Sensemaking and nonsensibility.

Monday, February 25th, 2008

[Previously! On Positively Atlanta Georgia! Part one of my visit to the C&J conference is right here.]

Saturday dawned cold and overcast in Atlanta, and I decided to bring our OLPC XO to the second day of the Computation & Journalism conference, just to test out the wifi reception and to see how annoyed I’d get typing on the tinyish keyboard. Short answer: not that annoyed, and the “ooh, aah” reception the machine got was an education in itself. It’s amazing how many people evaluate the XO for themselves—would this machine work as a high-powered yet portable laptop for me (answer to you, probably not, but if you are 10 years old and living in Somalia, this is a really good tool for your world.) It was clear that folks had not had a chance to physically get their hands on one…which made me wish that the Apple Stores all had a little OLPC exhibit off in a corner, just to let people get a sense of it.

Panel: Advances in News Gathering

Bagel digested and mediocre coffee downed, I went into the first panel, chaired by Medill School of Journalism—that’s Northwestern—professor Rich Gordon, who had that “pleased to have a substantial budget for scholarships” smile on his face as he briefly talked about his part of his school’s graduate program, which takes computationally-minded folks and teaches them the craft, ethics, and smarts of journalism. My take-away (augmented by chatting with some of the academics at this conference) is that a lot of them youngsters are willing to take on the mantle of responsibility that comes with being a no-kidding journalist for one of the same reasons my post-Watergate cohort did: they see problems in society and see the potential for societal good that journalism offers.

And some of them see the powerful computational tools unimagined in the days of manual typewriters and wire tickers and really want to take hold and use them for something more significant than aggregated tweets, pings, diggs, or shared spreadsheets of stultifying somnambulism.

But, back to Gordon, who says his work “playing around in this intersection of journalism and technology” gives him some sociological insights about those two very different constituencies that ring very true to me:

“We don’t understand each other terribly well…many of us in the journalism field don’t appreciate computer science is a creative discipline, and think that computer scientists—programmers—are people who should do our bidding…to build things we want…and I think maybe on the computer science side there is not quite enough respect for the intellectual rigor that a good journalist goes through…or an appreciation of the intellectual and creative challenges of doing that job well.”

Indeed. And I’ll extend that mutual disregard to graphic designers, who at journalistic organizations must have technical and j-school chops: “Crank out my graphic, font boy.” Some of the news execs ordering up tools in yesterday’s session seemed to have that attitude, and I can only hope that Medill and Georgia Tech (and my own almae mater) create a new generation of hybrid newsfolk who will get past that old myopia.

I was sorry to see that the New York Times’ Michael Rogers was unable to make this panel—I think the Times and Times Digital are doing a lot of innovative work and have created an online product with enough depth, vitality, and innovation that it would certainly be my “desert-island choice” if my iPhone could only pick up one broadband feed in the middle of the Pacific.

But speaking of picking up feeds from remote places, CNN’s Paul Ferguson, next up, brought along a compelling promotional video (hey, I used to make those for CNN back when cameras weighed three thousand pounds) that showed just how liberating a smartly-assembled kit of any DV-ish camera, Powerbook, and satellite modem can be to a team of television news reporters trying to get important stories out of war zones, drought zones, and other places hostile to human life in general and journalists in particular. One of the liberations beyond reduced weight and greater portability: the relatively much cheaper cost of broadband/satellite time versus satellite video time (I’d love to know exactly how much that amounts to) makes the decision to cover much less financially-dictated.

I found it telling that his video, loaded with substantial, important reports, was almost all coverage from CNN International—the domestic feed (this is becoming a consistent rant for me) carries far, far, far less world news…in fact their story count in general is an embarrassment and I think if you could choose between the CNN Celebrity-Studded Domestic feed and the much more BBC-esque International feed on your local cable system, you’d pick the world over the hype in a second.

Reuters Media’s Nic Fulton followed Ferguson, and seemed to have one of those fun jobs in Big Corporate where you get to back up your “what-if”s with a halfway decent budget, and right now his what-ifs say “why don’t we just shoot short ad hoc interviews off of cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras,” and my answer would be “because then people would have to try and watch crappy video of self-conscious people shot on cell phones and try to hear what the heck the interviewee is saying and not be distracted by noise and passing busses and so on.” (He has several on his site, go on, watch, try.) I have no doubt that one day we’ll be able to hold up an iPhone-like device and end up with stunning, stabilized, beautifully compressed high-def video online…but we’ll still need something substantial to shoot.

The panel closed with Andrew Haeg, who is Michael Skoler’s associate at American Public Media, and he provided a useful behind-the-scenes look at the Public Insight Journalism project. I was again impressed by the use of social-y technology in service of newsgathering professionals. They seem to have a clear separation there where these tools gather the raw stuff, then real pros with brains sit down and figure out what it all means.

The potential downside of course, is that this reinforces the old-fashioned role of the reporter as gatekeeper that I learned in school (oh, maybe gatekeeping 2.0). What does it all mean? We’ll be the judge of that. The younger social-computing folks kept asking the Minnesotans “is there any way to get all of your source people into a conversation amongst themselves?” —and that doesn’t seem to be the Public Insight they’re going for here. Also, to recap from yesterday: privacy concerns, and how good are your passwords?

Panel: Sensemaking & Information Visualization

Let me quote conference organizer Brad Stenger here: “Computer science researchers talk about sensemaking when they’re exploring the role computation plays in helping people to organize information and find meaning in data. A related subject, information visualization, deals with the interactive, graphical presentation of information.” This panel provided some high-protein tastes of the work being done in taking vast seas of data, and probably their offerings were tempting to journalists faced with parsing meaning out of endless rows of columns of..uh..rows and columns. That sensemakes, I guess.

Let me veer off one moment and link you to my favorite site for a beautiful (literally!) ongoing overview of what’s being done in visualizing information. I go here sometimes just to be able to say “oooh, pretty data.”

Georgia Tech’s John Stasko showed off some data-connection-node-y goodness that had me grumbling about the Windows OS primitive, edgy, annoying user interface that gets wrapped around data when you work on that platform. I’d like to introduce his team to the silken wonders of Mac OS’s CoreAnimation, CoreVideo, and CoreImage, but…oh, wait, he’s on leave at Microsoft. Uh-oh.

Berkeley’s Jeffrey Heer has worked hard in the land of Java and Flash to provide much more aesthetic and interactive work. His “site” (what the heck? it redirects to a page about the project…so we can’t actually work with the site and the data itself) takes decades of census (get it? heh.) data and does a remarkable collaborative interactive visualization thing that allows comments and random exploration. Or it would, I guess, if it were an actual site. Darn those academics.

Jeff and John went before’s Xaquin Veira González, who had another Powerpoint/Keynote/laptop-not-working-with-the-projector meltdown. Veira’s work (here’s a fine example) earns my respect as he and his colleagues go in every day to news meetings and try to find ways to tell stories that burst out of mere words, pictures, and paragraphs. Me, I’m waiting for the day that HTML5 and Web Standards make more proprietary stuff like Flash fade away (with a lovely transition effect).

Panel: News X Roadmaps

After some recaffeination, I was ready for ‘News X Roadmaps.’ Normally, I’d avoid a session that has ‘X’ in the title, but I saw Jacob Kaplan-Moss‘s name and said, hey, I’m there.

Neil Budde has a long resumé that includes and Yahoo News, both in the past tense (and some lovely photos here.) His prime thesis could have been the topic of an entire conference: “It needs to be a focus of the news industry—how are we going to produce enough money from the viewing habits of people today online to cover the cost of people to go out and gather news.” Well, exactly, ca-ching. Sure, the cost of “the printing press” has plummeted…but the economic model, where someone thinks they’ll get enough money from somewhere to pay reporters actual non-second-life dollars or euro remains elusive. Budde asked the question. I’m not sure there were a lot of answers presented, although Google News would like you to look at their AdWords and AdSense and Yahoo…well, let’s see how that shakes out, shall we?

Fortunately for my waning optimism, Wally Dean was next…a legendary TV news director from an age before graphics made loud swooping sounds as they arrive and depart. Dean now works for the Committee of Concerned Journalists…they’re concerned that their craft is going into the dumper in the face of new economics and a national attention deficit disorder.

The night before the conference, I reread my Christmas present—Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil’s The Elements of Journalism, aptly subtitled “What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect”—Kovach always did love upstyle capitalization. Dean gave the conference a solid grounding in the idea of the discipline of verification (never add anything; never deceive; be transparent, be original; and exercise humility)—and reminded us that it’s not naive to expect objectivity in journalists’ methods—not in the people, but in the tools they use.

My scribbled notes as Dean talked could be printed in bold type on post-its and stuck on the screen-edges of journos’ laptops everywhere: “Do not confuse communication with news…do not confuse news and information with journalism…fact is not wisdom…do people need more information…or more knowledge? How can we move from giving them more stuff to giving them more knowledge?”

This is the kind of central idea that points to the value of trained, ethical professionals in the pipeline…even in a world where a lot of the pipeline contains algorithmically-aggregated stuff. I want some knowledge with my stuff too, please.

Django co-creator Jacob Kaplan-Moss’s roadmap was entertainingly-crafted in Keynote, cleanly-designed, and told a compelling story even if a lot of the journalists in the audience had no idea what a web framework really is, what the heck an API is (oh, please, Wikipedia that one yourself) or who Linus (who he quoted first-name-only, as if he were Plato or something) is…wow, sure enough, the first result to a Google search on that single name. Jacob was lucky and talented enough to get into the right place at the right time to create a tool for web developers to get structured data out there in a fast, modern, python-y way.

And to his credit, he didn’t talk much about that. He instead tackled considering what happens as a newsroom evolves into producing content in new ways, and he cleverly punctured a prominent evil in newspaper and television newsrooms in the process: vendors of proprietary software. The bane of my existence for many years. Vendors and the Microsoft or Oracle-encrusted, over-licensed, high-priced, locked-down, resource-hungry stuff they perpetuate just makes my life harder. So…he introduced and elegantly defined the term Open Source…and then, for good measure, rammed it into the heads of the attendees about 17 to 20 times. Big logo on the screen. Here’s why it’s good. Here’s why it’s vital. Ask for it by name.

Then Ramesh Jain from UC-Irvine talked, and I found the breakroom calling.

Panel: Information Mashups: Aggregation, Syndication, and Web Services

This panel, again missing one speaker, seemed to divide neatly between one thoughtful mashup and one tech-minded academic’s vision of what television is.

First, the sunshine. Or the Sunlight. CTO John Brothers explained that the organization was focused on using publically-available data (again “available” does not mean “easy to use”) to correlate Congresspeople’s contributions, spending, earmarks, and hanging-out with lobbyists. This kind of journalism-via-data-analysis is exemplary, and unfortunately but understandably, it sounds like they’ve decided to focus on doing that one thing well—looking at the US Congress—where conferencegoers suggested that this could and should scale down to the state, and local levels…you might say, down to EveryBlock.

Next, “isn’t it about time your nightly news was delivered by an avatar?” Truth be told, Nate Nichols, recently minted from Northwestern University’s InfoLab, probably just enjoys exploring the worlds of text to speech and developing one of the most elaborate webs of scraping, parsing, and scriptaculously mashing up something into what just oh so vaguely resembles a television newscast. Hey, research is fine, but I’d like him to stop, take a long drink of his favorite beverage, and think intelligently about presentation of information and break out of what seems like a shockingly limited mindset: “we want to have news on something like TV, so we need something like a talking head there on something like a camera doing something like reading.” No, you don’t. No, you shouldn’t. No, that’s not what people want.

Avatar-y online synthnews IS NOT television IS NOT radio IS NOT newspapers and attempts at mimicry DO NOT breed familiarity but instead, creep people out. You’ll figure that out might take two or three long drinks, but you’ll get it…and turn this powerful tech into a compelling news presentation.

Panel: Improving Journalism Workflow: Automation & Productivity

At this point, I began to think that I was getting to listen to a variety of really interesting speakers mixed somewhat less than logically into more-or-less interchangable panels. Here, at midafternoon, we were presented with:

Alexander Hauptmann from Carnegie Mellon, who presented their News on Demand project, a very sophisticated system that absorbs vast amounts of traditional television news, text-to-speeches it, indexes it, translates it if necessary, does really smart stuff with image recognition—are we looking at an anchor or at B-roll?—and then shoves it into a fairly-easy-to-use yet kinda Microsofty UI.

Then, from high-tech to high-human-factors: Solana Larsen of Global Voices, basically a really big, multilingual WordPress blog that “aggregates, curates, and amplifies the global conversation online”…ooh, great modern online jargon there. Basically, she has developed an amazing network of bloggers who know bloggers who know bloggers worldwide, and her site is kind of an ongoing review of what’s being said in the blogosphere where the sphere part in this case is in fact the whole damn world. Absent from her talk: any concerns that her people might not write about other totally legitimate bloggers who they might not be friends or fans of…that’s the problem with socialness, it’s so selective or exclusionary sometimes.

The afternoon stretched on, getting…sleepy…wha?

“I used to be a yoga teacher, so, okay, everyone on their feet, it’s time to stretch.” Well, okay, good idea, Carol Minton Morris of the The National Science Digital Library. The attendees were grateful for the 15 second break, and listened to how a targeted blog could help elementary teachers teach kids about the polar regions of our planet—beyond the clichés.

And then, well, remember what I said about Open Source vs. the evils of vendors? Well apparently they brought on Rob Lamb of Clickability to reinforce that point. Actually, his company may be worse—they appear to be leveraging Open Source software for their own profit—and giving, uh, well, nothing back to the Open Source community. Arrrgh.

Panel: Participant Journalism & Journalism Participation: Interacting & Authoring in New Media

Okay, last panel, long day, big finish, right? Well, sorta.

We started with the bombast, snark, and sheer entertainment value you’d want from a videogame designer. Ian Bogost, Ph.D., game designer, critic, proud father, fellow Atlantan, and apparently mediocre speller (he was concerned that his presentation slides would be correct…better check your Persuasive Games bio, Ian.) I think he communicated successfully to me, a complete non-gamer, that a) games are fun, useful, and can carry the opinionated subtext of an editorial cartoon and b) The New York Times liked his company’s games…but only up to a point. Probably a point well taken.

Then Ezra Cooperstein from had the kind of complete MacBook cursor-freeze meltdown/presentation failure you just hate to see if you’re a Mac fanboy like me. He gave us a lesson on how to be a cool San Francisco kinda management guy by handing it off to a Georgia Tech volunteer and saying “Dude, here, you fix it,” while explaining that Current gets an enormous amount of user-created that they don’t have to pay for.

And so does fellow big media person Lila King of CNN, who is a key manager behind iReport and CNN’s new completely unfiltered and uncensored site that is a treasure-trove of usefulness to CNN, and hey, they pass the savings on to…their shareholders? Ms. King, who is, I’m sure well-intentioned, gave us some insights as to her under-30 definition of “news” (clue: more diversity in Barbie princesses) that made me want to mandate some lengthy remedial classes with Wally Dean, with the Kovach/Rosensteil book as required bedtime reading. There will be a quiz later, for all of our sakes, lest that Lila’s Sense of News creeps any further into the CNN ethos (it may be too late.)

It’s unfortunate then that one of my top three favorite graphic designers in any medium, Wilson Miner, was next to talk about EveryBlock. Project: fascinating. Approach: compelling. Graphics: impeccable. My annoyance with Lila King: residual. Concentration ability: on the wane. I stayed for most, but then staggered out and summoned my patient chofera in her fine Prius to take me away from Journalism’s future for a while.

Ultimate conclusions? Well, not yet. Gotta get the guest room cleaned up for my sister’s visit. Good thing this is just a weblog, right?