A view from the Hotel where the ONA conference took place
In late September, I was one of three very lucky fellows to be sent to the Online News Association and having been in a small bureau for the past two years with
So here are some takeaways:
Computers Are Taking Over
Well, we're screwed. Computers are now starting to recognize our faces. And this is not just some technology that the CIA or the FBI use to crack down on con-artists and master thieves. It's now a highly commoditized feature: Facebook uses this technology to tag photos of your friends and an app called viewable employs it to sort your photo libraries.
This site uses it to gauge moods of people pictured on photographs on the Guardian (you can break down any other web site):
That's just one of the many technologies presented as a 'tech trend' by Amy Webb, CEO of the Webbmedia Group, in her lecture '10 Techier, Trendier Tech Trends' (you can watch her lecture here: http://bit.ly/o1B2Kz). There seem to be quite a few technologies that have now become an everyday commodity.
There are also electronic pens that transcribe and transfer your handwritten notes to paper and tools to visualize the 'future.' Social media network now allow you to find out who's currently in the
neighborhood, perhaps even in the same coffee shop as you are and it can help you meet folks as you detect their electronic trail.
The future, as it was painted in movies in the 1980s and 1990s, is here and it's available in your app store or on Amazon: you can now track your friends through their GPS devices and computers can tell whether you look angry or sad in photos. I guess the biggest takeaway from this lecture is that we'll have to learn ever-more ways to interact with technology. It's got huge potential for storytelling: you can personalize news outputs to the point that it's geo-specific. You can read emotions on the faces of a number of facebook users and gauge the mood of facebook fiends in who like your news site. You can map out the future with pre-cognition reporting. Above all though, you probably should also create a new code of ethics when using this technology.
Visualization Is For Everyone!
Recently, more and more tools seemed to have cropped up to help even the technologically challenged to create visualizations.
I went to an intro session to fusion tables, Google's new API-based chart builder. It's accessibly everyone, can link up to maps and is changeable in style. The site helps you host your data tables, visualizes data in multiple formats (maps, pie charts, bar charts) and it certainly helps those without the money or skills to use the Adobe family's Illustrator, Flash and other software to build graphics.
Here's how WNYC used the tool:
Just recently I saw the sneak preview for a similar widget by datacollective.com, that enables you to make similarly shareable charts.
It's neat to see this democratization of visualization tools.
Crowdsourcing and Viewer Engagement
I have to admit that until recently I wasn't the biggest fan of twitter. I saw it as a purely promotional vehicle and as an oddly public forum for personal conversations. I also felt like it made me into a hyperactive wreck unable to focus.
But I've come around to it as a tool. And it'd be silly to deny its usefulness to gauge online opinions, for instance, or to understand the dynamics of grassroots movements in the digital age. At the conference and during talks with a bunch of media folks (speak potential employers), the same question has cropped up over and over again: how do you maximize user involvement?
Well, Al Jazeera's The Stream uses live twitter feeds to interact with their audience and have them actively mold their conversation. They have a dedicated producer sieving through tweets during the live show.
The Guardian's answer to user engagement was threefold: live blogs, user-submitted content and what I'll call 'participatory' data evaluation for now. They perfected the art of live blogging while experimenting with football/soccer coverage and used it really effectively during the Arab Spring, actively conversing with their commentators and figuring out ways to work with their content. They visualized user-submitted stories about personal experiences during September 11. And they used their audience to annotate and evaluate the thousands of Sarah Palin emails that were released a while back.
Overall, user-submitted content and crowdsourcing is definitely a bit scary to fact-conscious journalists, but there are ways to tell stories in such interesting ways with the deluge of information that social media provide us. There's also a huge potential in using the manpower of thousands. Exciting times.
Anyhooser. If you're interested there are more notes here and all panels available on video here.