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June 27 2013

16:27

Sensor journalism, storytelling with Vine, fighting gender bias and more: Takeaways from the 2013 Civic Media Conference

mit-knight-civic-media-conference-2013Are there lessons journalists can learn from Airbnb? What can sensors tell us about the state of New York City’s public housing stock? How can nonprofits, governments, and for-profit companies collaborate to create places for public engagement online?

There were just a few of the questions asked at the annual Civic Media Conference hosted by MIT and the Knight Foundation in Cambridge this week. It covered a diverse mix of topics, ranging from government transparency and media innovation to disaster relief and technology’s influence on immigration issues. (For a helpful summary of the event’s broader themes check out VP of journalism and innovation Michael Maness‘s wrap-up talk.)

There was a decided bent towards pragmatism in the presentations, underscored by Knight president Alberto Ibargüen‘s measured, even questioning introduction to the News Challenge winners. “I ask myself what we have actually achieved,” he said of the previous cycles of the News Challenge. “And I ask myself how we can take this forward.”

While the big news was the announcement of this year’s winners and the fate of the program going forward, there were plenty of discussions and presentations that caught our attention.

Panelists and speakers — from Republican Congressman Darrell Issa and WNYC’s John Keefe to Columbia’s Emily Bell and recent MIT grads — offered insights on engagement (both online and off), data structure and visualization, communicating with government, the role of editors, and more. In the words of The Boston Globe’s Adrienne Debigare, “We may not be able to predict the future, but at least we can show up for the present.”

One more News Challenge

Though Ibargüen spoke about the future of the News Challenge in uncertain terms, Knight hasn’t put the competition on the shelf quite yet. Maness announced that there would indeed one more round of the challenge this fall with a focus on health. That’s about all the we know about the next challenge; Maness said Knight is still in the planning stages of the cycle and whatever will follow it. Maness said they want the challenge to address questions about tools, data, and technology around health care.

Opening up the newsroom

One of the more lively discussions at the conference focused on how news outlets can identify and harness the experience of outsiders. Jennifer Brandel, senior producer for WBEZ’s Curious City, said one way to “hack” newsrooms was to open them up to stories from freelance writers, but also to more input from the community itself. Brandel said journalists could also look beyond traditional news for inspiration for storytelling, mentioning projects like Zeega and the work of the National Film Board of Canada.

Laura Ramos, vice president of innovation and design for Gannett, said news companies can learn lessons on user design and meeting user needs from companies like Airbnb and Square. Ramos said another lesson to take from tech companies is discovering, and addressing, specific needs of users.

newsroominsidepanel

Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said one solution for innovation at many companies has been creating research and development departments. But with R&D labs, the challenge is integrating the experiments of the labs, which are often removed from day-to-day activity, to the needs of the newsroom or other departments. Bell said many media companies need leadership that is open to experimentation and can juggle the immediate needs of the business with big-picture planning. Too often in newsrooms, or around the industry, people follow old processes or old ideas and are unable to change, something Bell compared to “watching six-year-olds playing soccer,” with everyone running to the ball rather than performing their role.

Former Knight-Mozilla fellow Dan Schultz said the issue of innovation comes down to how newsrooms allocate their attention and resources. Schultz, who was embedded at The Boston Globe during his fellowship, said newsrooms need to better allocate their developer and coding talent between day-to-day operations like dealing with the CMS and experimenting on tools that could be used in the future. Schultz said he supports the idea of R&D labs because “good technology needs planning,” but the needs of the newsroom don’t always meet with long-range needs on the tech side.

Ramos and Schultz both said one of the biggest threats to change in newsrooms can be those inflexible content management systems. Ramos said the sometimes rigid nature of a CMS can force people to make editorial decisions based on where stories should go, rather than what’s most important to the reader.

Vine, Drunk C-SPAN, and gender bias

!nstant: There was Nieman Foundation/Center for Civic Media crossover at this year’s conference: 2013 Nieman Fellows Borja Echevarría de la Gándara, Alex Garcia, Paula Molina, and Ludovic Blecher presented a proposal for a breaking news app called !nstant. The fellows created a wireframe of the app after taking Ethan Zuckerman’s News and Participatory Media class.

The app, which would combine elements of liveblogging and aggregation around breaking news events, was inspired by the coverage of the Boston marathon bombing and manhunt. The app would pull news and other information from a variety of sources, “the best from participatory media and traditional journalism,” Molina said. Rather than being a simple aggregator, !nstant would use a team of editors to curate information and add context to current stories when needed. “The legacy media we come from is not yet good at organizing the news in a social environment,” said Echevarría de la Gándara.

Drunk C-SPAN and Opened Captions: Schultz also presented a project — or really, an idea — that seems especially timely when more Americans than usual are glued to news coming out of the capitol. When Schultz was at the Globe, he realized it would be both valuable and simple to create an API that pulls closed captioning text from C-SPAN’s video files, a project he called Opened Captions, which we wrote about in December. “I wanted to create a service people could subscribe to whenever certain words were spoken on C-SPAN,” said Schultz. “But the whole point is [the browser] doesn’t know when to ask the questions. Luckily, there’s a good technology out there called WebSocket that most browsers support that allows the server and the browser to talk to each other.”

To draw attention to the possibilities of this technology, Schultz began experimenting with a project called Drunk C-SPAN, in which he aimed to track key terms used by candidates in a televised debate. The more the pols repeat themselves, the more bored the audience gets and the “drunker” the program makes the candidates sound.

But while Drunk C-SPAN was topical and funny, Schultz says the tool should be less about what people are watching and more about what they could be watching. (Especially since almost nobody in the gen pop is watching C-SPAN regularly.) Specifically, he envisions a system in which Opened Captions could send you data about what you’re missing on C-SPAN, translate transcripts live, or alert you when issues you’ve indicated an interest in are being discussed. For the nerds in the house, there could even be a badge system based on how much you’ve watched.

Schultz says Opened Captions is fully operational and available on GitHub, and he’s eager to hear any suggestions around scaling it and putting it to work.

followbiasFollow Bias is a Twitter plugin that calculates and visualizes the gender diversity of your Twitter followers. When you sign in to the app, it graphs how many of your followers are male, female, brands, or bots. Created by Nathan Mathias and Sarah Szalavitz of the MIT Media Lab, Follow Bias is built to counteract the pernicious function of social media that allows us to indulge our unconscious biases and pass them along to others, contributing to gender disparity in the media rather than counteracting it.

The app is still in private beta, but a demo, which gives a good summary of gender bias in the media, is online here. “The heroes we share are the heroes we have,” it reads. “Among lives celebrated by mainstream media and sites like Wikipedia, women are a small minority, limiting everyone’s belief in what’s possible.” The Follow Bias server updates every six hours, so the hope is that users will try to correct their biases by broadening the diversity of their Twitter feed. Eventually, Follow Bias will offer metrics, follower recommendations, and will allow users to compare themselves to their friends.

LazyTruth: Last fall, we wrote about Media Lab grad student Matt Stempeck’s LazyTruth, the Gmail extension that helps factcheck emails, particularly chain letters and phishing scams. After launching LazyTruth last fall, Stempeck told the audience at the Civic Media conference that the tool has around 7,000 users. He said the format of LazyTruth may have capped its growth: “We’ve realized the limits of Chrome extensions, and browser extensions in general, in that a lot of people who need this tool are never going to install browser extensions.”

Stempeck and his collaborators have created an email reply service to LazyTruth, that lets users send suspicious messages to ask@lazytruth.com to get an answer. Stempeck said they’ve also expanded their misinformation database with information from Snopes, Hoax-Slayer and Sophos, an antivirus and computer security company.

LazyTruth is now also open source, with the code available on GitHub. Stempeck said he hopes to find funding to expand the fact-checking into social media platforms.

Vine Toolkit: Recent MIT graduate Joanna Kao is working on a set of tools that would allow journalists or anyone else to use Vine in storytelling. The Vine Toolkit would provide several options to add context around the six-second video clips.

Kao said Vines offer several strengths and weaknesses for journalists: the short length, ease of use, and the built-in social distribution network around the videos. But the length is also problematic, she said, because it doesn’t provide context for readers. (Instagram’s moving in on this turf.) One part of the Vine Toolkit, Vineyard, would let users string together several vines that could be captioned and annotated, Kao said. Another tool, VineChatter, would allow a user to see conversations and other information being shared about specific Vine videos.

Open Space & Place: Of algorithms and sensor journalism

WNYC: We also heard from WNYC’s John Keefe during the Open Space & Place discussion. Keefe shared the work WNYC did around tracking Hurricane Sandy, and, of course, the Lab’s beloved Cicada Project. (Here’s our most recent check-in on that invasion topic.)

keefecicadas

As Keefe has told the Lab in the past, the next big step in data journalism will be figuring out what kind of stories can come out of asking questions of data. To demonstrate that idea, Keefe said WNYC is working on a new project measuring air quality in New York City by strapping sensors to bikers. This summer, they’ll be collaborating with the Mailman School of Public Health to do measurement runs across New York. Keefe said the goal would be to fill in gaps in government data supplied by particulate measurement stations in Brooklyn and the Bronx. WNYC is also interested in filling in data gaps around NYC’s housing authority, says Keefe. After Hurricane Sandy, some families living in public housing went weeks without power and longer without heat or hot water. Asked Keefe: “How can we use sensors or texting platforms to help these people inform us about what government is or isn’t doing in these buildings?”

With the next round of the Knight News Challenge focusing on health, keep on eye on these data-centric, sensor-driven, public health projects, because they’re likely to be going places.

Mapping the Globe: Another way to visualize the news, Mapping the Globe lets you see geographic patterns in coverage by mapping The Boston Globe’s stories. The project’s creator, Lab researcher Catherine D’Ignazio, used the geo-tagged locations already attached to more than 20,000 articles published since November 2011 to show how many of them relate to specific Boston neighborhoods — and by zooming out, how many stories relate to places across the state and worldwide. Since the map also displays population and income data, it’s one way to see what areas might be undercovered relative to who lives there — a geographical accountability system of sorts.

This post includes good screenshots of the prototype interactive map. The patterns raise lots of questions about why certain areas receive more attention than others: Is the disparity tied to race, poverty, unemployment, the location of Globe readers? But D’Ignazio also points out that there are few conclusive correlations or clear answers to her central question — “When does repeated newsworthiness in a particular place become a systemic bias?”

April 01 2013

18:15

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

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

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

The quest for personalized TV

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

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

eigennews-screenshot

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

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

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

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

“Seeing situations where the journalism is leading”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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