Posts Tagged ‘open source’

It’s Not Their Medium, It’s Their Message: Seven Knight-Batten Winners Mastered More Than Tech

July 20, 2010

Message in a bottle

For proof technology is changing journalism for the better, look no further than the seven organizations honored yesterday by the Knight Foundation. This year’s Knight-Batten award winners the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, 48 HR Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2, and The Takeaway leveraged social networks, interactive databases, mobile messages and other emerging technologies to spread information and engage their audiences.

Technology, however, is not the real star here. A lot of the tools the winners used can be easily obtained and understood by beginning users. The Sunlight Foundation’s real-time coverage of February’s health care summit, for example, used a public embed code from The White House for its live video stream. The central tool in ProPublica’s Reporting Network, meanwhile, was e-mail. Even among the more technical projects like Ushahidi’s interactive map wiki and Publish2’s content sharing platform, technology is not the real star. The real star is the values behind each project, values anyone in news — big enterprises and small enterprises, techies and non-techies — can and should start applying today — along with the previously mentioned accessible technology. There’s nothing stopping you from being a Knight-Batten winner, or at least acting like one.

Screengrab of Sunlight Foundation logoSUNLIGHT LIVE,
Sunlight Foundation

What it is: The Sunlight Foundation used data, visualizations and insight gleaned from research to contextualize real-time coverage of February’s bipartisan health care summit and promoted its work and tracked audience response with various online tools.

What it teaches: What you do before and after live coverage is as important as what you do during it.

The real-time Web renders preparation more important, not less. The success or failure of live online coverage is usually determined in days leading up to the event, not during the minutes or hours of the event itself. The Sunlight Foundation conducted intensive planning and research ahead of the seven-hour health care summit. It also monitored the audience response in real-time and after-the-fact, informing tactical decisions that day and strategic decisions for live coverage projects going forward.

Screengrab of ProPublica logo REPORTING NETWORK,
ProPublica

What it is: ProPublica enlisted an army of more than 5,000 citizen reporters with meaningful (spot checking government data), even fun (photographing congressmen attending the Super Bowl) assignments, engaging its audience and extending its journalistic reach.

What it teaches: Audience contributions rise to your expectations.

Ask your audience to contribute more than just weather photos and you might be surprised by the results you get. Even if only a fraction of your citizen journalists participate in assignments, and even if only a fraction of their contributions can be used in your coverage, making users feel like they’re part of the team goes a long way toward building audience engagement and loyalty. And when it comes to things journalists can’t do or can’t easily do themselves — like monitoring direct mailings or requesting residents-only public documents in states they don’t live in — if you don’t get it from your users you’re probably not going to get it at all.

Screengrab of 48 HR Magazine logo48 HR MAGAZINE

What it is: Starting the process on Twitter and ending it with print-on-demand Web service MagCloud, 48 HR Magazine in a single weekend crowdsourced a 60-page magazine, soliciting, editing, producing and publishing 70 entertaining, smartly presented entries.

What it teaches: Don’t ask “Why?” Ask “Why Not?” Or, better yet, just do it.

Create a magazine in 48 hours? That’s crazy. Yes, it is. But crazy doesn’t mean impossible. In the time most would spend hemming and hawing about how crazy it is these folks got it done. Like newspaper chain the Journal Register Company’s recent Ben Franklin Project, it’s a testament to the Web and its organizing power and its affordable, accessible tools. It’s also a testament to people and their willingness to take risks and think positively. In both the 48 HR Magazine and the Ben Franklin Project, somebody boldly, unequivocally stated “We’re gonna do this.” Then, impressed by the leader’s conviction if not completely convinced by it, others signed on. “Sure, why not?” Momentum built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. “Why not?” gave way to “We really are gonna do this” gave we to “We did it!”

Screengrab of PolitiFact.com logoTHE OBAMETER,
St. Petersburg Times

What it is: With users’ assistance, the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact.com tracked 500 Obama campaign promises, rated them as kept, compromise, broken, stalled, in the works or not yet rated and presented the tally through simple, fun, engaging color-coded graphics.

What it teaches: The million-mile-per-hour online news cycle isn’t the Web’s fault, it’s yours.

The Web’s accelerated news cycle drives politicians to make all kinds of promises, and usually, helps them get away with it. In July, when all eyes seem to be on the thermometer or the Gulf Coast, remarks made 19 months ago in a snowy New Hampshire square don’t fit the live, latebreaking model. It’s so refreshing, then, to see the Web leveraged to break free from horse-race journalism and hold leaders accountable. Why journalists, with virtually unlimited Web space, don’t share the overwhelming portions of their interviews that don’t make it into stories has been a recent topic of discussion in online journalism circles. A fine argument in favor of this is it’s easy and cheap to do and at least few users are likely to find it useful or interesting. The even better argument: Like the Obameter, archiving interviews serves as a check on the 24-hour news cycle — something that wasn’t a big deal initially and was left out of the story might become story-worthy later — and promotes accountability — from journalists as well as sources.

Screengrab of Ushahidi-Haiti logoUSHAHIDI HAITI

What it is: Ushahidi Haiti and its international volunteers utilized the open source Ushahidi platform to aggregate e-mail, social media, Web and text message reports from the Haiti earthquake zone on an interactive map. The geo wiki pinpointed in near real-time damaged infrastructure, security threats, public health resources and other variables. It proved to be a useful resource for journalists and others following the disaster. It proved to be an invaluable resource for emergency responders. In no uncertain terms, Ushahidi saved lives.

What it teaches: Those you’re trying to cover (or rescue) collectively know a lot more than you do.

Those who respond to disasters and those who cover disasters typically carry out their work in a very centralized manner. The authorities funnel operations and communications through a purportedly omniscient command center and media regurgitate the command center’s messages like they are the only and final word. As a result, each party misses important stuff, or at least gets to it later than it should. In how it was developed and how it is used, Ushahidi is a posterchild for the power of decentralization. It didn’t rise from Silicon Valley power brokers searching for a profit-making patent. It rose from Kenyan citizen journalists responding to a humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t depend on manufactured authority to broadcast a presumed truth. It organically grows authority through the wisdom of groups to reveal a constantly updating snapshot.

Screengrab of Publish2 News Exchange logoPUBLISH2 NEWS EXCHANGE, Publish2

What it is: Publish2 streamlined content sharing through its custom-built platform, enabling news organizations of all sizes to create networked newswires free from the restraints and expenses of traditional, centralized cooperatives.

What it teaches: There are times when it makes sense for competitors to be each other’s customers.

Like Ushahidi, Publish2’s News Exchange illustrates the power of decentralized networks. It also supports the notion that instead of going down together, even rival news organizations should learn to work together. There are important stories today’s leaner newsrooms don’t get around to covering. But, maybe a competitor does. Who the buyer is and who the seller is can flip on any given story, so, there’s a mutual interest to pool resources. And even on stories every news organization in town can get to, there’s often little marginal value in having every last news outlet there over a smaller amount. I expanded upon this last point in my proposal for an iTunes for news called Regional Online News Trading Posts:

I’m not saying cross-town outlets shouldn’t still try to one-up each other’s coverage. The fear that the other guy might have it and you won’t promotes better journalism.

But, what about when you know everybody’s going to have it, and, it’s, let’s face it, not that great of a story? Is the opportunity cost of five news organizations sending five reporters to get the same canned quotes and staged photos from a police dog-and-pony show hyping a mid-level drug bust really serving the audience? How about four or those news organizations have the fifth cover the cops’ theatrics while their reporters are off at the unemployment office, prisons and mental health parity bill hearings probing the root cause of their community’s drug problem?

Screengrab of The Takeaway logoSOURCING THROUGH TEXTING, The Takeaway

What it is: Radio journalists tapped residents in Southwest Detroit to be the assignment editors for stories about their community, soliciting and following up on text messages reporting community problems like illegal truck traffic and describing their Mexicantown neighborhood in a few words. The approach, since replicated in Miami’s Little Havana, engaged nontraditional listeners and informed nontraditional stories.

What it teaches: Meet your audience on platforms it prefers, not those you or other media do.

Pew Internet’s Mobile Access 2010 report, released earlier this month, noted that minorities are more likely to own a mobile phone than whites and are more likely to use their phones to access the Internet. Based on those numbers, it’s not surprising a majority-minority neighborhood like Detroit’s Mexicantown responded to The Takeaway’s mobile outreach the way it did. Rather than generalize from national surveys like Pew’s, however, news organizations owe it to themselves and their audience to seek out detailed statistics on what platforms and tools are popular in their community. Blindly following national trends is a good way to miss or even alienate would-be customers and squander revenue opportunities. For instance, while the conventional wisdom is that Facebook is huge and MySpace (for all but musicians) is dead, danah boyd and other researchers point out that that’s not the case among all demographics.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Kraftwerck.

Advertisements

Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.

DailyDev: ProPublica’s ChangeTracker

June 8, 2010

DailyDev thumbnail logo -- day 5ProPublica’s award-winning ChangeTracker mashup, which it uses to follow edits to The White House’s website, can still be cloned to monitor the site of your choice, just be sure not to try to follow this tutorial, as I attempted to. The Yahoo! pipe it says to use is busted. Here are the revised steps, still largely based on the aforementioned tutorial.

  1. Create a free Versionista account.
  2. Log in to Versionista and enter the url of the page you want to track in the blue box at the bottom of the page. Click “Monitor this URL.”
  3. You’ll be taken to a new page. With a free account, you can monitor up to four more URLs if you wish. If they’re from the same site you just entered, add them here. If they’re from a different site, complete step four, then repeat steps 2 through 4 for the other site.
  4. Click “options” at the top of the screen. Check “Make this site archive public.” Copy the url under the checkbox and save it for later.
  5. Go to ProPublica’s ChangeFeeder page to create an RSS feed for each site you’re monitoring. Paste into the box the url you copied in step 4 and append it with “all”. It should look something like “http://versionista.com/pub/19600/1/all”.
  6. To give the feed a cleaner URL and to receive stats for it, run it through FeedBurner.
  7. If you wish, use FriendFeed to publish your feed on a Twitter stream.

A Maryland native, I decided to use ChangeTracker to monitor changes to recent blog and news items on the campaign websites for Maryland’s governor and his challenger, who are reversing roles from four years ago.

Finished Product

Neither of these was working perfectly last I checked. You can get an idea for what’s supposed to happen by clicking “this change” for the “June 7, 2010 7:28 PM” change on the O’Malley feed. It’s a lame change — new tweets! — but you get the idea.

versionista screengrab

Pros

  • Once you find out the tutorial you’ve been trying to follow is no longer operable, this isn’t that much work to pull off.
  • You can catch website changes you’d never notice unaided, all without visiting pages umpteen times a day.
  • Versionista helps transparency advocates practice what they preach by providing a way to share interactive archives of their own websites.

Cons

  • Like I said, I still haven’t gotten this working perfectly. This could be a problem on my end, but I’ve already invested more time than I intended in this exercise.
  • To take full advantage of ChangeTracker and monitor more than five Web pages requires a paid Versionista account.
  • Even with a tool automating the first step, culling through dozens of mundane updates to find one interesting one is still tedious!

Tip

  • Think about the sites you choose to track. ChangeTracker works well for static pages with lots of text, less well for dynamic pages with a lot of multimedia.

Recommend?

  • For those with more patience and time than me, definitely. ProPublica has used ChangeTracker in its reporting several times. ChangeTracker is a useful enough tool for novices but there’s no telling how expert developers could extend what Versionista and ProPublica have put together.

DailyDev: HTML5 Video

June 2, 2010

DailyDev day 2 thumbnail imageEditors delight in turning this

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.

into this

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place.

(If the example looks familiar, it should. It’s from Strunk and White.)

Developers delight in turning this

<object type="application/x-shockwave-flash" height="320" width="480" data="http://stephencearley.com/video/interviewing.swf" type="application/x-shockwave-flash">
<param value="http://stephencearley.com/video/interviewing.swf" name="movie"/>
<param name="allowfullscreen" value="true" />
<param name="flashvars" value='config={"clip": {"url": "http://stephencearley.com/video/interviewing.mp4", "autoPlay":false, "autoBuffering":true}}' />
</object>

into this

<video src="http://stephencearley.com/video/interviewing.ogv" controls>
</video>

That’s the markup for HTML5 video. Beautiful, isn’t it? (Be sure and soak it in before reading on. You’ll see why.)

The above code will display a video in the latest versions of Firefox, Opera and Chrome. But that’s it. You need to append the markup for the video to display in recent Safari, iPhone or Android releases. You need to append it further — with that busy Flash object embed from two boxes up — for the video to show in earlier versions of the above browsers, and, crucially, until Internet Explorer 9 comes out next year, in the world’s most popular browser.

If you’re using Firefox 3.5 or above, Opera 10.5, Chrome5 or recent Safari, iPhone or Android browsers, go ahead and check out the

Finished Product

Screengrab of HTML5 video

  • This page includes an annotated version of the full markup as well as the actual video.

If you’re not using one of the above browsers, download one! Firefox, Opera, Chrome and Safari are each free.

If you want to try this yourself, I strongly encourage you to read this chapter from the “Dive Into HTML5” online book. It’s long but totally worth it. It’s extremely informative, covering basics about digital video — starting with the difference between containers and codecs — as well as the HTML5 stuff, and doing it all in a way that’s accessible to n00bs without being condescending.

Pros

  • Even before HTML5 as a whole is officially supported, developers can publish video in a clean, plug-in-free, standards-based format.
  • It’s a way to display video on the Flash-less iPhone/Pad.
  • Videos can be controlled with Javascript for some real nifty interactivity.

Cons

  • Not supported on all browsers yet. No standardized codec.
  • Having to develop for multiple codecs, still create a Flash backup, decreases the net benefit to workflow efficiency.
  • Lots of accessibility potential. But right now, it’s mostly just that, potential.

Tip

  • Use the poster attribute to customize the preview frame. This can be any image — it doesn’t have to be a frame from the video.
<video src="http://stephencearley.com/video/interviewing.ogv" poster="http://stephencearley.com/video/poster.jpg">

Recommend?

  • Yes and no. For the average developer, it’s worth waiting until some of the issues mentioned above get worked out. But, make no mistake, especially with <video> tag support coming in IE9, HTML5 video should be ready for primetime soon. If you choose, you can already view most YouTube videos in HTML5. Vimeo also has an HTML5 player in beta.

‘A New Frontier of Innovation’

March 28, 2010

Concerns about the security of Internet networks and the business advantages of producing tethered devices like the iPhone are threatening the generativity of personal computing and Web technologies, writes Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain in “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.

Generativity, as Zittrain defines it, is “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

Less generative devices, though not necessarily a bad thing, lessen the control of the end-user and limit innovation opportunities. Most alarmingly, they streamline the work of would-be government censors.

In the United States, the tech industry is clearly trending less generative. But what about in less developed countries? A recent New York Times piece about Ushahidi, the Kenyan-developed map wiki heralded for its life-saving role following the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, paints a decidedly generative picture.

Reporter Anand Giridharadas says open-source Ushahidi, which aggregates mobile messages and plots them in virtual real-time on an interactive online map, “represents a new frontier of innovation.”

Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.

Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

Citizen journalists created Ushahidi — Swahili for testimony — to track violence in the wake of Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. The tool has since been used to track unrest and medicine stockouts elsewhere in Africa and to monitor elections in India, Mexico, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Ushahidi could revolutionize humanitarian and military efforts. The world saw what it can do after a natural disaster. Giridharadas hypothesized about using Ushahidi to find Osama bin Laden.

Journalists are sure to find innumerable uses for the tool. The Washington Post has already used it to map snow-removal. It’s easy to see how it could be used to cover crime, the environment, large festivals like SXSW and a host of other topics.

Publishing the Process

October 30, 2009

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. How about a cool music video? Radiohead’s “House of Cards” certainly fits the bill. Check it out. It was made with lasers! 

Lasers and rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve always gone together, haven’t they? This isn’t your father’s laser show, however. Here, lasers stood in for the camera, continuously scanning the set to form 3D images. 

The presentation was as progressive as the production. And that’s what I want to talk about. A collaboration between the band and Google visualization wunderkinds, the video has its own page on Google’s developer site, Google Code. Not exactly the natural habitat for a music video, is it? 

There’s more than just the traditional video, however. In addition to the one aired on MTV (I’m actually making a dangerous assumption here. I don’t watch MTV. And whenever I surf past it they’re never playing music videos.) there is a behind-the-scenes “making-of” video and an interactive version users can manipulate. 

This is a model that we’re likely to see more and more of — in entertainment, in software, in journalism, in politics, wherever communication is happening. Don’t just share the finished product. Share the process. And invite others to join in that process. This is true interactivity. Those who get this will be the ones who get ahead. 

Take this example from the world of journalism. It’s an oldie but a goodie. In 2007, left-leaning politics blog Talking Points Memo beat the mainstream media to the U.S. Attorneys purging story. Jarring for the Bush administration, yes, which would have preferred media never connected the dots. Just as jarring for new media critics who insisted blogs follow legacy publications’ lead.

So, how did TPM do it? It posted original reporting based on sources not typically consulted by the mainstream press and invited its readers to become sources themselves. In between the usual “Here’s what we know” posts, it asked “What do you know?” It told readers what information to pay attention to and often, how to go about getting it. 

And, from the world of software, another classic: Mozilla Firefox. The Internet browser achieved 25 percent market share just five years after launch thanks in large part to its open source approach. It allows developers to customize the browser and shows them how. As a result, it’s more versatile than its competitors. Firefox boasts a vast library of extensions that do everything from manage downloads to speed navigation to translate text.

Content creators: Users are going to want to adapt, add on to and comment on your content anyway. Given enough time, they’ll find a way how. So, why not leverage user participation to increase the value of your product? 

Got it? Good. Go on enjoying the wonders of lasers.