Oscon Presentation.Computational Journalism

Jul. 22, 2009

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Oscon Presentation.Computational Journalism

  1. How do you get those guys at typewriters to take advantage of the untapped resources on the left, especially when there's just ONE guy who knows how it works? Brad Stenger and Nick Diakopoulos are two guys with HCI backgrounds. One (Brad) is pursuing a career in journalism. The other (Nick) wants to be a professor. In February 2008, we organized a first of its kind symposium on Computational Journalism where we filled a room with computing researchers and journalists and had them learn about what the other group does.
  2. Crime maps, like this one, have been around since 2005. Adrian Holovaty's ChicagoCrime showed what's possible using automated data collection, information visualization, usable interaction design, and RESTful architecture. It's a self-service machine for news about neighborhood crime.
  3. Today, crime maps are a recognizable media type and have become a sort of skill-building testbed for for news software developers to come up to speed. Stamen Design's Oakland Crimespotting is probably the most sophisticated example of the genre. It started out as an personal project that became something the company used for r&d, and there's a good chance it will become a product and sold to other cities.
  4. The Los Angeles Times began publishing their Homocide Map in the Spring of 2008, along with a blog devoted to the city's murders. It fits in the city crime genre, but doesn't cover all crime, just murder. The New York Times debuted a murder map for New York City earlier this year.
  5. Over the past few months, Ben Welsh expanded the scope of crime data collection, developing a newspaper story documenting substantial omissions from LAPD's online public crime map. And as a result the LAPD promised to do better, a classic newspaper success story. But the rich interactive data presentation has been replaced by a simple summary table constructed for print. The point: Computational Journalism starts in the sensemaking beginning of finding a story, then contributes to the reporting and production of journalism, and finally extends to the public-facing presentation of the news. The LA Times didn't pursue the full arc Computational Journalism affords. The final work is decidely a print product. But it's also not possible for the LA Times to develop a commercial crime map like Stamen.
  6. As the LA Times story on the LAPD shows, journalistic watchdogging is analagous to Q/A in programming, and is, in fact, starting to overlap with the digital watchdogging Ben Wexler undertook. In a fast- changing world that increasingly depends on data and computing, news organizations that are limited in the knowledge of computation have a hard time presenting a clear picture of the world. And news organizations risk embarrassing themselves when their journalists get Q/A-ed, like the recent NY Times Magazine photo manipulations by Edgar Martins. 'Image forensics' has become an active field of academic research and will hopefully lead to toolkits that discourage these shady practices.
  7. One of the origins of this talk is a 2004 interview I did with Rael Dornfest (then with O'Reilly and now in charge of Experience Design at Twitter) for Technology Review. At the time social and mobile applications were beginning to come on. Things like the Microsoft SPOT watch shown. We talked about how difficult these things were to make, and how for them to succeed as products they had to have quality interfaces, provide useful services, and have workable business models, all together.
  8. Much has changed since 2004. We didn't know it then but we were on the cusp of major shifts in how people create and consume media. All these changes affect journalism profoundly. Something that was scarcely mentioned as consumers and developers experienced these trends and flocked to these technologies.
  9. 'Sketching' – In one word it refers to the rapid prototyping, iterative design, agile development approach that emphasizes usability. APIs and frameworks are crucial building blocks. Sketching makes it possible to simultaneously keep quality goals for interface, service, business model high. Important to note: the tools and approach are available to journalists and non-journalists alike.
  10. For the Obama Inauguration, CNN and Facebook built a social application atop the existing Live online videocasting platform. According to CNN, there were 26 million live video streams on, 1.3 million concurrent streams, 2 million Facebook status updates (8500 status updates per minute), and 1.2 million RSVPs on Facebook before the event. Last week, the pair turned on the switch to reactivate the Obama Inauguration application for the Michael Jackson Memorial event
  11. Many call it 'crowd sourcing' but without an effective interface and computing to manage workflow, the results can be impossible to compile in a meaningful way.
  12. Created by Intel Labs, The Dispute Finder Firefox Extension highlights disputed claims on web pages you browse and shows you evidence for alternative points of view. Wide-scale adoption of Firefox and its plug-in architecture lends itself to these kind of add-ons which add to news experiences.
  13. Change trackers are one way computing provides vigilant watchdogging. Here, NARC: News Article Revision Comparator scans BBC articles for changes to content and then embeds interface inline with site using Greasmonkey so that users can navigate / see changes (insertions, deletions) over time.
  14. Interactive data visualization is proving hard to do well. Work done by Lee Byron and Amanda Cox at New York Times, and by Martin Wattenberg from IBM are classics in the field, but overall the medium is immature, and not as social as proponents had hoped for. It doesn't help that experiments like this collaboration between the New York Times and the IBM Many Eyes group are buried deep in the Times site.
  15. The proper crowd sourcing interface to use with ongoing visual data presentations haven't yet been found. But the combination of information density and public benefit are unmatched, and it's important to keep trying.
  16. As was first shown by Al Gore with Inconvenient Truth and Hans Rosling with Gapminder, narration and props can create drama tension using data, something a self-service interactive struggles to do. CNN is increasingly turning to theatrical presentations of interactive data visualizations. CNN uses it with maps and with economic charts and tables. The narrator sometimes uses a large multi-touch display, and other times stands in front of a large (actually gigantic) HD video display.
  17. Editorial games can be a simulation with a bias (either overt or covert) that gets some point across via playful interaction. They often put a person in the driver's seat to experience the ramifications of decisions. What would a game be like if it were more adhering to core values of journalism?
  18. The name of the game is eyeballs: How can you transmediate content that has already been authored and breath new life into it? Stretch content for more traffic. Games can be made by taking content and then defining rules and relationships on top of those rules. Games are difficult to develop on deadline, but like videogame makers know, tools which aid automation and which eliminate redundant development help.
  19. The notion of interactive software can serve as an input back into the journalistic process as a form of “informal source.” Get ideas for new stories by observing patterns of interaction, or users’ decisions during interaction. Opinion mining based on interaction patterns, what do people really care about?
  20. Twitter has taken journalism by storm in the past few months. Short messages offer convenience, speed, links, and social-casting. It's well on its way to becoming an established media format. recently used it in iframes for live event updates. Mostly though, Twitter embraced by journalists as method of 1) promoting stories, 2) querying audience for data.
  21. Basic media and services on the Internet have come a long way in the past five years. Again, all of these changes bear on how people receive their news.
  22. Context that relates past, present, and future for ongoing news stories is a relatively new service that computational journalists are working on. In this example, Robin Sloan from Current used the Sahara Ruby gem to combine news and other reliable source feeds, images, and tweets in a single dashboard on the Iran Election.
  23. Sites like Slashdot, Ars Technica, MetaFilter, Digg, and Reddit cultivate and serve their communities by giving them tools to enhance their news experience. Among these community sites, Ars goes an extra step by giving them original journalism instead of highlighting material from other sources.
  24. News websites tend to all function in the same multi-column template. This standard and the web's inherent flexibility makes it easy for 3rd parties to develop services which augment a news organization's own offerings. MetaCarta, a Boston startup, provides turnkey news maps in all kinds of subject categories.
  25. Daylife, a New York City startup, provides easily accessible news content inventory for news organizations. In some cases, these news organizations have archives that are so difficult to access that Daylife archives and APIs become the best, easiest way to get their own information.
  26. Outside.In, another New York startup that sources good hyperlocal blogs as important neighborhood news outlets, augments newspaper's local news coverage in places like Myrtle Beach and Saint Louis.
  27. Neither Nick nor I have an MBA, but we think that, in general, the value proposition for news that goes beyond just content incorporates 4 useful dimensions: Productivity, Playfulness, Mobility, and Social. Productivity: workflow, content management, and other tools that save money by raising news production efficiency. Playful: features designed to enhance enjoyment and game-like interaction. Mobile: adapted to iPhones and other smart phones. Social: taking advantage of or incorporating social networking. The four can come into play simultaneously. The four apply to analog as well as digital products. Improving in one dimension can sometimes have costs in other dimensions (for example, developing a playful news game won't yield any productivity-related savings).
  28. Go forth and 'sketch', and remake journalism for our times.