Posts tagged knight foundation
Posts tagged knight foundation
It’s incredible how much has changed in a year. It’s been about a year since I started to really think about news and technology seriously and about ten months since I took on the role of an Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow. While on this journey, I’ve felt a gradual and positive change in the world of journalism and its relationship with technology.
Technology applied is a wonderful thing and much credit must go to OpenNews lead Dan Sinker for realising that the world of journalism was ripe for its application. I see Dan as modern-day Druid, this is thanks in no small part to his spectacular beard in which he keeps kitchen utensils and the smaller of his gardening tools, but it chiefly comes down to his leadership style; he’s more a co-conspirator than a boss, someone who provides inspiration and support - in many ways your archetypal bearded spiritual guide.
I’m a little different to the other fellows, a little older, a little slower and I have a young family which means I opted not to be embedded in Al Jazeera, Doha and work remotely. So when I travel to Qatar to visit the newsroom in the desert, I like to make the most of it.
As fellows we are encouraged to see each other’s work environments and I managed to organise for Nicola Hughes — ex-fellow with The Guardian — to fly over at the same time and give a course on a subject close to her heart - Data Journalism. This was a big win for me. It showed that with a bit of persistence we can actually organise events thousands of miles away that will hopefully make a tangible and positive difference to a news organisation.
Luckily my contacts in the newsroom did a great job in paving the way and it turns out Nicola is a natural teacher so it all went splendidly. We gave an overview in the AJE boardroom where people as diverse as Dick Cheney, Adriana Huffington, Kevin Rose and Senior Hamas officials have been known to congregate (not necessarily at the same time). It was encouraging to see a large cross-section of AJ English and Arabic in attendance. The main cut and thrust of the course was about how to find stories in data and to that end, how the journalist can scrape, refine, store, query and visualise data. It’s worth dwelling on this whole data journalism concept a little, it’s pretty amazing for several reasons:
I’m interested in all aspects of data journalism but the bit that really inspires me is data visualisation - how we present that information to the reader in a meaningful and beautiful way. Yes beautiful - the aesthetic is important, so is the design of course, likewise the content - all fundamental parts of a good visualisation - that’s what makes it so much fun. Admittedly Edward Tufte has had his due influence on me, when I read his work something just clicks and when I meet another Tufte admirer, we click. It’s almost like there’s this secret underground pipe-smoking bohemian society that believes information can and indeed should be beautiful.
The Web is the Medium
And then there’s our old friend the World Wide Web - a medium that is fast maturing into a vibrant and interactive canvas for presenting data. We have libraries born from news organisations and the strong desire to visualise data in new ways. We have interactivity. We have transitions. We have transparency. We have community. We have a low cost method of getting shit out there. The web has always been the ideal platform to present data and now it’s becoming the ideal place to visualise data. This is an exciting place. I might want to hang around a bit.
Making a Difference
I was happy to not just bring Al Jazeera and Nicola together in this way, but also be part of the data journalism course itself, I talked a little about visualisations and gave a session on a library called D3.js. The good news is that Al Jazeera are now looking to run the course again and they have committed to investing in data journalism next year.
So I’m trying to work it out in my head : How many months have I been a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow and how many months have I got left? It’s a ten month gig and I started in February … and damn I’m over half-way already! Oh well, I guess it’s one of those glass-half-empty situations which I need to view as nearly half-full but it’s so hard when the contents are so deliciously intoxicating.
I’m talking about that cocktail of news and technology. It’s a mix alright and although I enjoyed both separately, it wasn’t until I started mixing that I realised how amazing it was.
I have various people to thank for getting me started on what I feel already will be a life long addiction. I’m not going to name them all but let’s just say that both the Knight Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation are two amazing organisations to work for and I feel privileged.
So what’s so special about the intersection of news and technology, specifically in my case on-line news and web-technology? What’s the big attraction?
I’ve been lucky enough to be assigned to Al Jazeera English – but I assume this is broadly true of any of the news organisations taking part in the OpenNews initiative – and in my experience journalists are very interesting people. Their mission is to tell stories and they have some very interesting stories, not all of which have been published. Get to know them though and they will weave you a good yarn. One of my Al Jazeera colleagues told me how he met his future wife on Twitter in Palestine trying to figure out where close-by shells he heard were landing. It’s fascinating to talk to people that know so much about what is actually going on the world. It’s an education. Really.
But it doesn’t stop there. I love this idea of a fellowship, you’re not alone on this journey, there are other fellows doing the same sort of thing as you. Fellows seem more than just colleagues – they are co-conspirators and already we’ve become very close. Recently my fellow fellows visited me in Florence – well actually they came to attend a couple of hack-days on the Tor project. They ended up AirBnBing a cool flat right next to Piazza del Duomo and this became the centre of operations for a few days. We hacked on code, we talked (a lot), we ate together. Later on in the week I invited them to my home town and they met my family and told stories to my kids. It was all very relaxed and very very cool. In the end I feel I will end up learning as much from them as the news organisations.
There is great opportunity to innovate and see your experiments incarnate on websites that get very many eye-balls and of course get all that lovely feedback. And when I say lovely I don’t mean complimentary I just mean that all feedback is lovely even when it is negative and the more you get – the better. In fact, I think one of the most important things you can do when publishing to a site like AlJazeera.com is measure the usage in as much detail as possible. Certainly for me it’s not often that I will be able to collect so many stats on things that I have had a hand in making.
The unpredictable and somewhat transient nature of current affairs also presents tremendous opportunities. One of the projects I’m working on is an interactive slide-show that displays a series of slowly zoomed images to a YouTube soundtrack. I had just got a rough proof of concept together when my colleague mentioned they had some fresh photos and an audio soundtrack from Syria and that they wanted to create an audio-slide show from it to go live the next day. Frantic hacking of code and content ensued but we got it out in time. I wrote in my last post that situations like these are an opportunity to hone your shipping skills and a good exercise in delivering the minimum viable product.
I hadn’t anticipated that we would be encouraged to travel so much and take part in so many different events. On every single trip I met amazing people, people that were not only technologists, journalists — or some hybrid of the two — but also filmmakers, writers and artists. Believe me when I tell you that attending a technology conference after one of these events feels distinctly one dimensional. Technology to me is something that works best when applied and the more I mix with people outside my technological comfort-zone the more applications I discover.
A Unique Position
Being an OpenNews fellow means you are free to experiment and disrupt and generally cause a little controversy without fear of too much reprisal. It’s a temporary job and you’re being sponsored - what’s the worst that could happen? Actually I think newsrooms need and welcome a bit of disruptive thinking.
I feel I have the freedom to suggest or criticise anything – which is a beautiful freedom to have. More recently I’ve also found myself becoming something of an honest broker as I try and foster collaboration between Al Jazeera and third-parties, be it the Internet Archive or Universal Subtitles (now Amara). I didn’t expect to play matchmaker but it’s a role I thoroughly enjoy.
The biggest coup that I think all the fellows are working towards is to get all the OpenNews news partners working together in some mutually beneficial way. Honestly, I think we have a very good shot at it. We’re trusted by our newsrooms to be given a company email address, they evidently trust us to do what is in their best interests.
The Big Question
So, open, what is open in this context? The big question : What does ‘Open News’ mean – or at least what do I think it means?
I don’t remember ever being told and although we’ve touched upon it in conversation we’ve never really discussed it in great detail, although we may have done one of the times Laurian brought a bottle of whisky to a meet-up. It’s almost as if this is something we were meant to discover along the way and I suspect we all have slightly different interpretations of it. To me it’s many things – yes it’s bringing open source and the open source mentality into the newsroom, it’s also using and sharing open data, it’s opening up discussion, it’s also open license-free content, it’s working in the open, it’s even about being open about what you are doing but more, for me, it’s about opening up journalistic channels to everyone.
Living in Italy I am all too aware of the power that the media can hold and how that power can be abused when wielded by too few people, conversely I followed Al Jazeera and how they opened up and integrated the new channels of social communication during the Arab Spring. I’ve seen the results of both approaches and I’m not saying things are black and white here, but I’m definitely leaning towards the latter.
So here I am, trying to concentrate on the fullness of the glass, but reflecting on the bit that is already in me. What I love about all this, what I really love, is that as part of this whole process you are expected to take the initiative, find your own way, that’s some responsibility, yet as part of OpenNews and the fellowship and the people - above all the people – you know you will always find friendship and support along the way.
The good news — for other people — is that these are rotating positions, which means that if you’re a developer, technologist, engineer or programmer you can apply to be an OpenNews fellow too.
I remember with surprising clarity the day after Jaws first aired on British TV. Those were the days of few channels - BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. I’m pretty sure it was pre Channel 4. While I can recall parts of the film, what I really remember is discussing the film in the playground the next day. Almost everybody had seen it, after all we had been building up to it for about a week. It really was a huge thing for us kids at the time!
Television has changed a fair bit since then, with the exception of a few popular shows and live events we all consume video in different ways and usually at different times. It no longer feels like a shared experience. I miss it and I’d go as far as to say that the large part of the continuing attraction of visiting the cinema is to get that feeling of a shared experience with others.
A few months ago the BBC launched its Global iPlayer App. Italy was one of the first lucky countries to be given access and after trialling it for a month I bought an annual subscription and a rather expensive lead to connect my iPad to my TV. No hesitation. No doubt. It was always worth it. The content is, on the whole, very good and the app is slick and easy enough for a 3 year old to use.
If you read my previous article you’ll know that I’m currently in what I consider the fantastic position of being paid to create new and challenging applications for Al Jazeera English and one that I’m really looking forward to creating is a web based application for viewing the great documentaries Al Jazeera put out.
As most of the content is Creative Commons licensed I don’t have to worry about monetisation, DRM or anything like that. It really is very liberating. I will no doubt be influenced by the silky smooth experience of the BBC iPlayer (Native) App, but I feel we also have an opportunity to take things further.
I am already working on adding to the somewhat passive consumption of video, being very careful not to overwhelm people and detract from what is often a very pleasant passive experience thank-you-very-much. I want to present additional information and material - multiple language subtitles, transcripts, notes and the like. But I also want to add social - or sharing if you like.
The fact that I am making a web app means that I can integrate easily with other web-services such as social networks, so there is that aspect to explore. However I think we also have an opportunity to create some unique mechanisms allowing deeper interaction with people sharing a similar experience - this is the part I’m really looking forward to. Again with a careful eye on not overwhelming or unnecessarily distracting the watcher I’d like to build in some experiments which would allow viewers to interact with each other in real-time where appropriate.
Technology is available now to allow people to chat and comment over the web. Certainly this is an experience we could build in. Imagine if you could see all the people currently watching the same programme as you and interact with them. Of course people are likely to be at different points in the programme but we could present people with viewers at the closest point to them and who knows maybe people will start to decide to watch things at the same time because after all it’s more fun!
We can also allow commenting on media in non real-time. People could leave comments and notes on documentaries while they watch while others could discover these annotations while viewing or peruse them separately. With the advent of second-screen technology (where the second screen is probably a web connected tablet or phone) different interactions will be possible.
It would also probably be worthwhile collecting ratings and suggestions from viewers. We can also measure popularity and gather other metrics which could provide useful feedback to the programme makers.
Certainly a lot to think about and a lot to do and I’m not sure how far I will get but I am very excited about getting started and helping consumers share and become — in their own way — producers. This is what the web is all about.
I’ve been in Doha for a week now so it’s as good a time as any to recount my experiences as Knight-Mozilla Open News Fellow at Al Jazeera, for which I will be actively engaged in for next 10 months. So I should probably start by explaining what a Open News fellow is, something that I’ve been doing a lot of recently.
The long and short of it is that the Knight Foundation and Mozilla have sponsored me and four others to be embedded in news organisations around the world with the remit of creating and introducing open technologies and ways of working. I’m slightly different in that due to family commitments I will be largely working from home and coming in-house when required.
So here I am, a week in and I’m struggling to digest and certainly articulate all the amazing things I’ve encountered over the past seven days. A news organisation is without doubt a fascinating place to work and to me as a news channel that I regularly follow; Al Jazeera holds a special interest for me.
I must confess to a certain awestruck-ness when I first entered Al Jazeera English, noticed the ‘on air’ light and realised I was passing through the very same studio I’d seen so many times on TV. The studio takes centre stage within the building with desks and offices surrounding it. Those more closely associated with the TV news are there in the studio with other offices peripheral but still within two minutes walk.
It’s pretty cool to see the hundreds of TVs that are scattered around the offices and studio, it seems to give the whole place a focus - the news! That’s not to underplay the huge importance of the website I was just smitten by the particular media which is live TV. You can find news teams working on stories for the website right down there in the studio - this makes for an ambiance of connectedness. A journalist I observed putting together an article said that they would sometimes incorporate facts and figures directly into their piece from the newsreader speaking live on TV. This is joined-up news.
As I’m here for a limited time only, a large part of my remit was to get a feel for how the organisation works and what the different teams are responsible for. Considering this is my fifth day it is surprising how many people I’ve met and my hosts have done a fantastic job of taking me around and introducing me to people. Although I will be mostly helping out with public facing web-based technologies, it was felt important to show me how journalists operated. Actually journalists share the office space that I am in so it was easy, useful and often fascinating to listen in and in some cases get involved with conversations that were taking place between the hacks and the hackers.
I’ve met a variety of people from all over the organisation including journalists, photographers, producers, editors and the Scottish mafia in public relations. (Their term not mine). That’s not to mention all the different types of developer; mobile, social-media, content management experts to name but a few. However it seems to be that everybody, at least in part is some kind of journalist. But hey at the end of the day we all use social media right? So we’re all journos now.
So how do I fit in to all of this? Well there are a number of projects we’d established in advance that we’d like to realise and some technologies we would like to apply to the organisation and share with the other fellows in their respective newsrooms. While I’ve been here other opportunities for the use of open technologies have emerged and right now we’re in the process of deciding which directions it would be beneficial to push in.
One of my passions is web based media, and I have an enormous amount of fun working on the delivery of this media and making it easier to both produce and consume. To this end I’m extremely happy and excited to have the opportunity to be able to apply and deploy technologies I’ve been working such as Hyperaudio on a real live news website. Hyperaudio coupled with Popcorn.js can help enrich the web-based video documentary experience and I’m very much looking forward to doing that but I’m also very keen to work on an idea called the Hyperaudio Pad (or Hyperpad) - a tool that will allow others to create their own audio and video based programs and potentially applications.
There are many other areas in which we’d like to push ranging from data-visualisations to a documentary web app to a single sign-in system to video fingerprint and intelligent clientside thumbnail creation - to name but a few. If you are interested in any of these technologies or just in how a news organisation like Al Jazeera functions I urge you to follow this blog for a while.