TechRaking – mining the news


One of my favorite conferences is TechRaking, a gathering of journalists and technologists hosted by Google. It’s invite-only unfortunately, but they seem to gather a good selection of reporters interested in using technology, and engineers interested in creating tools for journalists. In the past I’ve met some fascinating people like LyraMcKee for the first time, and caught up with long-time friends like Pete Skomoroch, Somini Sengupta and Burt Herman.

This time, I’m going to live blog the talks, though there’s also an excellent set of notes as a Google Doc here.

Michael Corey from CIR started with an introduction. Tech + muck-raking is what it’s all about, hence the name of the conference. We’re focused on “mining the news” this time, which means turning bits and bytes into stories. We’re going to try to raise the bar on what we can do in this area, by bring people together.

Phil Bronstein, chair of the CIR. Held up a t-shirt – “I can’t tell you how long it’s been since journalists got to have swag!”. Why is the CIR important? What distinguishes us is the idea of innovation. Journalists suffer from “the higher calling disease”, we don’t want to interact with the messy public. We’ve been discovering that technology can enable us to reconnect with our audience.

Technologists want to create and build something that people use. Journalists have traditionally stopped at “here’s the story, see you later”. The CIR is looking for results from their stories. They do everything from live theater to poetry to get at the the emotional truth of the stories, so it’s more than just technology. I’m hoping that this event will be even better than the first one, because we ended up with engineers in one room and reporters in another, just because we’re not familiar with each other.

Richard Gingras, Google. “I have been around since the age of steam-powered modems”. “Why are we here? We’re all here because we care about the relationship between citizens and media, and particularly citizens and journalism.” Our colonial predecessors had a very limited interaction with media, most of their daily lives were dominated by personal interactions. Over the last hundred years, mass media became vastly more important, and now social media has exploded. It’s not just an increase in volume, the nature has changed too. We’re all able to be producers now, we’re no longer the passive audience we were. We’re able to pick the voices we listen to, share what we like, talk back to the authors. Media is no longer an adjunct, it’s a central part of our lives, many of our most important relationships are exclusively online.

How can we integrate quantitive thinking into the daily workflow of journalism, make it the rule, not the exception? We’ve made great strides in the last few years. Internet Archives closed-caption analysis is exciting, useful, and compelling. ProPublica built a dialysis tracker, that finds nearby centers for patients, and estimates how good they are. These kind of evergreen investigative projects are the way reporting should be going.

The Google Fellowship program is aiming to produce both quant-friendly journalists and journalist-friendly quants. Our society’s need for credible journalism knowledge is more urgent than ever. Can we find truth in the numbers? I suspect we can.

Now we shift to a panel discussion. The members are Richard Gingras, Google, Rodney Gibbs, Texas Tribune, Robyn Tomlin – digital first media, Vanessa Schneider, Google Maps, Sree Balakrishnan, Google Fusion.

“What is your fantasy data set?”. Robin, a database of  gun deaths across the US. Vanessa, a magical database of shape files at all the admin levels. Power outage data would be extremely useful too. Sree is very interested in local data, by ZIP code shows exactly what happens to your property tax. Rodney wants property taxes too, there are 900 tax assessors in Texas, some do well, but a lot require you to appear in person to get the data.

“Everyone knows the present is mobile, mobile, mobile. What does mobile do today for storytelling?”. Vanessa is excited by how readers can contribute in real time from their perspective. Robin loves being able to tune into the interests of people depending on where they are. She had someone build a database of pet licenses, and was able to serve up geo-located data on what the most popular pet names and types were nearby. Rodney also loves the ability to personalize the make the results location-based too, so you can look at average salaries of public servants and school rankings nearby. It is a problem to set up the CMS to make it mobile friendly though. Sree sees a lot of requests from people who want to use Fusion Tables from mobile devices, and that’s an important use case. Local is very compelling to a lot of people, and if we could geo-tag stories they would really help. Richard says over half of their traffic is coming from mobile, so a lot of new projects are mobile first.

“How do smaller organizations deal with this new world of data?” Robin deals with over 75 newsrooms, so she’s tried to create a community of data so that all of those teams can turn to a hub of expertise. They also work with non-profits like the CIR and ProPublica to get help from their specialists. Every newsroom should have somebody who’s dabbling and can reach out to others! Rodney has had a lot of success encouraging reporters to play with the new tools. One example is a youth prison that had a high rate of injuries in their data, and it turned out that the staff were running fight clubs. That persuaded a lot of people that the data was worth digging into. We’re training reporters in CSS and Javascript too. 90% of the journalists are excited by it. Vanessa is really interested in how journalists want to use the tools.

“What is the future of Fusion Tables? What’s the next big thing?” – Sree is looking at bringing more of the structured data in the world into Fusion Tables.

“How do we revolt against the tyranny of government data?”. Sree – We’re looking at getting governments to adopt standards, working with organizations like OKFN. The activities of journalists in finding data, cleaning it up, and putting it back out there is incredibly useful. Robin – news organizations have been fighting for a long time to get data. Commonly there are format problems, such as PDF versions of Excel files. Rodney says that Texas is actually very progressive on making data available. He’s been working with school districts, who have been helpful, but for example they just were given a spreadsheet with 100,000 rows and 105,000 columns! They’ve developed skills in dealing with messy data, to the point that the state comptroller wanted to pay them to deal with some of their internal data. Once governments see the potential, they become a lot more willing.

“What are the challenges standing in the way of data journalism?” Richard – it’s getting the proof of concepts. Once we have examples of how powerful these stories can be, people will understand how sexy it is. Robin says it’s also leadership, news organizations need to emphasize how important it is. Sree mentions a couple of examples – a map of gun ownership, the Nottingham Post in the UK created a map of where the most parking tickets are issued.

“What about the blowback from that gun story?” The paper posted a map of all the gun owners in the area, and lots of states passed laws making the ownership data private. Robin says that a lot of journalists were critical, because there wasn’t a good story behind it, they just rushed to get it up there. Sree says that Google has the conversation about the balances all the time. He says the only way forward is to focus on the benefits, and to guard against abuses. Rodney tells a story where his prisoner database had incorrectly marked a few hundred prisoners as child abusers, but it turned out the state had incorrectly entered a code in their data!

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