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April 20 2011


Designing a Newsgame Is an Act of Journalism

elements of journalism book.jpg

A common thread woven through our various projects in the Newsgames research group has been our subscription to the tenets of journalism. Our first endeavor was not related to games at all. We bought a stack of copies of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's "The Elements of Journalism" book and immersed ourselves in not just the business of news but rather the practice of news. Sure, we could have seen videogames as a way to add exciting features that would draw readers to websites -- and if we were an Internet startup, we probably would have -- but as members of an academic institution our inclination was to understand how videogames can do journalistic work.

As we've described before on the Idea Lab and wrote about extensively in our book Newsgames: Journalism at Play, videogames are valuable for journalism because they don't just describe -- they demonstrate. Written stories and filmed television segments tend to focus on the who, what, where, and when of a story. It's easy for readers and viewers to identify with these questions that position an event in the world. These questions quickly satisfy the appetite for immediacy in the 24-hour news cycle. The how and why of these stories, on the other hand, can be pushed aside either temporarily or permanently. Reporting that merely makes citizens aware of an event doesn't seem to merit answers to these inquiries.

The How and Why

Games, on the other hand, are nothing without answers to how and why.

'How' governs programming the game on the designer's end or interpreting the game on the player's end. If someone wants to make a game about air traffic safety they need to understand the mechanisms by which air traffic controllers manage the take-off and landing of planes. If someone then wants to deftly play as an air traffic controller, they need to understand those same mechanisms as portrayed by the game's designer. 'How' lets you understand the system.

'Why' can either be a rhetorical position taken by the designer that informs their creation or it can be how the player understands the ways that the pieces in the system interact. Food Import Folly demonstrates the difficulties of container inspection at understaffed shipping ports. Here's a screenshot from that game:

food import folly.jpg

So if E. coli contaminated spinach was introduced into the country by a missed inspection, it's clearly demonstrable that more port authority inspection agents might have prevented the spread of this bacteria.

Bringing in a Journalist's Expertise

Short newsgames can't simulate all of the conditions that may have given rise to an event, though. So what we play are not faithful recreations of the world in all its messy detail, but rather models that use the most relevant information to govern their functions. And here's where the professional journalist's expertise comes into play.

Let's think about three kinds of news stories: a written article, an edited television segment, and a programmed game. The three primary acts of creating each are gathering the data, selecting and assembling the relevant information, and producing the final output.

The first two are journalistic tasks. They require the author understand the situation at hand and the desires of their constituency. Journalists synthesize the world into manageable chunks of visual and verbal models. But writing, editing, and programming? These aren't journalistic tasks. Sure, they're required to concretize information -- and a well edited segment on the evening news is going to be more compelling than a series of loosely joined clips. But The Onion demonstrates on a daily basis that it's entirely possible to have output that merely looks like news.

Designing a newsgame is not just about recounting the events of the day as a series of videogame tropes, nor is it about loading up a spoonful of sugar to make being aware of events of the day fun and more palatable. Designing a newsgame is about forming a model and executing on it to help people better understand a situation.

A Game About Diversity of Groceries

Last Spring, during the transition between our initial newsgames inquiry and our current Cartoonist project, a small team of us worked on a newsgame design exercise. The topic was the Buford Highway Farmers Market, an international grocery store located a few miles north of downtown Atlanta. A story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution described the changing ethnic composition of the store's products. The diversity of the groceries represented the diversity of the foreign populations who had moved to the area in the past few decades: melting pot (or salad bowl or bouillabaisse or your other favorite analogy) personified.

We wanted to design a game that embodied the foreign population composition as a grocery store. It was a click-management game about meeting the needs of an ethnically diverse shopping population. Presented with data about population trends, the player would first buy their stock with demographics in mind and then help their shoppers find ingredients for specified dishes. In the process of playing, the players learns about the dish that is the ever-shifting local ingredients of their city flavored by all the seasonings of this extended culinary metaphor.

Concept solidified, we sought out data. Delving into the yellowed pages of United States census data pulled from a dusty library shelf, we recorded the number of foreign born or mixed-parentage individuals as a percentage of a total urban population throughout the 20th century. But the process was, unsurprisingly, not that straightforward. Different cities recorded data differently. It was not until 1960 that Seattle differentiated the many countries of Southeast Asia into their own categories. Country of origin was not recorded in any of the southern states until 1960.

Accounting for Data Gaps

So how do you make a game that accounts for giant gaps in the data? If all you wanted to do was make a game, then you could just make up the numbers and be on your merry way. But as a journalist you don't have the luxury of making stuff up. Nor do you have the luxury of just ignoring the messiness. If you were writing a story, you could conceivably leave out the paragraph and the article would continue on. Designing a game, on the other hand, requires a whole model or else the whole thing breaks. You have to account for it somehow because it governs how the system functions. So you either transparently demonstrate the gaps or you modify the game to be about the data.

When working on the grocery store game we started with a story we thought we understood -- a kind of puff piece that would easily turn into the click management game we wanted to make. But, in the process of doing research and trying to synthesize the data into something playable, we learned about the complexities of the census and were forced to incorporate this into our design.

Had the game gone into production, the result would have hopefully been a demonstration of not just the changing local population, but the recording of that population. Further research could have even delved into alternative sources of data that might have more accurately recorded the ethnic makeup.

One thing was clear, though. Creating an accurate model for a newsgames -- the rules and processes that demonstrate how that system works -- requires subscribing to principles of journalism as well. Drawing from Kovach and Rosenstiel, newsgame design should be truthful and transparent, strive to make the significant interesting and relevant, and subject to verification. So long as they're accomplishing this, they can fit into the rest of the ecosystem of journalism.

June 15 2010


Fifth "Programmer-Journalist" Helps Develop Visualization Tool for Census Data

There is probably no government data used more by journalists -- and non-journalists -- than the trove of population and demographic information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. But while the bureau has kept improving its tools for online data access, it's still a challenge for someone not well-versed in the workings of the census to find the most useful information -- let alone identify ideas for a journalistic story.

So when my colleagues and I at the Medill School of Journalism were thinking about interesting data sets that we might make more useful for journalists, the Census was an obvious choice. It seemed like just the right focus for a new, experimental class focused on developing "tools for journalists" and enrolling a mix of journalism and computer science students.

The class -- "Collaborative Innovation in Media and Technology" -- just wrapped up last week, with five interdisciplinary student teams presenting prototypes of tools journalists could use to make Census data more valuable. All of the tools are interesting, and I will likely write more about them in the future, but for today, I want to highlight one of them: American Visualizer.

Andrew Paley

American Visualizer, now in a functional "alpha" form, is worth the attention because it was the most fully realized of the tools created in the class, and because it was developed by a team including Andrew Paley, the fifth "programmer-journalist" attending Medill on a Knight News Challenge scholarship program intended to bring skilled programmers and Web developers into journalism.

Andrew, along with journalism master's student Monica Orbe and computer science student Daniel Kim (and with guidance from Medill Prof. Owen Youngman and Northwestern computer science professors Kristian Hammond and Larry Birnbaum) developed American Visualizer to make it easier to identify interesting stories from the Census.

The site uses information from American FactFinder, the online query tool developed by the Census Bureau to provide public access to its data. American FactFinder, though, is a "data labyrinth," the students said. And even if a user can find his or her way through the labyrinth, the data is delivered in tabular form. Rendering the data graphically -- often the best way to understand its significance -- requires importing the data into a spreadsheet or other software and then creating a graph.

"This tool instantaneously translates data into meaningful information -- from unintuitive and overwhelming collections of American FactFinder tables into immediate, concise and engaging visualizations," Andrew says. "And it does this on demand for whatever geographic region the user wishes.  It also allows for the comparison of two regional datasets."

In its current form, American Visualizer makes 10 different datasets available -- five for general visualizations and an additional five for comparison visualizations. Here are some suggestions for seeing its utility (best viewed with the latest version of the Firefox browser):

  • From the opening screen, enter a city and state and a type of data you're interested in (housing, population by age, population by race, population by gender and population by level of education). Click "Create" to see a graph of this data. (Note: for a big city, the search results can be a bit slow, since at this point American Visualizer aggregates data from multiple zipcodes.)
  • To see other types of visualizations, click on the "Advanced" button in the lower right. Here you can extract data for individual zip codes, compare cities to one another and compare zip codes as well. You can display the data based on raw numbers (for instance, the number of owner-occupied vs. rental units) or based on percentages of the whole. For the comparison of cities and zipcodes, there are additional data sets available: Labor force, mean commute time, median household income, and population below the poverty level.

Technical details: American Visualizer takes advantage of the Open Flash Chart open source visualization library.  Beyond that, the underlying architecture is built on standard and widely available LAMP stack server technologies--mainly PHP and MySQL.

Of course, since this is just an "alpha" release, there are many improvements and enhancements that Andrew and his team want to make: speedier query results; additional data types; user-generated customization of fonts, colors and layout; the ability to embed the visualizations, and a mobile app that would generate data based on the user's geolocation.

"Data alone can tell stories. The problem is that data-only stories can be hard to read," Andrew says. "But pictures, as the saying goes, are worth a thousand words."

This was the third interdisciplinary class Medill faculty members have co-taught with Hammond and Birnbaum -- and the first to focus on tools for journalists. These collaborative classes are conducted under the auspices of the Medill-McCormick Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism.

The first collaboration, last spring, served as a capstone class for the Medill master's students who participated. In that class, student teams created working prototypes of five products combining journalism and technology. One of them, dubbed "StatsMonkey," which writes baseball game stories from box scores and play-by-play information, has attracted a fair amount of attention. One of the team members who developed StatsMonkey was Nick Allen, one of the Knight "programmer-journalists." Asst. Prof. Jeremy Gilbert and I served as the Medill faculty for this class.

The second collaboration, taught by Gilbert, Hammond and Birnbaum, took place in the 2010 winter quarter and enrolled undergraduate students from the two schools. I haven't written about it here because none of the Knight scholars were involved.

Andrew enrolled at Medill last September and has one quarter of graduate study left at Medill, which he'll complete this fall. This summer, he will be working on News21, a multimedia reporting project involving journalism schools from around the country. (Also working on News21 will be Manya Gupta, the 4th Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winner.)

Among our scholarship winners, Andrew is somewhat unusual in that he actually studied journalism before -- as an undergraduate at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. Before coming to Medill, Andrew was a musician and a Web developer, most recently for LongTail Video, best known for its open-source media player.

Learn some more about Andrew in this Q&A:

Tell us about your background.

I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and spent my childhood split between Madison, Wisconsin, and the hills around Burlington, Vermont.

After high school, I went off to Boston to study new media at Emerson College, but the program was in its infancy then -- and I was already becoming versed in web design/development -- so I switched gears/schools.

I ended up back in Vermont at Saint Michael's College, pursuing a journalism degree and a concentration in fine arts. While there, I co-founded, designed and helped launch the first online publication at the school and was a finalist in an international competition to re-imagine Internet browsers. I graduated in 2006, but I hadn't been on campus since 2004, finishing through a protracted series of independent studies that I arranged with key advisors.

My departure from the college campus was due to my other life in music. I spent most of 2004 through 2007 recording and touring the continent (and, eventually, Western Europe in 2009) with my band and through other projects. I continue to write, record and play with a couple of projects.

After many years of itinerant life, I settled temporarily in Brooklyn in 2008 and took a job as lead designer and web developer at LongTail Video. I'd been doing regular freelance and volunteer design/development work for a wide array of companies, bands, non-profits and politics-related entities throughout touring, and the timing worked out.

And then I came back to journalism.

How did you get interested in journalism?

I've always been a political junkie and a writer. It was a natural fit. After a few years away from it I came back because information is a powerful and potentially overwhelming thing, and I'd like to play some part in figuring out how to parse the glut of it growing online into something meaningful and useful. That's really going to be the key going forward -- not just information access, but information clarity and context. Beyond that, I think that the media has been failing us (and our local, national and global debates) for many years, and I'm hoping to be involved in changing that.

What do you think are some interesting career opportunities for people who blend journalism and technology knowledge?

There are all the (newly) traditional places that a tech-oriented person could show up in the newsroom: web producer, database spelunker, interactive designer, etc. But that's an incomplete portrait of the possibilities.

In the same way that creative development and information design have upended much of the old world media -- from Napster to to Bittorrent to YouTube to Twitter to hundreds of other innovations big and small -- I think news is next. And in many cases, the new media barons at the helm of all this innovation came out of literally nowhere. They were 20- and 30-somethings with big ideas and enough development prowess to get them done. That's where the real opportunity for tech-minded people who have a passion for news and information lies -- creative innovation (with both existing tools and those yet to be created).

News is ripe for this kind of directed reinvention, and I think it's already starting to happening with many of the open government and "sunlight" initiatives taking hold online (not to mention the ways those other innovations -- say, YouTube and Twitter -- have altered the way news happens). Pushing forward will require developers to build the new platforms and re-imagine existing ones and journalists to make them meaningful. I would imagine that those who will do this most effectively will be the ones who understand both journalism and technology.

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