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February 08 2011


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 15 2010


Introducing Sourcerer: A Context Management System

If you want to follow the news, the World Wide Web has a lot to offer: a wide variety of information sources, powerful search tools, and no shortage of sites where people can voice their opinions.

At the same time, though, the Web can be overwhelming. Hundreds of links turn up in a Google search. Relevant information can be scattered across dozens of sites. Online conversations often generate more heat than light. And if you have a question about a news topic, it's hard to find the answer.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a website that made it easier to keep up with and understand the news?

Soon, there could be. Let me introduce you to Sourcerer, a website prototype developed this fall by a team of graduate journalism students, including five Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners.


Sourcerer is a "context management system" designed to help people learn more about a topic by asking questions, answering them, backing up those answers with links, and navigating through previous coverage via a timeline.

Sourcerer emerged out of Medill's Community Media Innovation Project class, which studied the news and information needs of local audiences and the challenges facing online publishers who want to serve them.

Two of the key problems identified by the students:

  • People who don't follow every twist and turn in an ongoing story -- especially one that has deep historical context, such as the achievement gap between white and minority students in public schools -- have difficulty understanding the context of that story. Others have noted this problem as well: Matt Thompson, now of NPR, has written and spoken eloquently about "how journalists might start winning at the context game."
  • At the same time, in every community, there are knowledgeable citizens who dominate discussion boards and comment threads -- often mixing fact with opinion and intimidating those who want to learn more but are afraid of displaying their lack of understanding by asking questions. The Medill team wanted communities to benefit from the expertise of these knowledgeable citizens while creating an environment where discussion could be organized around facts, not just opinions.

Sourcerer seeks to serve people just trying to understand an issue as well as those who already have that understanding. It could be launched as part of an existing news site, or as a collaboration among multiple publishers covering a community or topic.

While the site is not quite ready for a public rollout yet, let me walk you through Sourcerer's key features:

1) Topics

The Medill team concluded that Sourcerer should be organized around topics, rather than stories. Their first challenge was figuring out how to present a complex topic in a way that is not intimidating to someone who hasn't followed the story before. After testing several approaches with users, the students settled on short summaries of key elements, with bold-face highlights and links to external sites providing background.


2) Questions

The second key element of Sourcerer is an interface for people to ask questions about the topic. Like many question-and-answer sites, Sourcerer allows users to "upvote" questions they think are particularly good. Questions with the most votes appear at the top, and a Sourcerer site covering multiple topics would highlight the most popular questions.


3) Answers and clips

What differentiates Sourcerer from other Q&A sites is the fact that answers can be posted only if the answerer provides a link to source material backing up the answer. A key feature of the site is the News Clipper, which enables users to provide a link and also grab a key excerpt of the linked-to page for insertion into the answer on Sourcerer.

4) Voting and flagging

In addition to "upvoting" questions, Sourcerer users can also render their opinions about the answers. As with questions, users can register a "thumbs up" for answers they approve of. They can also flag answers as opinions rather than facts.

5) The timeline

One of the coolest features of Sourcerer is a timeline constructed out of the articles that are linked from the site. The timeline is built dynamically -- as answerers provide links to source material, the linked-to articles are added to the timeline.

The timeline displays the articles as a series of vertical bars. The higher the bar, the more popular the linked-to article. The timeline also shades the articles based on whether users deem them factual or opinion-based.


The timeline displays the articles in chronological order, left to right. Mousing over the timeline displays the article headline and summary. The beauty of this interface is that it provides an easy way to navigate chronologically through articles published about a particular topic -- even articles published on multiple external sites.

You can get a sense of how Sourcerer works by checking out a screencast prepared by Shane Shifflett of the Sourcerer development team. The other developers were Steven Melendez, Geoffrey Hing and Andrew Paley.

We're looking for sites -- and users -- interested in participating in a beta launch. If you're interested, go to Sourcerer.US and sign up.

If you want to know a lot more about Sourcerer, the class' final report provides much more detail about the site as well as the research that led to its development. The report includes a lot of good advice for hyperlocal publishers about audience research and revenue strategies. The class also produced a separate revenue "cookbook" for hyperlocal publishers.

You can see the students present Sourcerer and their other findings and recommendations here. For even more background and context, check out LocalFourth.com, the blog the students maintained during the class. The "Fourth" is a reference to the press -- the Fourth Estate.

Sponsored post

December 01 2010

Medill Students: Audience Research Should Drive Hyperlocal Revenue Strategy

At the Block By Block "community news summit" in September, operators of locally focused websites came together to share what they knew and learn from their peers. Almost all of them were looking for advice on how to support their sites financially.

Here's a start: "Sustaining Hyperlocal News: An Approach to Studying Local Business Markets," a new report from a team of master's students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The report is the first output -- with more to come -- from this term's "innovation project" class.

"To become financially sustainable, hyperlocal publishers need to make revenue a priority rather than an afterthought," the report says.

The report focuses mainly on approaches to generating online advertising revenue in local communities. It draws on interviews with site publishers as well as audience research and advertiser interviews conducted by the class in our "case study" community: Evanston, Illinois, Medill's hometown.

The starting point, the students contend, is "getting to know your audience ... really getting to know them." The report describes the audience research process undertaken by the class, with suggestions on how hyperlocal publishers can adapt and replicate this research.

Based on an analysis of local advertising in Evanston, the report also identifies business categories most likely to be interested in advertising locally: home furnishing, retail, banking, community organizations, restaurants and professional services. Beyond that, the students conclude that new and growing businesses have different advertising needs than "legacy businesses," which are well-established in their communities.

"Sustaining Hyperlocal News" was researched and written by the class business/revenue team, which was led by Frank Kalman and Jesse Young,one of five Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners enrolled in the class. You can read Frank's take on the report on the class blog, LocalFourth.com

The class will also produce a longer report addressing more of the challenges facing hyperlocal publishing on the web, as well as a website prototype demonstrating new forms of online interaction around local news.

For readers in the Chicago area, the class's final presentation next week is open to the public.  It's  scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the Forum (first floor auditorium) of the McCormick Tribune Center, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston. RSVP here. If you can't attend the presentation, it will be live-streamed (and archived for later viewing) at bit.ly/CMIP2010.

The class is being supported by the Community News Matters grant program. Community News Matters is overseen by the Chicago Community Trust, which initiated the program as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge.

November 23 2010


Scholarship winner wants to help media "explore new digital revenue models"

When a Knight News Challenge grant made it possible to award journalism scholarships to people with backgrounds in computer science, no one -- not even the first scholarship applicants -- knew what career opportunities would be available to "programmer-journalists."

Five Knight scholars will graduate from Medill in December. Here's the second of a series of posts describing them and their career goals and plans. Other profiles: Geoffrey Hing.

Jesse Young

Jesse Young has worked for two Internet startups in the Bay Area, but he came to Medill in part because of his love for magazines -- the printed kind. He's particularly interested in the challenges of making magazines financially viable online.

In the Medill innovation project class he's currently enrolled in (along with the other four Knight scholars), Jesse is one of the leaders of the business team, which is identifying revenue strategies for hyperlocal publishers. He'd like to do the same for a magazine like Harper's.

"I'm interested in finding ways to help media get back to profitability," Jesse says. "Companies need to explore new digital revenue models that aren't just throwbacks to print."

While at Medill, Jesse reported on the telecom industry, writing about broadband technology, consumer protection and mobile applications.

He and some of his classmates also launched Flood Magazine, a Web site that garnered some attention earlier this month when Jesse showed how easy it was for a technically savvy non-subscriber to bypass the publication's "paywall" barrier.

Before coming to Medill, Jesse earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California-Berkeley.  He has worked as a developer and software engineer for MOG and Howcast.

For more information about Jesse, check out his LinkedIn profile.

November 22 2010


Graduating Programmer-Journalist Wants to Help Underserved Communities

When a Knight News Challenge grant made it possible to award journalism scholarships to people with backgrounds in computer science, no one -- not even the first scholarship applicants -- knew what career opportunities would be available to "programmer-journalists."

One of the first two Knight scholars wrote a guest post for Idea Lab suggesting eight different career paths for people who, as I like to put it, are bilingual in journalism and technology.

Five Knight scholars will graduate from Medill in December.  Here's the first of a series of posts describing them and their career goals and plans.


Geoffrey Hing's goal is to collaborate with people who aren't well-served by media or other information sources get the information they need to make important decisions, improve their lives or better understand their communities. He sees his future not exclusively as a journalist or a software developer but more as an information designer who helps solve problems by drawing on technology, community insight and knowledge, and the multidisciplinary skills of diverse collaborators.

"I am interested in using technology to try to meet the information needs of communities that aren't served or likely to be served by industry," he says.

Projects that have excited Geoff recently include Voces Móviles (Mobile Voices), which enables immigrant workers in Southern California to create and publish multimedia stories from their mobile phones, and Between the Bars, a project at MIT (written about recently on Idealab) that crowdsources the transcription of prisoner letters into blog posts. He is interested in exploring participatory design methods like the ones surveyed in a recent article from the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.

In his time at Medill, Geoff wrote articles on housing issues such as eviction and affordable rental housing, the intersection of race and political power in Chicago, uses of social media for community empowerment and neighborhood conflict across race and age.

He missed doing programming work. "At Medill it was very frustrating not to do more technology development, especially when there were problems that could be solved with a little hacking," Geoff said.

Geoff has has a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from the Ohio State University. After graduating, he worked for an Internet service provider, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project (which provides reading material to prison inmates), and the research technologies department at Indiana University.

Geoff has settled in Chicago and would prefer to stay here. His ideal job would be about one-third programming, one third management and strategy, and one third training or community organizing.

"I would love to be the go-to developer for community-centered media projects in Chicago, especially short-term, fast, agile ones," Geoff says.

You can learn more about Geoff on his Web site, The Reality Tunnel.

November 19 2010


Graduating "programmer-journalist" wants to help communities underserved by media

When a Knight News Challenge grant made it possible to award journalism scholarships to people with backgrounds in computer science, no one -- not even the first scholarship applicants -- knew what career opportunities would be available to "programmer-journalists."

One of the first two Knight scholars wrote a guest post for Idealab suggesting eight different career paths for people who, as I like to put it, are bilingual in journalism and technology.

Five Knight scholars will graduate from Medill in December.  Here's the first of a series of posts describing them and their career goals and plans.


Geoffrey Hing's goal is to collaborate with people who aren't well-served by media or other information sources get the information they need to make important decisions, improve their lives or better understand their communities. He sees his future not exclusively as a journalist or a software developer but more as an information designer who helps solve problems by drawing on technology, community insight and knowledge, and the multidisciplinary skills of diverse collaborators.

"I am interested in using technology to try to meet the information needs of communities that aren't served or likely to be served by industry," he says.

Projects that have excited Geoff recently include Voces Móviles (Mobile Voices), which enables immigrant workers in Southern California to create and publish multimedia stories from their mobile phones, and Between the Bars, a project at MIT (written about recently on Idealab) that crowdsources the transcription of prisoner letters into blog posts. He is interested in exploring participatory design methods like the ones surveyed in a recent article from the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.

In his time at Medill, Geoff wrote articles on housing issues such as eviction and affordable rental housing, the intersection of race and political power in Chicago, uses of social media for community empowerment and neighborhood conflict across race and age.

He missed doing programming work. "At Medill it was very frustrating not to do more technology development, especially when there were problems that could be solved with a little hacking," Geoff said.

Geoff has has a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from the Ohio State University. After graduating, he worked for an Internet service provider, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project (which provides reading material to prison inmates), and the research technologies department at Indiana University.

Geoff has settled in Chicago and would prefer to stay here. His ideal job would be about one-third programming, one third management and strategy, and one third training or community organizing.

"I would love to be the go-to developer for community-centered media projects in Chicago, especially short-term, fast, agile ones," Geoff says.

You can learn more about Geoff on his Web site, The Reality Tunnel.

September 16 2010


#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – a blog for programmer-journalists

Programming and journalism: ProPublica has a blog dedicated to programmer-journalism - a useful resource for open source tools and inspiration for your own investigations and news applications. Tipster: Laura Oliver. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

August 11 2010


Programmer-Journalists Apply Talents to News21 Multimedia Project

Manya Gupta and Andrew Paley are the first Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners to participate in the News21 multimedia reporting project, an initiative in its fifth year that engages some of the nation's top journalism master's students.

The Northwestern University team that Manya and Andrew are part of is focusing on young urban Hispanics and "how they are transforming American politics, media and education now and will continue to do so over the coming decades" said Steve Duke, director of Northwestern's project and associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism.

Gupta, Paley and their teammate Kennedy Elliott are developing the website for the Northwestern project. Paley is building the technical infrastructure and developing a "data wall" with information about Hispanic voting patterns, elected officials, population growth, educational attainment, and more. Gupta is developing graphics and interactive pieces for stories written by her and other News21 reporters.

Here are their reflections on the experience, which wraps up later this month


Describe your role in the Northwestern project

Gupta: As a true multimedia journalist, I am reporting and writing a media story, creating the introductory info graphic for the project, building data driven flash packages for two stories and helping in Web design and development of the Northwestern News21 website -- serving as media reporter and web developer.

Paley: Most of my work at News21 has been focused on database-driven, geolocation-specific visualizations that cover a wide array of datasets compiled from the Census, the American Community Survey, NALEO and other sources. The idea is to supplement the team's reporting with a "data wall" that presents the user with a trove of pertinent information based on his/her location -- down as low as the county level whenever possible (when data's available at that level). Beyond that, my work here has also comprised web development, technical assistance on other members' projects, WordPress theme building, and server administration where necessary (in concert with Medill's IT department).

What have you gotten out of the experience?

Gupta: The fact that the Hispanic population is growing at a rapid rate is well-known. But during the course of reporting on my media story and working with other people on different stories, I have learned how the market, institutions and the American landscape are evolving to cater to this audience. I was always interested in web development and creating interactive graphics, but this was the first time that I attempted a data-driven infographic using the Adobe Creative Suite tools. I came up with a simple design and used colors strategically to represent multi-layered data in a clean, accessible format. I am thrilled to have received great feedback on it and have become a more confident designer.


Paley: I suppose the valuable piece of all of this for me has been the opportunity to continue to work with databased-driven visualization techniques. A lot of what I'm doing now was informed by my prototyping of the American Visualizer project, though I'm now working with a different visualization library (based in Javascript instead of flash).

Other thoughts?

Gupta: I think News21 is a great platform. It not only gave me an opportunity to use my technical and journalism skills in creating some wonderful news pieces, but also further proved to me that today's world of news has several opportunities for programmers like me, who can use their technical skills, learn journalistic skills and blend them all together to create news packages that are appropriate for today's audience.

Paley: It's been interesting to have the experience of working with a team of journalists outside the guided classroom environment. Our experiences in News21 have been largely self-directed on a day-to-day basis -- though the overall topic and focus was chosen by Medill -- and that self-direction has afforded us some room to experiment and collaborate in ways that we might not have had otherwise.

June 16 2010


Four More "Programmer-Journalists" Reach Halfway Point

Ever since the first Knight "programmer-journalist" scholars enrolled in the journalism master's program at the Medill School, I have checked in with them around the midway point -- and taken the opportunity to introduce them to the Idealab audience.

As we mark the end of Medill's spring quarter, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our largest cohort of Knight scholars ever: Geoffrey Hing, Steven Melendez, Shane Shifflett and Jesse Young. Including Manya Gupta and Andrew Paley, who enrolled before these four, we now have six programmer-journalist scholarship winners here at the same time. All six are accompanying me this week to the Future of News and Civic Media Conference on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Here each of the four gets a chance to answer a couple of questions.

Geoffrey Hing

Geoffrey Hing has a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering from the Ohio State University. After graduating, he worked for an Internet service provider, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project (which provides reading material to prison inmates), and the information technology department at Indiana University. He's also a musician whose band -- Defiance, Ohio -- is touring this summer.

Why journalism and why now?

Through my work with non-profits and grassroots organizations, I was always engaged around the news and information in my community.  I felt like many of the roadblocks towards solving community problems that became framed as ideological conflicts were, at their roots, a result of an information gap within the community.  People didn't understand what was happening, how government or institutions functioned, and the stories of different people with different orientations around community issues.  Journalism seemed like one of the fields best positioned to help meet the information needs of communities, and efforts such as the Knight Commission indicated that there was traction for framing the work of journalists beyond traditional news media.

I was also becoming frustrated with my role as a technology maker. I loved coding, but it was often an experience that was isolating from other people and from important things happening in the world.  Through networks such as the Allied Media Conference, I saw that there were exciting possibilities for using technology and technologically-mediated information to engage in the world, but I needed support to move in this direction.

What have you learned so far at Medill?

I've come to appreciate the difficulty in comprehensively reporting complex topics,  not to mention the time and resources that it takes. Personally, it's been really good for me to feel a stronger sense of responsibility for making sure that my understanding, and the understanding that I convey, is as true and complete as I can make it. The process of writing the news has made me realize that many of the things that frustrated me about the mainstream media were driven, not so much by bias, but the limitations of different media (inches in a newspaper, minutes in the nightly news) and making tough decisions about the kind of content that will help a media organization be economically sustainable. 

Steven Melendez

Steven Melendez majored in computer science at Harvard and worked after graduation for a litigation consulting firm, reading source code and writing reports in patent and copyright cases.

What have you learned so far at Medill?

I've certainly honed my writing. I've also improved my multimedia skills, which were pretty much nonexistent before I started here. I'd barely used a video camera and never done any audio or video editing. I'm not an expert in these fields now, and I probably never will be, but it's definitely nice to have some understanding of how things are done. I've also found myself reading newspaper and magazine articles more critically -- paying more attention to how they're arranged, who the reporters spoke to and what kind of information they've chosen to highlight.

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

That's a good question, and I'm as curious as anyone about the answer. I think there's going to be tech-intensive work in migrating journalism to new platforms: smartphones, Kindles and iPads. It's harder for me to predict what the journalism-intensive work for people with technical know-how will be. More and more information is becoming available from the government and from the Internet at large, and there are certainly stories to be told if someone can extract them. Exactly how they'll do it and where they'll put what they write, I'll be curious to see.

Shane Shifflett

Shane Shifflett graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in computer science. He then worked for American Century Investments, programming voice-response systems and contact center software.

How did you get interested in journalism?

I've always had a strong interest in writing and telling stories.  Some of my favorite undergraduate classes were English classes.  I gravitated to videogame development because it was a medium where outrageous stories could be told.  So part of my interest comes simply from wanting to tell stories.  Given my interests, experiences and the state of the industry, I feel at home working towards ways to better serve the information needs of society.  On a personal level, it felt like the natural next step; a good way to blend my programming background with purposeful storytelling. 

What have you learned at Medill so far? How has the experience changed your outlook?

I'll spare everyone my soapbox, but since coming to Medill I've learned what incredible feats good journalists are capable of.  Being able to transmute ideas and express concepts in words concisely can be challenging.  To do so honestly and without bias is even harder.   To do it all on a deadline is ... well, it's a lot to ask for, to put it mildly.

I  have come to the realization that it takes a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of risk, to get a good story out.  The news industry isn't something that can be easily replaced by a cohort of bloggers and citizen journalists. A steady paycheck gives reporters the ability to do consistent, reliable work and not have to pander to their audience for approval.

Jesse Young

Jesse Young earned his degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California-Berkeley. He worked as a developer and software engineer for MOG and Howcast

How did you get interested in journalism?

It was by pure chance that I came across information for the Knight scholarship through a blog post. I'm not convinced that journalism is dead, nor do I think the iPad is its savior. Now is an exciting time to be in this industry because we will eventually make sense of all this commotion.

What have you learned at Medill?

I've learned that Microsoft Word hasn't changed much since the last time I used it in high school. Though it doesn't crash as often as before, the grammar feature is still pretty broken. Somehow, this makes perfect sense because we've grown so accustomed to its interface that any changes would be anathema.

I think the print industry is a lot like Microsoft Word. It's so deeply rooted in tradition that any adjustments will have to be incremental lest it completely alienate its readers.

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

The R&D lab at the New York Times is doing some really cool stuff with new web and mobile designs for its content. Google is also continually improving their news aggregator and experimenting with novel ideas such as Living Stories. I think these sort of jobs will become more common within media and tech companies. But, as always, there will be a demand for good content.

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.

June 02 2010


Why Journalists Should Learn Computer Programming

Yes, journalists should learn how to program. No, not every journalist should learn it right now -- just those who want to stay in the industry for another ten years. More seriously, programming skills and knowledge enable us traditional journalists to tell better and more engaging stories.

Programming means going beyond learning some HTML. I mean real computer programming.

As a journalist, I'm full aware of the reasons why we don't learn programming -- and I'm guilty of using many of them. I initially thought there were good reasons not to take it up:

  • Learning to program is time-consuming. One look at the thick books full of arcane code and you remember why you became a journalist and not a mathematician or an engineer. Even if you are mathematically inclined, it's tough to find the time to learn all that stuff.
  • Your colleagues tell you you don't need it -- including the professional developers on staff. After all, it took them years of study and practice to become really good developers and web designers, just like it takes years for a journalist to become experienced and knowledgeable. (And, if you start trying to code, the pros on staff are the ones who'll have to clean up any mess you make.)
  • Learning the basics takes time, as does keeping your skills up to date. The tools change all the time. Should you still bother to learn ActionScript (Flash), or just go for HTML5? Are you sure you want to study PHP and not Python?
  • Why learn programming when there are so many free, ready-made tools online: Quizzes, polls, blogs, mind maps, forums, chat tools, etc. You can even use things like Yahoo Pipes to build data mashups without needing any code.
  • When Megan Taylor wrote for MediaShift about the programmer-journalist, she asked around for the perfect skillset. One response nearly convinced me to never think about programming ever again: "Brian Boyer, a graduate of Medill's journalism for programmers master's track and now News Applications Editor at the Chicago Tribune, responded with this list: XHTML / CSS / JavaScript / jQuery / Python / Django / xml / regex / Postgres / PostGIS / QGIS."

Those are some of the reasons why I thought I could avoid learning programming. But I was so wrong.

Why Journalists Should Program

You've heard the reasons not to start coding. Now here's a list of reasons why you should:

  • Every year, the digital universe around us becomes deeper and more complex. Companies, governments, organizations and individuals are constantly putting more data online: Text, videos, audio files, animations, statistics, news reports, chatter on social networks...Can professional communicators such as journalists really do their job without learning how the digital world works?
  • Data are going mobile and are increasingly geo-located. As a result, they tell the stories of particular neighborhoods and streets and can be used to tell stories that matter in the lives of your community members.
  • People have less time, and that makes it harder to grab their attention. It's essential to look for new narrative structures. Programming enables you to get interactive and tell non-linear stories.

Jquerylogo copy.jpg

  • You don't have to build everything from scratch. Let's take JavaScript, which is used for creating dynamic websites. Tools such as jQuery, a cross-browser JavaScript library, enable people to create interactivity with less effort. Web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails and Django support the development of dynamic sites and applications. So it can be easier than you thought.

A Way of Looking At the World

Maybe you're not yet convinced. Even though jQuery makes your life easier, you still need a decent knowledge of JavaScript, CSS and HTML. Django won't help you if you never practiced Python. All of this takes time, and maybe you'll never find enough of it to get good at all this stuff.

Still, we must try. The good news is that it doesn't matter if you become proficient at the latest language. What is important, however, is that you're able to comprehend the underpinnings of programming and interactivity -- to be able to look at the world with a coder's point of view.

I'm still just a beginner, but I feel that this perspective provides you with an acute awareness of data. You start looking for data structures, for ways to manipulate data (in a good sense) to make them work for your community.

When covering a story, you'll think in terms of data and interactivity from the very start and see how they can become part of the narrative. You'll see data everywhere -- from the kind that floats in the air thanks to augmented reality, to the more mundane version contained in endless streams of status updates. Rather than being intimidated by the enormous amount of data, you'll see opportunities -- new ways to bring news and information to the community.

You probably won't have time to actually do a lot of the programming and data structuring yourself. But now you're equipped to have a valuable and impactful conversation with your geek colleagues. A conversation that gets better results than ever before.

So, even though it's probably a bit late for me to attend the new joint Master of Science degree program in Computer Science and Journalism at Columbia University, I can still learn How to Think Like a Computer Scientist using the the free MIT OpenCourseWare, take part in the Journalists/Coders Ning network, and find help at Help.HacksHackers.Com).

And so can you.


Are you a journalist who has taken up programming? A programmer with advice for journalists? Please share your experiences and insights in the comments.

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

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June 01 2010


Hacks and Hackers: The Time Was Right

"Hacks and Hackers," our young organization focused on bringing journalism and technology closer together, seems to have struck a chord.

Over the weekend of May 21-23, 80 journalists and technologists in San Francisco participated in the group's first "Hacks/Hackers Unite" gathering, where they developed 12 iPad applications. Meanwhile, our "question-and-answer" site, Help.Hackshackers.com, launched less than two months ago, is becoming a thriving online community for people interested in computer programming for journalism and media applications.

Here's the latest sign that Hacks and Hackers is meeting a need: the RSVP list for our first New York City event tomorrow night (June 2). There are now more than 160 people who've confirmed they plan to attend.

"I'm thrilled with the way this group seems to have hit on something right at the right time," said Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times, co-organizer of the meetup and one of three founders of Hacks and Hackers. (The other two are me and Burt Herman, a San Francisco-based technology entrepreneur and former Associated Press bureau chief and foreign correspondent.)

Burt did an amazing job leading the organization of the Hacks/Hackers Unite event in San Francisco focusing on iPad applications. The event was sponsored by KQED, National Public Radio, the Knight Digital Media Center, Demotix, Speck Products and Exygy.

At the end of two days of coding, judges picked two projects as the best applications:

  • Citizen Kid News: an iPad app that provides a visually dynamic and accessible framework for kids to safely explore and interact with the news. Top kid-appealing news content is curated on a daily basis, in 5 categories: Animals, World, Science, Sports and Entertainment. A photographic touch interface provides a window into each story, and kids can select stories for further exploration that includes additional text, photos, video and audio. The app incorporates game mechanics to encourage participation: kids earn points for commenting on articles, viewing videos about the reporter's process, and eventually contributing their own articles. Kids earn badges along the way, starting with "Cub Reporter" and culminating with "Editor". Screenshots of the application can be found here and here and here.
  • Who's Reppin' Me, a Web-based app that feeds users news stories about their political representatives based on location. Users can then send Tweets to lawmakers to express their approval or disapproval of their actions. The app is online at http://whosreppin.me/

A list of all the projects completed during the weekend is at: http://unite.hackshackers.com/2010/05/order-of-presentations/.
Video from the event can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/hackshackers. Matt Baume, on Poynter.org, did a nice writeup on lessons learned from Hacks/Hackers Unite.

The New York event tomorrow isn't going to try to tackle any technology problems - but it will be a great chance for hacks and hackers to get to know one another and talk about future collaborations. Burt, Aron and I will be there to talk about Hacks and Hackers. Jennifer 8. Lee, who has played a key role in organizing the event, will discuss her work with the Knight Foundation to support journalism innovation. Josh Cohen, senior business product manager at Google News, will also make some remarks. And folks from Patch, an event sponsor and AOL's hyperlocal startup, will be discussing their approach to news and technology, as well as the skills and experience they are looking for on their product and technology teams.

The event also gives me, Burt and Aron an excuse to get together in one place for the first time. We'll be talking about next steps for Hacks and Hackers. Feel free to post ideas and suggestions in the comments below.

May 04 2010


#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – advice for hacks and hackers

A new Hacks and Hackers group in the US, made up of both developers and journalists, is offering some basic programming advice and tips. Check out its place to ask questions about journalism and technology at this link... Tipster: Judith Townend. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

April 09 2010


4-Minute Roundup: Apple's iAds; Journo-Programming Degree

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at Apple's plan to enter mobile advertising with its new iAd platform. Apple has been known for hardware and software but has never handled ad sales before, and now finds itself squarely in competition with Google and AdMob in that arena. Plus, Columbia University announced a new dual journalism-programming degree. And I ask Just One Question to AdAge reporter Kunur Patel about her take on the new Apple iAd platform.

Check it out:


>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Kunur Patel:

patel full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Apple Launches 'iAd,' Mobile Ad Platform for iPhone and iPad at ClickZ

Steve Jobs Promises Developers That Apple's iAds Won't 'Suck' and Will Make Them Money at MediaMemo

Apple's iAd Not Game-Changing, but Will Move Market at AdAge

Apple Unveils New Ad Software for iPhone at Wall Street Journal

Apple Announces Mobile Ad Plans Thursday, and Google Can't Wait to Tell the FTC at MediaMemo

Apple unveils iPhone OS 4.0 at CNET

Apple Unveils Ad Platform and Phone Software at NY Times Bits

Will Columbia-Trained, Code-Savvy Journalists Bridge the Media/Tech Divide? at Wired Epicenter

Columbia's J-School Gears Up A New Generation Of Digital Media Geeks at Business Insider

Columbia Rolls Out Joint Journalism - CompSci Grad Program at FishbowlNY

New dual-degree master's in journalism & computer science announced at Columbia University

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about ads on your mobile phone:

What do you think about ads on your mobile phone?surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 01 2010


Truly Serving the Public -- With Web Tools

We journalists are fond of saying that journalism is constitutionally protected because of our critical role in providing information that people need to be citizens in a democracy. Which makes it all the more shameful that most newspapers -- in print and online -- have historically done such a lousy job of helping people navigate the core functionality of democracy: elections.


The Chicago Tribune's Election Center, developed by the team that includes the first two programmer-journalists (whose journalism educations were financed by Knight News Challenge scholarships), is a great example of what's possible. The site provides an essential guide to tomorrow's primary elections and dramatically simplifies the task of deciding whom to vote for. (If you're interested in seeing it live, you'll want to check it out before the polls close tomorrow, because once the election is over, the Tribune will shut down some of the key functionality -- and begin gearing up for the general election).

Here are the key elements of the Election Center (you can view screenshots in a Flickr slideshow):

  • Type in your address and you get information about your polling place and a sample ballot customized to where you live.
  • If you don't know whom to vote for in a given race, mouse over the candidate's name and you'll have access to his or her biography, relevant news articles, and endorsements from the Tribune's editorial board.
  • With a click, view all of the Tribune's endorsements.
  • View lengthy Q&A's with candidates in the most important races.
  • As you decide whom to vote for, click to check off your preferred candidate.
  • When you're done, produce a printable ballot you can take with you to the polls.
  • Share your choices via email, Facebook or Twitter.

Much as I like the Election Center, it's only fair to point out that there have been versions of this in the past. My Medill School colleagues Owen Youngman and Darnell Little tell me that as far back as 1996, the Tribune's Web site allowed people to type in an address and get a customized ballot. And in previous elections, many papers have made use of vendor-supplied technology (especially the ballot tools provided by thevoterguide.com) to provide similar capabilities. But I think the Tribune's site nails the combination of comprehensiveness and usability better than anything I've seen before.

When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded scholarships to lure computer programmers into studying journalism, we were hoping to get coders excited about applying their skills to accomplishing the missions and goals of journalism. Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark, the first two scholarship winners, did exactly that, and helped launch the Tribune's "news applications team." A third team membrer, Joe Germuska, is featured in this news video about the Election Center.

There's one desirable piece of functionality I don't see on the Tribune's site: a tool pioneered years ago (I believe) by Rob Curley's team at the Lawrence Journal World and copied by others. It's basically a game where users register their opinions regarding key campaign issues, then are shown the candidates whose views are closest to their own.

I'd also point out that local media -- including the Tribune -- should do more to help educate voters about the election process. My Northwestern colleague Mary Nesbitt nicely captured some of the needs in a blog post last year about helping new voters.

One feature on the Tribune's site that I haven't seen before is the capability of sharing your ballot choices by email, Facebook and Twitter. I haven't seen anything quite like it before. But I have a feeling it's not going to be widely used -- in part because primary elections don't get much attention and in part because most people will be reluctant to share their voting intentions with people beyond their closest family and social circles.

Still, the concept of ballot sharing deserves further creative thinking and experimentation. What could be better for democracy than to have people telling their friends whom they're voting for and why, even if -- especially if -- that causes conversations to take place that would otherwise not occur?

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December 02 2009


How Programmer/Journalists Craft Their Own Study Programs

After writing about the skills a journalist/programmer might need, I thought it would be interesting to see what college students are learning. For the most part, journalism education has not caught up with the innovations taking place in the industry. Many programs don't offer more than an introduction to working with the web, so some students have to teach themselves.

Remember the sidewalk scene from "Reservoir Dogs" that showed a group of tough guys walking down the street? They're all out to do the same thing, but none of them are what you'd expect. The same seems true for aspiring programmer/journalists.

I spoke to six college students who are combining self-taught programming with elements of journalism education. Most work at their student papers, but only two are journalism majors. These students are putting what they know and love together in ways their formal education -- and in some ways the industry as a whole -- hasn't caught up with yet.

Max Cutler

Max Cutler is a junior at Yale University, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

Although he doesn't have a background in journalism, he has been a freelance web developer since 2003, and is now the online development manager for the Yale Daily News. Cutler is in charge of creating and maintaining new features for the website.

During an interview, Cutler told me that he got involved at the Daily News because he was interested in doing more creative, unique projects. To that end, he has worked on Courant News, an online publishing platform for college news organizations built with Django, the Python framework that has become popular in the programmer/journalist niche.

His work on Courant News also got him involved with CoPress, an organization that provides support for online college media innovation.

Cutler's web skills are self-taught; he learned by finding like-minded groups online and working on various projects. He's picked up Flash development, PHP, Java and C.

"Once you learn a couple languages, you can pick up new ones pretty easily," Cutler said.

Albert Sun

albertsun_s150.jpgAlbert Sun is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in mathematics and economics.

His interest in journalism (despite his majors, which he says confuse everyone) is in how information gets from one place to another.

He worked at The Daily Pennsylvanian (Penn's student paper) as a reporter and then as the web editor-in-chief, and just completed an internship at the Wall Street Journal.

Sun learned to program in middle school.

"I had a really boring French class and started programming on my calculator," Sun said. He is also mostly self-taught, although he has had a few classes in theory and algorithms at Penn. He has experience with PHP, Python, ActionScript 3 and Java.

Sun is also a member of CoPress.

Andrew Spittle

andrewspittle_s150.jpgAndrew Spittle is a senior at Whitman College, majoring in politics.

He recently became interested in journalism when he applied for the web manager position at The Pioneer, Whitman College's weekly student newspaper.

"I kind of lucked into the job with some minimal knowledge and used it as a way to build my experience and start experimenting with things," Spittle said. "I've also been working with CoPress since late Spring."

Though Spittle is largely a "front-end guy," meaning he works with (X)HTML, CSS and Javascript, he has also done a lot of custom work with WordPress, is learning PHP, and is also teaching himself how to develop applications for the iPhone.

"I think that in many ways being a Swiss Army Knife-type is more important than knowing one thing or language," Spittle said.

Whitman is in a liberal arts college, so there aren't any programming classes offered. Spittle learns through trial and error, and by reading lots of online documentation. He's interested in the intersection of programming, design, and information.

"I would be interested in working on app and site teams," Spittle said. "The reporting aspect of journalism doesn't interest me as much as designing an experience and presentation for the information."

Daniel Bachhuber

danielbachhuber_s150.jpgDaniel Bachhuber is currently taking time off from college, interning with Publish2, a company that creates tools for collaboration and linking, and running the business of CoPress, of which he is the executive director.

Bachhuber is almost completely self-taught. He took a high school course in C++, and also uses PHP. He wants to learn Python and has been looking at ActionScript and Flex as well.

He learns by working on projects and picking up the core concepts along the way. His interest in programming comes from a "desire to make something cool happen," he said during an interview.

One of his recent projects, EditFlow, is a WordPress plugin for user and workflow management.

Will Davis

willdavis_s150.jpgWill Davis is a sophomore at the University of Maine, majoring in journalism.

He helped start a newspaper in high school and learned PHP in order to build the website. Davis served as the online editor and is now the executive editor of The Maine Campus. He also works with CoPress, and his desire is to use his paper's website to engage readers, rather than just put print articles online.

Davis developed a custom theme and plugins for WordPress, including Courier, a plugin that manages email editions. He created custom tag pages for the site, called Campus Currents, which draw from a wiki that anyone can edit. He is always looking for ways to increase interactivity.

He wants to be a full-time reporter and have a role that enables him to create special online features.

Andrew Dunn

andrewdunn.jpgAndrew Dunn is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism.

He uses programming in his reporting. For example, Dunn has used Python to parse databases and clean up data. He is currently teaching himself Django.

Dunn's interest in programming comes from his father, a programmer for IBM. He has also been inspired by the work of Matt Waite of the St. Petersburg Times.

"I really love old shoe-leather journalism," Dunn said. But he sees programming as another tool for reporting.

Dunn created a Data Center for The Daily Tar Heel, where he is editor-in-chief.

In "Reservoir Dogs," Mr. Pink is the only one to survive the carnage of his craft. But these students are more likely to follow their paths to success because they have the initiative and drive to learn the skills that are largely still untaught in journalism.

Megan Taylor is a web journalist whose work focuses on combining traditional and computer-assisted information-gathering with multimedia production to create news packages online. Megan tells stories in English, HTML/CSS/, ActionScript, PHP, photos, video and audio, and blogs at her personal site.

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November 24 2009


Journalism, Technology Starting to Add Up

Back in early 2008, as I headed off to a conference at Georgia Tech, I wrote a post for Idealab headlined "Computation + Technology = ?"

Two recent developments suggest that we're starting to find answers to that question -- and more importantly, that there's a growing number of people trying to find these answers. Duke University has released an interesting report, and a group of journalists and technologists has begun meeting in Silicon Valley to address challenges that journalists and technologists might tackle together.

The February 2008 conference at Georgia Tech, entitled "Journalism 3G: The Future of Technology in the Field," introduced many of its 200+ attendees to the idea of computational journalism -- applying computer programming to the challenges facing journalism, journalists and a society that needs original reporting to provide information for citizens in a democracy. Two of the other attendees were the first Knight News Challenge "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners: computer programmers enrolled in the master's program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded the scholarship grant to Medill in 2007, the idea of teaching journalism to technology professionals seemed odd to many people -- both journalists and technologists. But now there seem to be a lot of initiatives aimed at addressing the same set of issues.


Duke University, through its DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, built on the ideas generated by the Georgia Tech conference in a couple of ways. First, the center created -- and has now filled -- a faculty position specializing in the field. The new Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy is an old friend, Sarah Cohen, previously database editor for The Washington Post, where she contributed to countless enterprise reporting projects, including a Pulitzer-winning investigation of child welfare agencies in the District of Columbia. Besides teaching courses, Cohen is expected to lead the development of open-source reporting tools designed to make it easier for journalists to discover and research stories.

Earlier this month, Duke released "Accountability Through Algorithm: Developing the Field of Computational Journalism," a report based on a workshop held in July. The report is full of interesting ideas for applying technology to journalists' challenges. Here are a few of them.

Information Extraction, Integration and Visualization

A new set of tools would help reporters find patterns in otherwise unstructured or unsearchable information. For instance, the Obama administration posted letters from dozens of interest groups providing advice on issues, but the letters were not searchable. A text-extraction tool would allow reporters to feed PDF documents into a Web service and return a version that could be indexed and searched. The software might also make it easy to tag documents with metadata such as people's names, places and dates. Another idea is to improve automatic transcription software for audio and video files, often available (but not transcribed) for government meetings and many court hearings.

The report also suggests developing "lightweight" templates that enable journalists to create data visualizations based on XML or spreadsheet files, and tools that help them organize their findings in a timeline. As the report points out, reporters working on in-depth projects often create chronologies in lengthy spreadsheets or text documents. A better tool would let journalists "zoom in, tag events for publication, turn on and off players or events and otherwise use them effectively," the report says.

The Journalist's Dashboard

Here the Duke report suggests that journalists need "a tool with which to spot what's new and what's important in the flow of daily information." A dashboard could include:

  • A news alert system similar to Google News that scanned only the sources specified by a beat reporter,identifying the originating publisher and the number of other sites that linked to the item;
  • A tool helping journalists keep track of their sources, including news items about that person and citations from the reporter's own archived stories mentioning him or her;
  • A "trends and outliers" tool that might generate an alert any time a data source reveals a significant change in a piece of data -- say, a surge in monthly expenditures by a government agency, or a flurry of crime reports in a short period of time.
  • A timeline generator that would display incidents related to a particular story as well as coverage on blogs and news sites.
  • An annotator that would allow a reporter to see past stories, images and contextual information while writing -- for instance, by displaying background information about the person being written about. (This idea bears some similarity to the EasyWriter tool developed this spring by students in a Northwestern University journalism/technology class.)

Reader-Reporter Interaction

Philip Bennett, formerly managing editor of the Washington Post and now a professor at Duke, is quoted in the report describing a new approach to investigative projects that engages and taps into reader interest. Instead of seeing long-term investigative projects ending with publication of a package of stories, the initial investigation could serve as just the midpoint in the reporting process. Stories could be presented in ways that enabled each reader to explore the story in layers, giving each a "differentiated news experience depending on her interests." Bennett suggests that a series like the Post's Pulitzer-winning investigation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center could have become a focal point for readers interested in veterans' issues. "If the paper could nurture a community of interest around the story, readers might use the site as a discussion place for the action that follows from the investigation," the report says.

Applying 'Sensemaking' Approaches From Other Fields

The Duke report points out that academic researchers are wrestling with many of the same challenges that journalists face and suggests that their solutions could be helpful. For instance, Georgia Tech researchers have built a tool called Jigsaw that creates visualizations to display connections between individuals and entities mentioned in different documents -- something every investigative reporter would lust for. And the Muninn Project, an interdisciplinary research project focusing on World War I records, is seeking to convert images of handwritten forms into machine-readable databases -- a problem faced by journalists in many states that allow political candidates to file handwritten campaign contribution reports..

Another new development worth taking note of: a new "Hacks and Hackers" Meetup group formed in Silicon Valley by Burt Herman, a reporter for the Associated Press who recently completed a Knight fellowship at Stanford University. The group -- billed as being "for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories" -- held its first meeting Nov. 19.

The first gathering attracted about 30 people, including people from Google and Google News, Yahoo, sfgate, SF Chronicle, Current TV, PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and Topix.com, Herman reported. "It felt like the seeds of a movement, and the many lively conversations showed that everyone was able to find common ground," he wrote in an email to me.

Herman said his Knight fellowship -- during which he focused on innovation and entrepreneurship -- taught him that innovation requires bringing people from different disciplines together.

"I started the Hacks and Hackers meetup group to open a broader dialogue between technologists and journalists, so we can move past the endless hand-wringing about the future of news and get down to work building it," Herman said. "Technology and media come together here in Silicon Valley like nowhere else in the world, and there was no group yet focused on this. I'm hoping it will lead to better understanding and perhaps even spawn new ventures."

As some readers of this blog will remember, "Hacks and Hackers" is also the name that Aron Pilhofer and I came up with to describe a new organization and Web site for people working at the intersection of technology and journalism. At the Future of News and Civic Media Conference in June, Aron and I won a $2,000 prize to create an online community for people with these interests.

The Web community idea is still in the early stages of development, but Aron and I would welcome your ideas about how best to make it work. The original concept was to create a place where members can seek help solving problems and provide assistance to their peers by, for instance, sharing a tutorial for a project using Django or Ruby on Rails or Drupal. We know there are people -- in journalism and technology, in industry and academia, scattered through organizations such as the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society for News Design -- who can use each other's help and support. We like the idea of having some kind of reputation management system -- say, like Stack Overflow -- that would reward members based on the quality and quantity of their contributions to the community.

If you have ideas for the Hacks and Hackers site, please post them in the comments below or email me at richgor - at - northwestern.edu.

November 18 2009


4th Programmer-Journalist Scholarship Winner Learns to 'Think Like a Journalist'


Manya Gupta, a software engineer for telecommunications companies in her native India, is the fourth winner of a Knight News Challenge "programmer-journalist" scholarship. She's now in her second quarter studying journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University. She blogs occasionally at http://manya-myvoice.blogspot.com/.

Learn some more about Manya from the following edited Q&A.

Tell us about your background.

I am from India. I received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from JSS Academy of Technical Education in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.. While working on projects I realized my passion for programming and decided to make it a career.

So, I moved to Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, to work as a software engineer for Infosys Technologies and worked in the telecommunications domain. Three years later I decided to move to Ordyn Technologies, a small company, to gain some startup experience. My stint at Ordyn as a senior design engineer was very fruitful, and among many things I learned Python.

But I am not a complete geek. I am a traveler, a big sports buff, a trained dancer and an avid reader. I love playing football, tennis and volleyball and won a best player award for football in a tournament in Infosys. 

How did you get interested in journalism?

Four years ago I participated in a national level anti-reservation protest. [Editor's note: Here's a BBC article about the protests and the policy change that spurred them.] It was then that I realized the power of journalism to effect change. I experienced, for the first time, the positive impact journalism can make in creating a better society. What started as a small protest by a group of students in the national capital soon turned into a youth movement and it was because of effective, strong and powerful journalism. The reach to the youth through different media was amazing. There were traditional sources like the television and newspapers, but there was Twitter and Orkut and Web images and blogs. So, there was this curious mix of new and old and everyone, with whatever means he could, was participating in the movement.

That experience stirred me. It made me want to take the plunge into journalism and explore the new avenues that appeal to today's youth -- because the whole idea is to get the message to them, and adapting to their tools is important.

What have you learned by studying journalism so far? How has the experience changed your outlook?

So far I have thoroughly enjoyed the Medill experience. First and most important, I have learned to report, write and think like a journalist. I look for a story in everything around me! But it is not just old-style writing that I have learned. Medill is a place where the old meets the young -- because with every print story I also created a multimedia piece and that is how I learned the importance of storytelling in the most effective manner.

Beyond that, I have met amazing people, participated in some very intriguing discussions and learned from people with tremendous amount of experience. What I have liked most is that everyone is so willing to share what they have learned.

Moreover, it has given me the opportunity to explore; by interacting with people from different walks of life, by understanding their problems, issues and lives, and by telling stories through creative media.

The experience has enriched me. It has given me the power to bring people's day-to-day issues to light. At the same time, I have learned not to tie my emotions to one side and be balanced and fair by listening to other points of view. In short, I have learned to walk the tightrope.

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