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December 30 2010

18:35

Lessons Learned from ReportingOn

In 2008, I was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to build ReportingOn, a back channel for beat reporters to share ideas, information, and sources. The goal of the project was to provide journalists of all stripes with a place to talk about content -- not craft, or process, or skillset.

I taught myself enough Django -- and sought out advice from friends and co-workers with little regard for their interest or priorities -- to launch the first iteration of the site in October 2008. In July 2009, with fresh design and development from the team at Lion Burger, ReportingOn 2.0 launched.

And almost immediately, I stepped away from it, buried in the responsibilities of my day job, family, and other projects. To grow and evolve, and really, to race ahead of the internal and external communication tools already available to reporters, ReportingOn needed far more time, attention, and dedication than I could give it.

Yesterday, I shut down ReportingOn.

In its last state, it only cost a few bucks a month to maintain, but it has more value at this point as a story, or a lesson, or a piece of software than it has as a working site.

To head off a couple questions at the pass:


  1. No, you can't export your questions or answers or profile data. None of you have touched the site in about a year, so I don't think you're that interested in exporting anything. But if you're some sort of web packrat that insists, I have the database, and I can certainly provide you with your content.

  2. Yes, the source code for the application is still available, and you're more than welcome to take a stab at building something interesting with it. If you do, please feel free to let me know.


And a few recommendations for developers of software "for journalists":

  • Reporters don't want to talk about unpublished stories in public.

  • Unless they're looking for sources.

  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.

  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.

  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you're building meets a very journalism-specific need, you're probably grinding your gears to build something "for journalists" when they just need a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.


As for the problem ReportingOn set out to solve, it's still out there.

Connecting the dots among far-flung newsrooms working on stories about the same issue is something that might happen internally in a large media company, or organically in the wilds of Twitter, but rarely in any structured way that makes it easy to discover new colleagues, peers, and mentors. Sure, there are email lists, especially for professional associations (think: SEJ) that act as back channels for a beat, but not enough, and not focused on content.

(Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.)

As for me, I'm working on another (even) small(er) Knight-funded side project a few minutes at a time these days. Watch for news about that one in the coming weeks.

January 14 2010

19:22

Q&A 2.0: There's More Than One Way to Answer a Question

Since ReportingOn launched with a new Question & Answer format in July 2009, a few new entries in what I'll call the Q&A 2.0 space have popped up and grown their base of users. Here's a look at three Q&A 2.0 applications with wide appeal.

Aardvark

aardvark_idealab_011310.png

Aardvark allows users to ask questions via instant message, the website, Twitter, and an iPhone app, among other ways. I've used IM for the most part, answering questions about Twitter, iPhone apps, and journalism from time to time, while fending off questions about SEO, and using my favorite Aardvark feature to refer questions to friends.

Here's Aardvark's record of my question about a theoretically sustainable alternative to hardwood flooring, bamboo.

What you won't see on that page are the multiple ways I interacted with Aardvark along the way.

I submitted my question via the website, received the first answer via IM, and spotted the second answer as a push notification on my iPhone before reading it in the app. (My phone just buzzed again with another push notification as I typed that last sentence.)

Aardvark ranks high on the social scale: I'm getting real human answers from real humans with real experience buying, installing, and maintaining bamboo flooring -- and I'm getting the answers via any and all communication channels.

Hunch

Hunch is a different beast. Not content to simply act as a referral service to find someone who knows the answer to my question, Hunch aspires to answer my question by asking me about myself. About my personality. About my hopes and dreams.

Hunch is getting to know me so it can tell me what to do.

But not in a creepy way.

And if Hunch seems friendly, that could be thanks to co-founder Caterina Fake, who you might remember as one of the founders of the rather personable photo sharing network, Flickr.

In a blog post last year, Fake called Hunch a "decision-making site." It's not a place for questions and answers, but a place to climb "decision trees" that ask you the questions in order to determine what your best path of action would be, given the conditions you describe in your answers.

"In addition to helping you climb the decision tree, Hunch asks you a bunch of questions about yourself to find out more about what you're like and what you like. Hunch creates a kind of "taste profile" of you and people like you, which combine with topic-specific questions to deliver a hunch just for you."

So I gave it a shot. A search for "bamboo flooring" lead to the Hunch page for "What type of flooring should I choose?" OK, fair enough.

Next, the system walked me through a series of questions. Pets? Ground level? High traffic area? (For a moment, I felt like a kid home sick from school watching daytime television and its parade of household cleaning product commercials.)

hunch_idealab_011310.png

Eventually the possible flooring options were ranked based on my answers. Apparently, I want laminate, bamboo, or tile. So says Hunch.

Quora

Quora is a bit more conventional. Fire up your browser, visit the URL, and ask or answer questions. But it's well-designed, easy to use, and blazingly fast. When I say fast, I mean the whole site feels fast in the browser. Dig around, and you'll find Quora engineers answering questions like "Why is Quora so fast?" But there's another decision the builders of Quora have made to speed things along. They've removed some of the friction of average social sites, making the assumption that once you've logged in with Facebook Connect, for example, you want to automatically follow all your Facebook friends who are already on Quora. Instantly.

quora_idealab_011310.png

Quora feels like a solid piece of software, but the community seems to be heavily weighted toward Silicon Valley entrepreneurial questions at the moment, although I did manage to find one in the "journalism" category that I could answer.

(Quora is invite-only right now. I have 10 I'll happily give away if you're interested. Thanks to Andrew Gritt for getting me in to have a look around.)

What We Can Learn From Q&A 2.0

As we build question-and-answer applications geared toward solving civic problems in our communities, we can pick up a few tricks from these entries into the Q&A 2.0 space.

  • From Aardvark, we learn the value of reaching people wherever they are, however they consume and communicate information. Push notification on my iPhone during my commute home? Sure, I consume information that way.
  • From Hunch, we learn that if we hand a person a multiple choice quiz, we can record the results and let our algorithm learn something about them to bring to the table when they ask their next question.
  • From Quora, we learn the value of frictionless real-time interfaces. Don't assume your application has to follow patterns generated by its predecessors. You're building next year's tools, not last year's.

So. Any questions? How about answers?

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