content -- from small groups to national news outlets.

Stroome Dashboard_081610.jpg

Whether it's a small group of journalists working to get out a story quickly, or a community remixing pieces to reflect their points of view, Stroome focuses on visual journalism as a participatory process. Our unique browser-based platform allows you to upload, edit, and share thousands of clips from different users in real-time. Then you can push your projects out across the web to the major social media sites or share them on Stroome with other users so that they can open and edit your clips, too.

But the real breakthrough is that by publishing content quickly and allowing diverse geographic communities to communicate, we believe Stroome will rejuvenate the relationship between a news organization and its audience by radically increasing responsiveness with an inexpensive, agile online solution.

But don't count out the satellite trucks just yet. We fervently believe participatory video is the future of visual storytelling on the web, and we are devoted to trying to use the technology to support the idea that content creation can be a communal experience instead of merely a tool for passive viewing. But we also recognize that what we are asking will require a significant shift in thinking.

The Future of News is Digital

For us, that shift begins today. Over the next few weeks, our team will be working with local news outlets to set up a series of beta experiments in which the Stroome platform will be implemented in the field and in the classroom. So if you have a unique case study you'd like to test, email us info@stroome.com.

August 16 2010

18:43

GoMap Helps Communities Map Local Events, News

GoMap is a map-based interface for local news, initiatives, building projects, public hearings and tweets. Our project, which won a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant, is ment to turn a city into a neighborhood, a place where everybody sees and hears his/her friends, can communicate with each other, and have fun based on their geographical location. Here's how the project was described by the Knight Foundation:

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 also will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while also 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.

You can also watch a video about GoMap:

Knight News Challenge: GoMap Riga from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Below is a piece-by-piece overview of the elements that will be incorporated into the project.

Project Elements

News -- GoMap will automatically read news from online sources and place them on the map. GoMap will notify people about the news related to their home or interest area, so that people won't miss it when something is going on in their local community.

Initiatives-- Issues like "this fountain needs to get fixed" or "let's have an artist wall here" could take place on the city map. People could also create initiatives on the map, gather signatures from fellow citizens, and bring the initiative to the attention of the local municipality, media, police, etc. in order to get things done.

Building projects-- GoMap will automatically place all the local building projects on the map, notify locals about them, and in effect host an online public hearing about these projects.

Twitter -- Tweets like "check out this bar" or "let's meet right here" will be incorporated into GoMap. With just two clicks, people can have their tweets placed on the map.

We're currently in the very early stages of development and you can keep an eye on our progress at http://gomapdev.appspot.com. Our key challenge is to master the Google Maps API and create a lot of new code in order to get things to work and look the way we need.

Let us know what you think about our project, and thanks for reading!

August 13 2010

15:01

Order in the Court 2.0: Making the Justice System More Public

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0, one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant, is to restore and reinvigorate the public's access and understanding of our nation's courts.

Up to now journalism has been the primary bridge connecting the public to the courts. But the media's ability to cover the courts is diminished due to shrinking resources.

At the same time, many in the public are equipped with new media tools like smartphones, Wi-Fi and access to multiple social networks.

Working with the judiciary and the public, Order in the Court 2.0 will establish best practices for effective and efficient ways to cover the courts using digital technology.

Live Streaming, Place for Bloggers, Wiki

We are the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970's. While the legislative and the executive branch have embraced new technologies developed in the last decade, the judicial branch has been the slowest to adapt to these innovations.

Order in the Court 2.0 will create a pilot program in Quincy District Court, located just outside Boston, to serve as a laboratory to test these new media initiatives. Quincy District Court is one of the busiest courthouses in the Massachusetts with nearly 9,000 new criminal complaints filed each year.

This pilot program will equip the courthouse with live video-streaming capabilities and create designated areas for live bloggers. Additionally, we will post online the court's daily docket to better inform and engage the public of what civil and criminal cases are being heard in the area. We also plan to build a knowledge wiki that will educate the public of common legal terms and proceedings, all in an effort to add transparency to this fundamental aspect of our democratic society.

By the end of this project, the more skeptical members of the legal community -- including judges, court administrators and lawyers -- should accept, if not embrace, the advantages of increased digital access to the nation's court system. To quote Judge Mark Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District court in Massachusetts, "We have long believed that if the public had greater information about what transpires in the court that there would be increased public confidence in the work of our judicial system."

Additionally, we hoped that the effective demonstration of the success of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a model that can be emulated through the nation's courts at all jurisdictional levels.

Leadership and Partners

I will be leading a small team of digital journalists working out of Quincy District Court. My day job is executive director of wbur.org, the website of Boston NPR's website. Over the past year I've overseen our station's efforts to become a major news destination site. I'm responsible for the editorial content of our website, which includes content from our local newsroom, Radio Boston, and our nationally syndicated programs, On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game. Prior to going over to the digital side, I was WBUR's news director for the last six years. I've also got two decades worth of local television news experience working at Boston's ABC and CBS affiliates.

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0 came out of work being done by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, of which I am a member. This committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and media representatives from print, radio, television and online. This committee is trying to adapt the current cameras in the court rules to incorporate the new realities of digital access. Order in the Court 2.0 will provide real world opportunities to test out some of these proposed rule changes.

We also plan to work cooperatively with the National Conference of Court Public Information Officers. This past year the new media committee of the CCPIO has been studying the issue raised by increased digital access. It will soon release its findings. After studying the state of new media and gauging the perceptions of judges and court administrators, the CCPIO will issue a framework for the courts on how to make decisions appropriate for the use of new media. Order in the Court 2.0 adds the input of mainstream media, citizen journalists and the public at large to this equation and then tests these assumptions in real time in one of the busiest courts in the state

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges Order in the Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice. To address this concern, Order in the Court 2.0 will include judges and other court personnel in its development and implementation.

Order in the Court 2.0 will have to strike the appropriate balance between the public's right to know and the public's right to due process. These two rights play themselves out everyday in court and the introduction of smaller, and more accessible digital communication devices only complicate issues that the courts need to address going into the future.

Order in the Court Needs You

Even though we haven't officially started at Quincy District Court, this project is getting lots of attention thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe, Neiman Journalism Lab, Current
and even across the pond at journalism.co,uk.

But, most importantly, we'd love to know what you think of our idea. What does it need to accomplish to be a success in your mind? Let us know what you think by adding a comment below. We'd love to have you along for the ride as we attempt to bring about Order in the Court 2.0.

15:01

Order in the Court 2.0: Making the Justice System More Public

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0, one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant, is to restore and reinvigorate the public's access and understanding of our nation's courts.

Up to now journalism has been the primary bridge connecting the public to the courts. But the media's ability to cover the courts is diminished due to shrinking resources.

At the same time, many in the public are equipped with new media tools like smartphones, Wi-Fi and access to multiple social networks.

Working with the judiciary and the public, Order in the Court 2.0 will establish best practices for effective and efficient ways to cover the courts using digital technology.

Live Streaming, Place for Bloggers, Wiki

We are the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970's. While the legislative and the executive branch have embraced new technologies developed in the last decade, the judicial branch has been the slowest to adapt to these innovations.

Order in the Court 2.0 will create a pilot program in Quincy District Court, located just outside Boston, to serve as a laboratory to test these new media initiatives. Quincy District Court is one of the busiest courthouses in the Massachusetts with nearly 9,000 new criminal complaints filed each year.

This pilot program will equip the courthouse with live video-streaming capabilities and create designated areas for live bloggers. Additionally, we will post online the court's daily docket to better inform and engage the public of what civil and criminal cases are being heard in the area. We also plan to build a knowledge wiki that will educate the public of common legal terms and proceedings, all in an effort to add transparency to this fundamental aspect of our democratic society.

By the end of this project, the more skeptical members of the legal community -- including judges, court administrators and lawyers -- should accept, if not embrace, the advantages of increased digital access to the nation's court system. To quote Judge Mark Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District court in Massachusetts, "We have long believed that if the public had greater information about what transpires in the court that there would be increased public confidence in the work of our judicial system."

Additionally, we hoped that the effective demonstration of the success of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a model that can be emulated through the nation's courts at all jurisdictional levels.

Leadership and Partners

I will be leading a small team of digital journalists working out of Quincy District Court. My day job is executive director of wbur.org, the website of Boston NPR's website. Over the past year I've overseen our station's efforts to become a major news destination site. I'm responsible for the editorial content of our website, which includes content from our local newsroom, Radio Boston, and our nationally syndicated programs, On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game. Prior to going over to the digital side, I was WBUR's news director for the last six years. I've also got two decades worth of local television news experience working at Boston's ABC and CBS affiliates.

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0 came out of work being done by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, of which I am a member. This committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and media representatives from print, radio, television and online. This committee is trying to adapt the current cameras in the court rules to incorporate the new realities of digital access. Order in the Court 2.0 will provide real world opportunities to test out some of these proposed rule changes.

We also plan to work cooperatively with the National Conference of Court Public Information Officers. This past year the new media committee of the CCPIO has been studying the issue raised by increased digital access. It will soon release its findings. After studying the state of new media and gauging the perceptions of judges and court administrators, the CCPIO will issue a framework for the courts on how to make decisions appropriate for the use of new media. Order in the Court 2.0 adds the input of mainstream media, citizen journalists and the public at large to this equation and then tests these assumptions in real time in one of the busiest courts in the state

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges Order in the Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice. To address this concern, Order in the Court 2.0 will include judges and other court personnel in its development and implementation.

Order in the Court 2.0 will have to strike the appropriate balance between the public's right to know and the public's right to due process. These two rights play themselves out everyday in court and the introduction of smaller, and more accessible digital communication devices only complicate issues that the courts need to address going into the future.

Order in the Court Needs You

Even though we haven't officially started at Quincy District Court, this project is getting lots of attention thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe, Neiman Journalism Lab, Current
and even across the pond at journalism.co,uk.

But, most importantly, we'd love to know what you think of our idea. What does it need to accomplish to be a success in your mind? Let us know what you think by adding a comment below. We'd love to have you along for the ride as we attempt to bring about Order in the Court 2.0.

August 12 2010

16:32

NowSpots: Working to Make Local Web Ads That Work

NowSpots are beautiful online ads that feature the latest social media updates from advertisers, and make it easy for a reader to follow and share their content across the web.

For the last year at WindyCitizen.com, a social network for Chicago news aficionados and urban explorers, we've been selling a simple version of NowSpots ads to small businesses and local colleges -- and we recently won a Knight News Challenge Award to spin the format off into its own company that provides these ads to other publishers.

In a world where thousands of small businesses are signing up for sites like Facebook and Twitter every day, these ads deliver a more personal, dynamic, relevant experience than the banner ads offered by most publishers. NowSpots.com will provide these "real-time ads" to local publishers large and small. Over the next year, our team will be blogging our progress here. You can also receive an e-mail alert when we officially launch this fall by signing up at http://nowspots.com.

Why Do We Need NowSpots?

Local publishers need better ads. This is true for both the little guys and the big guys. The last few years have seen hundreds of neighborhood and small town blogs spring up around the United States. Many of these sites, like Lake Effect News in Chicago and West Seattle Blog in Seattle, are edited and published by journalists who left mainstream media to try their hands at something more entrepreneurial. Some of them are finding audiences. Some of them aren't. But very, very few of them are making money.

A publisher reaching 1,000 people in their neighborhood each day on a local blog has only a few options for converting that audience into dollars: She could sell text link ads to local businesses looking to boost their SEO -- but Google frowns on that practice -- and unless her blog has a PageRank of five or higher, few businesses will be interested. She could place AdSense or some other cost-per-click ad offering on her site, but the payouts for readers clicking on those ads will amount to pennies and her audience will be subjected to bottom of the barrel ads that have nothing to do with the content they're reading, thereby degrading their experience.

The third option, and the one chosen by a growing number of small, local publishers, is direct sale display advertising. With display ads, which are sold directly, the publisher has to get out and sell, but she will have better targeted ads that pay out at predictable rates, depending on how they're priced.

The problem with this third option is that traditional banner ads -- static or animated images that display an advertiser's messaging each time the page is refreshed -- simply don't scratch much of an itch for small businesses. They convey brand awareness and help an advertiser get clicks. That's great for a large advertiser that can afford to develop a strong web presence with high-conversion landing pages, but for the average small business that still doesn't have much of a website even in 2010, clicks just aren't that valuable.

Local businesses are looking for customers, not clicks; increasingly, they're finding those connections on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where they can interact in real-time with customers and potential customers. Once someone likes your business on Facebook, they've entered into a relationship with your business that can lead to sales. A "like" is therefore much more valuable to a small business than a click.

Our Goal: Get Local Ads Past the Click Economy

That's where NowSpots come in. NowSpots are display ads on crack. They are inherently social ads that let advertisers step beyond the click economy and into what we call the introduction economy. When an advertiser buys a NowSpot on Windy Citizen, and soon, on other sites near you, they're not buying clicks -- they're buying an introduction into that site's audience and community. They're buying a very specific kind of relationship that actually converts into sales.

If local publishers are going to make money on the web, they need better ads. NowSpots is going to be there for them starting this fall.

How You Can Help Us Make Local Ads Better

We've spent this summer assembling a handful of Alpha Publishing Partners. These are local publishers who talk to us about their needs, pain points and goals for online advertising. These conversations are informing our decisions as we develop our product. If you run a local publication or work at one that would be interested in working with us to make your online ads more social, less annoying, and more effective for advertisers, drop us a line at info@nowspots.com and we'll get back to you soon.

August 06 2010

19:17

Front Porch Forum: Connecting Strangers in the Neighborhood

Mention the Internet, and most people think of the World Wide Web, of reaching out across the globe for news, long-lost friends, or low-price bargains. But in dozens of Vermont towns, residents are using the web to connect with their back-fence neighbors. In an era where national and global information is broadly available online, it seems that few of us know our neighbors and what's going on down the street.

My name is Michael Wood-Lewis, and my wife, Valerie, and I saw an opportunity four years ago and created Front Porch Forum (FPF) to serve our home region in northwest Vermont. Amazingly, nearly half of the state's largest city now subscribes to FPF. The sense of community here is thriving and winning national recognition, including a 2010 Knight News Challenge award. You can learn a bit more about us in this video:

Knight News Challenge: Front Porch Forum from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Creating Real Neighbors

It's astounding what a couple minutes per day of neighborhood news and chatter in a person's inbox can do. People tell me that they lived on their street for years not knowing a soul. Now, since Front Porch Forum kicked in, those familiar strangers have become real neighbors.

Each neighborhood has its own online space and the whole region is blanketed with a network of more than 100 neighborhood forums. People post about lost pets, block parties, car break-ins, plumber recommendations, helping ailing neighbors, local politics, school plays and much more. All ages partake, from seniors in their 80s seeking community support to stay in their homes to teenagers looking for summer jobs.

In one rural area, people used FPF to find a pair of spooked horses who jumped their fence, then pitched in to build a better enclosure as a gift to the owners. In an urban neighborhood, residents rallied around a mother who was assaulted in the park, and eventually got the city to improve safety conditions there. And in a different community, a young family asked for a couple volunteers to help move their household into new digs across the street -- 36 neighbors showed up! Not only was the job done quickly, but now this family knows three dozen people in the surrounding blocks.

"This small family business turns the Internet on its head," says FPF member and University of Vermont associate dean Susan A. Comerford. "The web offers countless ways to waste time, but Front Porch Forum actually pushes people offline and onto the sidewalks to chat with neighbors, face to face."

And that leads people to get more involved in their communities, as the chat evolves into action. An incredible nine out of ten FPF members report becoming more involved in local issues due to this free service.

"Front Porch Forum is a post-modern return to citizen democracy," says Comerford. "This may well be the most important advance in community development strategies in decades."

The Knight News Challenge award will allow us to rebuild FPF's current proof-of-concept software to better provide for our subscribers. We'll then expand to all 251 towns in Vermont, and prepare to offer Front Porch Forum to communities outside of Vermont in 2011.

I look forward to reporting on our progress here on Idea Lab, and I hope to hear from readers in the comments below or via FPF's website.

August 05 2010

20:12

TileMill: Custom Maps to Help with Data Dumps, Hyper-Local

TileMill is an open source toolkit that helps you create beautiful custom maps in the cloud, built by Development Seed. We recently won a Knight News Challenge award (a.k.a. “Tilemapping”) to help us release a new version of TileMill that will make it even easier for people to design highly custom maps — using their own data or freely available public data — that they can then use anywhere online. Over the coming year, our team will be blogging on Idea Lab to share different pieces of our work and talk about our progress. In this post we want to introduce readers to what we’re up to and why.

Why TileMill

So why TileMill? There are a couple of trends happening right now that are leading civic and media organizations to want and need custom maps. One is the open data movement, which is leading to an onslaught of new data sets available for public use. As more data becomes open, access to information is no longer the barrier — you just need the tools to work with it.

There are plenty of simple-to-use and freely available tools for working with RSS or CSV files that are commonly released under open data initiatives, but this is not the case for GIS file formats. Even tech-savvy web users who run into these files on open data sites often don’t know how to use them. Just because data is freely available doesn’t mean it’s useful (yet). People also need the tools to work with the data.

Another relevant trend is the move toward “hyper-localism.” As the volume of information available to us continues to increase, one of the most certain factors to help people figure out which information is relevant to them is how much if effects their life in their local community. With everything from search engines to grocery stores touting their local relevance and credentials, there is a growing need for tools to show off highly detailed local information on maps.

People want and need to see details to make sense of local information, and large global map maintainers might not have any incentive to provide this data (classic example: poor road documentation by Google and Microsoft in Africa). Most organizations don’t have the resources to consider building custom maps to better highlight their local information.

We made TileMill to help solve these problems. If anyone can take available map data, highlight the details that matter to them, and generate their own custom maps without spending thousands of dollars, it will increase the quality of hyper-local content on websites and the value of many large public open data initiatives. Our hope is to dramatically reduce the barriers to making very custom maps online.

Making it Usable

At Development Seed, we’ve always been interested in building practical tools that help organizations nail the details surrounding their work. Over the past few years we’ve worked with international development organizations, domestic NGOs, media organizations, and government agencies who have all discovered a need for custom maps to help them better communicate the geographic details and context around their content or other key data. With so many groups wanting better maps, we started working on tools that would make map creation easier and more affordable. Last year we started work on a new suite of GIS tools at MapBox.com to provide accessible open source solutions to create custom maps, and TileMill is one of the projects that has come out of that initiative.

afghan election data.jpg

To get a sense of how TileMill works, users can bring their own GIS data or use publicly available data sets, add their own visual design styles to different map elements, and generate new maps to then load into a web browser and view online.

Instead of seeing generic publicly released maps like those from Google or OpenStreetMap, website visitors can see and browse custom maps that are designed to show off very specific geographic info or to match an organization’s branding and design aesthetic. This process has traditionally been very technical, involving a cocktail of different mapping software that can be hard to set up and that few people know how to use well. It’s also been expensive and resource intensive, often involving very large datasets that require considerable computing power to work with them well. TileMill makes this process simpler.

As for what we are up to next, we are really excited about the opportunities that will come from our Knight News Challenge award. This is key funding that will turn the current TileMill into totally revamped TileMill 2.0. Over the next few months we’ll be working to incorporate feedback and lessons we have learned from our first release into the 2.0 toolkit.

Our main focus will be on making TileMill more usable, reducing the learning curve so that users without development or mapping experience can get started. Our hope is that this work will make it possible for local bloggers, smaller NGOs, and other organizations without existing budgets for GIS teams to put very custom maps on their websites. We are ready to move fast with development. For full details on the improvements we’ll make, check out our plans in this blog post at developmentseed.org.

To see some examples of what kind of maps can be made with TileMill, check out the demos on MapBox.com and the custom maps we created for the Afghan presidential elections in 2009 in action at AfghanistanElectionData.org.

Have ideas for what would make mapping better in your world? We’d love to hear them in the comments, or on Twitter where you can follow our progress @mapbox.

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