SRCCON 2018 session pitch: New templates for presenting information

Here’s my pitch for this June’s SRCCON conference:

Dumplings, defamiliarization and how to create new templates for presenting information

Taeyoon Choi cooks dumplings to demonstrate how a CPU works. To teach creative applications of technology, he takes a fun and tactile approach in explaining a complex subject. We also aim to explain complicated topics in news, but constraints of time, money and staffing can make that difficult. Instead we often use formats like graphic templates or explainer stories. But what we if we created new templates that didn’t just simplify our subject matter, but made it engaging in a way that spurs exploration and understanding?

We’ll share examples like the CPU dumplings and ideas from art history like defamiliarization. Then we’ll break into groups to devise and compile new approaches to presenting information inspired by the discussion.

Initial inspiration came at NICAR18 in Chicago during a conversation with Allison McCartney (stay tuned for a future pitch we’re planning). A day before we chatted, I attended session on Data Viz in the Upside, which made me think of how the concept of defamiliarization could inform how journalists present information. Here are the slides from that session:

Additional inspiration for the SRCCON pitch came from this video:

Coincidentally, a few weeks after watching the dumpling video, I happened to watch a talk by John Maeda. A couple minutes in, he shows a clip from the 90s of a similar live-action explanation of how a computer works:

Overall, my favorite line was:

“You know, when people say, ‘I don’t get art. I don’t get it at all.’ That means art is working, you know?”

In news, of course, we want to help people “get it.” So, if the session is picked, we’ll try and adapt some techniques from art to improve understanding of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blockchains for News

Anil Dash’s piece on applying an underlying concept of Bitcoin to track digital art has me thinking about the potential applications of  blockchains for news. As he writes:

What the technology behind Bitcoin enables, in short, is the ability to track online trading of a digital object, without relying on any one central authority, by using the block chain as the ledger of transactions.

What if we built a blockchain system for news? Recording and verifying facts, data, updates, quotes, people, etc like the Bitcoin protocol tracks transactions in a database that no one owns, but of which everyone always has the same copy. (Update: This is meant more as “inspired by blockchains,” but it would be different kind of system because we’re not dealing with transferring or owning the units.)

How useful would that be in the reporting and dissemination of information? With all the noise introduced during breaking news and even long, complex story arcs, it seems like there’s a lot of potential here.

The nature and task of art is different from news, but there’s much we can learn (stay tuned for more posts on that topic). Consider this from Anil’s piece:

Reblogging is essential to getting the word out for many digital artists, but potentially devastating to the value of the very work it is promoting. What’s been missing, then, are the instruments that physical artists have used to invent value around their work for centuries — provenance and verification.

Think of these two key terms he uses.

Provenance. 

Verification.

In the context of news, provenance could be the source of information — or it could be who first reported something. Verification, of course, is already a common term.

The next question then is: What instruments do we have to give our work value?

Not methods. Instruments.

All this — you guessed it — also makes me think of GitHub for News (more here). That idea would make tracking updates, contributions, feedback and even facts more structured by incorporating them in a versioning system like git.

Neither GitHub for News nor Blockchains for News would solve all the problems they aim to tackle. Anil’s piece smartly notes in the art realm:

as with any new idea, it can be difficult to reckon with the implications. Steven Melendez asserted that monegraph could “eradicate fake digital art”, when this is exactly backwards. In fact monegraph makes it possible to have “fake digital art”, because prior to this we had no consistent way of defining an “original”.

So, where should we start?

UPDATE: More discussion and explanation…

PoW = proof of work

Also, just for fun and more Bitcoin background: By reading this article, you’re mining bitcoins

Music and code: Great insights from David Johnson, Zed Shaw and others

Some random thought about music theory and structure (namely, loops) floating around my mind led to an interesting discussion of music and code this weekend. The discussion was topped off quite nicely by a comment Zed Shaw wrote on Reddit about why being a musician can make you a good programmer.

If you can’t see the embed above, view the discussion on Storify.

Journalism as a software application

Let’s say journalism — as a concept — is a software application. Software is a set of instructions that tells a computer what to do and how to do it. To make this comparison, I’ll use WordPress.

Journalism is a tool to be used, both by those who practice it and those who engage with it.

Journalism is inherently interdisciplinary, both in the subjects it covers and how those subjects are covered.

Journalism can applied to any subject, or theme. There are some basic themes you can start with and modify. Child themes can be derived from parent themes; for example, online learning as a child theme of education.

Journalism has core features. Research, reporting, verification, creation and more.

Journalism has more advanced functionality you could call plugins. These can improve the process or the product (here, meaning outcome). Analysis, visualization and feedback/participation mechanisms, for example. Sometimes that functionality gets incorporated into core.

The point is not to make an arbitrary comparison. And, yes, some of these comparisons are apples to oranges.

The point is to think more abstractly both about the concept of journalism and about journalism concepts. The basic ideas. The individual pieces. The fundamentals.

Journalism should be seen as a modular platform that we can customize, develop and improve.

Journalism is an open-source framework constantly in development.

No one owns journalism. No one controls journalism. Anyone can implement it. Anyone can fork it. Anyone can hack at its core.

What are you developing?

Update: I changed “practice” to “concept” in the first line. I think that’s more the frame I was looking for, as indicated by the 8th paragraph.

Quantifying impact: A better metric for measuring journalism

Before Isaac Newton, words like mass and force were general descriptors, as James Gleick writes in The Information:

“the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague—force, mass, motion, and even time—and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas.”

The term information was similarly amorphous until Claude Shannon, while working at Bell Labs, quantified the concept in bits.

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The journalism goals and business goals for news organizations are out of sync.

Pageviews. Unique visitors. Time on site.

Some journalism might be best quantified partly or wholly by one or more of those ways, but we need to explore deeper beyond these fairly simplistic metrics.

We know how these terms are defined, but what do they really mean? What do they help us achieve?

In creating a theory of information and quantifying information in bits, Shannon aimed to remove meaning. “Shannon had utterly abstracted the message from its physical details,” Gleick says.

For journalism, the goal should be to add more meaning to the information we use to measure our work. Granted, our current metrics aren’t meaningless. We use them because they do have meaning: views, comments, shares, etc. each has a meaning and can be measured based on that one-dimensional measure. The quantities of metrics increase because the works of journalism they describe are meaningful. Or, put another way, impactful.

So, what if we measured journalism by its impact?

Continue reading Quantifying impact: A better metric for measuring journalism