Two worlds colliding, or that is how it felt for me when I first started to understand the potential of web technology and journalism combined. Colliding perhaps isn’t the best word, but neither is it a bad word to describe the coming together of these two worlds, it suggests friction, reaction even explosions and that it will take some time for the dust to settle.
I am sad to say I’m no longer an OpenNews fellow - my time has expired and with heavy heart I shall remove the title from my bio. But let’s back up a bit and look at how this all started.
media is instrumental in shaping people’s opinions
My attention was first drawn to the OpenNews (then MoJo) project in the Summer of 2011. Being a curious sort of chap, I wondered what sort of shape this initiative would take. I was curious because it combined two of my interests - media and technology. I believe that media is instrumental in shaping people’s opinions and — perhaps somewhat naively — I believe that technology holds the keys to the democratisation of information and media, especially the inter-connectedness that web-based technology provides.
Optimism aside, ‘techno-journalism’ struck me as a very interesting intersection in which to work and so I enrolled in the Knight Mozilla News Challenge - a process designed to embed five people with technical backgrounds into newsrooms.
Six months later I was an OpenNews fellow working with Al Jazeera English. I had opted to work on a remote basis with the understanding that I work on-site as often as was required.
Ten months after starting, my fellowship has drawn to a close and this is what I have learned.
Travelling is Important but so is Doing the Work
I’ve often wondered how those people who are in a continual state of transit ever get any work done. I guess there’s a knack to working on the hoof that I’ve yet to acquire, but while I’m travelling I’m often too excited or exhausted to be a very effective developer, at least on the shorter trips. That’s not to say travelling isn’t important. There is no substitute for meeting people in real life and I especially found the month I spent at Al Jazeera HQ in Doha very worthwhile. Other highlights included the Civic Media Conference in Boston where I was made to feel at home at MIT Media Lab and The Guardian offices in London where all the fellows got to work as a team.
I did get some work done at the various hack days I attended, but really travelling for me was all about meeting people and building up relationships, most crucially with other fellows. All my trips were worthwhile and indeed served to inspire and motivate me to actually do the work.
Developers in News Organisations are Constantly Shipping
your work is transient - of the moment.
The good thing is, most stuff you work on doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough to get the message across. To all intents and purposes your work is transient - of the moment. That is not to say that the time that you are iterating hard against a deadline isn’t stressful, it is. It’s also very exciting.
Developers in News Organisations Make Cool Shit
Some of the best developers I know work for news organisations. Jeremy Ashkensas, creator of CoffeeScript and Backbone.js works for the New York Times and so does Mike Bostock who created D3.js. The Miso Project was taken on by Irene Ros and Alex Graul working at The Guardian - all important open source tools that all types of developers can take advantage of. In fact there are so many new tools that OpenNews launched Source to document it.
Developing More Than just Applications
When I first arrived in Doha, I was told that it was easy to make a difference at Al Jazeera as there was always so much that needed doing. Actually Al Jazeera English (where I was placed) struck me as a very agile organisation - if you had a good idea, it seemed that you could often run with it. Due to my background and the discussions I had with people at various events, I’d amassed a few ideas for Al Jazeera to try out. I was curious about most aspects of the aljazeera.com website - and was eager to discuss issues such as content management, styling and even content. What I noticed and liked about the people there, was that they were not afraid to — and indeed were very good at — harnessing and taking advantage of technologies, services and concepts that were not necessarily home grown.
Pic: Internet Archive’s TV News Cloud
The use of Creative Commons licensing for much of their content was particularly inspiring and so was the grasping of the role of social media in news, never more apparent than during the Arab Spring.
I felt that there was an opportunity to bring AJE and other organisations together. Through various shared interests I was already in touch with Internet Archive. Being broadcasters as well as online producers AJ create a lot of video based content and are actively looking to get their content viewed on the US mainstream channels. Through closed captioned content they can not only meet the accessibility requirements for US TV they can produce content that can be archived at internetarchive.org. This will also allow developers to expose this video content in new and exciting ways, but that’s another story.
Another couple of potential matches I made some headway in making was to bring Al Jazeera together with Shoutabout.org who facilitate social action and Globaleaks.org who provide a secure whistle-blowing framework.
When Nikki Usher a journalist and assistant professor at GWU contacted me asking if I could introduce her to anyone at Al Jazeera, I was happy to. From that came a visit and an enlightened article for Nieman Lab on my colleagues in the interactive team
In the last days of my fellowship, I was very happy to introduce Al Jazeera to Nicola Hughes. Another OpenNews fellow working with The Guardian, Nicola flew to Doha to pass on her knowledge in the form of a Data Journalism course. I helped out when needed but my main effort was to bring the two parties together.
So I’m happy to say that thanks to Al Jazeera being very open to working with others, I was able to foster a few relationships.
Matchmaking aside, I did spend a fair amount of my time actually making things. I used the knowledge I had built up from working on jPlayer to create media based interactive pieces ranging from YouTube powered slide shows to Interactive Transcripts of the US presidential debates.
I’m fascinated by the emotion that can be conveyed by audio
My first foray was to create a contextual take on a documentary piece. The idea was that the viewer could choose to view (and share) extra information about the program. Ingredients included jPlayer, Tabletop.js and judicial use of an iFrame to not only sandbox the content but also allow it to be embedded in other publications.
I’m fascinated by the emotion that can be conveyed by audio and its role in storytelling. I’d been following what a UK startup ThisIsMyJam had done to allow people to select music from YouTube and share their favourite ‘Jams’. This is very shrewd as YouTube is an excellent music repository. Sure, the quality may be lower than usual, but the quantity of musical material it houses — and crucially can be accessed without an account — is second to none.
Inspired by a chat I had with Showkat Shafi a talented and — judging by his stories — very courageous photographer, I had the idea to create a service that allowed anybody to choose an audio track from YouTube and play a slide-show along to the music. I wanted to include that slow zoom and fade and partly succeeded. AJE ended up using it slightly differently to how I had envisaged by uploading their own audio commentary to YouTube. Again, jPlayer and Popcorn were used.
The US elections provided a global opportunity to create new forms of visualisations and interactivity. I say global as it seemed that every news organisation in the world was trying to come up with something new. My part was to work on an interactive tool that allowed the reader to analyse, discover and share parts of the debate. It was an interesting challenge as there were four debates and we got to improve the format in response to feedback each time. I also took the opportunity to play about with simple data visualisation. So this time Popcorn, jPlayer and a bit of D3.
This is how my work is logged on aljazeera.com
Right back at the start of my fellowship I began writing what was to be an op-ed on Firefox OS for aljazeera.com. I’m not the only developer to be encouraged to do write for AJE. Dick Olson - — a Drupal developer for AJE by day — recently got the opportunity to follow his passion for motor-sport and write up some interviews he had with some of his heroes. In my case as there was no real urgency to complete, this got put on the side and is still not quite finished. Thankfully the subject is still very much relevant and I look forward to finishing it off soon.
Playing about with D3 and generally getting closer to data journalism inspired me to start writing my own visualisation of the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This remains work in progress but I’d love to create a generic comparison tool when I have time.
As Dan Schultz — my colleague at The Boston Globe — touches on in his recent blog-post - one of the most important parts of an open developer’s remit is not only to release the code but to release it an a format that others can easily adapt. The issue is the next project is usually just around the corner and the luxury of time to work on genericising a piece of code all to often scarce. I admit despite my best intentions, I never fully got around to doing this.
OpenNews is Evolving
Help, support and encouragement are at hand. Anticipating the vital life-blood of development that is code, a source-code repository known simply as Source was launched and put in the capable hands of Erin Kissane which means you also get excellent news related articles into the bargain. Additional motivation is provided by Code Sprint grants, so if you’re a developer working in a newsroom and want to make that last bit of code generic you should definitely consider the grants and of course putting your code on Source.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. It is very exciting to see the quality of interactive journalism coming out of news organisations like the New York Times and The Guardian right now. The Guardian have a whole section dedicated to Data Journalism and The New York Times are coming out with gems like 512 Paths to the White House and their recent excellent interactive piece - Snow Fall which received more than 3.5 million page views. It’s also exciting to see fellow developers who formerly worked in other areas get bitten by the journalism bug.
Here’s to all the Punks
It’s all been a fantastic opportunity and I’d like to thank the following people for making 2012 the epic year it really was for me. First and foremost Dan Sinker for support and encouragement and for being both Visionary Druid and Down-to-earth Punk. Thanks also to Erika Owens, fearless OpenNews community manager and organiser of epic journeys and accommodation Mohammed Haddad - my colleague and friend at Al Jazeera and all the other fine people working there, of which of course there are simply too many to mention. Thanks also to the Knight Foundation for funding and Mozilla Foundation for support.
Lastly but not leastly a big thanks to my family, (not my real family - I’ve thanked them privately), fellow fellows (my own Punk Rock band) Dan Schultz, Nicola Hughes, Laurian Gridinoc and Cole Gillespie. It’s been amazing working with you all. Thank you!