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.
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.
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.
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.
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has been replaced by a simple summary table constructed for print.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.
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.
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.
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
'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.
For the Obama Inauguration, CNN and Facebook built a social application atop the existing CNN.com Live
online videocasting platform. According to CNN, there were 26 million live video streams on CNN.com,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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. ESPN.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Go forth and 'sketch', and remake journalism for our times.