What imaginative stuff the winners showcased yesterday at this year’s Knight-Batten Symposium and Awards for Innovations in Journalism. The awardees again serve as a beacon of hope for an otherwise beleaguered news industry.
Heat Maps Center for Public Integrity in “Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?” built heat maps to cluster lending activity using tools from Palantir Technologies. Page Trackers ProPublic’s ChangeTracker used Versionista to highlight changes to the WhiteHouse.gov site. It provides the date of the last change and highlights what has been added or removed with side by side comparisons.
Document Uploading and Document Reader The Times’ Document Reader made use of Scribd’s and DocStoc tools for turning word documents or powerpoints into web documents. It is drawing on work of Knight Challenge winner Document Cloud.
Debatinator The Time’s Debate Analysis Tools made use of Debatinator software.
Many of the ideas honored are springing from crackerjack programmers and self-described “creative technologists,” now seated in many of today’s newsrooms.
Said Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive Newsroom Technologies at the New York Times and creator of the award-winning ‘Document Reader,’ “If you take a technology approach to a journalistic problem, you come up with new ways to tell a story.”
For Ellen Miller- whose Sunlight Foundation is making data openly available on a huge array of things, from government contracts and grants, to lobbyists, to congressional bills, and even to words used most frequently in the Congressional Record– open records serve a vital role in the emerging ecosystem. “Technology is not a slice of the pie of what we do, it’s the pan,” she said.
Among the trends that surfaced this year:
- Lifting the veil on information. The winners built ways to track changes on government Web sites, fact-check assertions in presidential debates and mash data sets. “Transparency is the new objectivity,” Miller said.
- Making up-to-the minute data accessible and easy to visualize and use. See (and soon search and annotate) documents on the New York Times’ “Document Reader.” Learn what single words surface in constituents’ minds on Election Day through the Times’ “Word Train.” See the Twitter feeds that give insight to how ordinary people are experiencing the Great Recession in “Living with Less.”
- Helping citizens track what their elected officials are up to. With the Times’ “Represent” feature, you can track New York state and congressional officials by such things as their floor appearances and their Twitter comments.
- Engaging in collaboration and open sourcing instead of competition. The source codes for winners like ProPublica’s ChangeTracker and the Document Reader are intended to be available to all. “Could we put together a recipe so any reporter could do this?” asked ChangeTracker developer Scott Klein.
Many of the winners had future aspirations for their projects. Andrei Scheinkman envisions a way to let his “Represent” project track not just office holders but also candidates vying for office.
Another aspiration is to lobby for government agencies and elected officials to make their data available online in ways that foster automated access.
What do you get when you start mashing the data collected for Patchwork Nation’s 12 voter typologies with such things as the location of Whole Foods stores? More nuanced understanding of how people outside the orbit of Washington, D.C. are reacting to and processing changes in the country.
“People in these communities understand there is a fundamental change going on,” said Dante Chinni, the site’s founder.
Check out some of the tools used to build the winning applications in the sidebar.
Many of these creative technologists realize that they are not just building tools for citizens. Things like the Times’ “Debate Analysis Tool” “was quite useful for our own reporters in house,” said its creator Andrew DeVigal.
Even participatory blogs like Vaughn Hagerty’s MyReporter.com, which collects and answers questions from readers of the Star News in Wilmington, N.C., gives journalists a “real-time window in our community and what [people] are interested in.” One insight from the judges: The citizen media sites in this year’s competition were meaty and well-done. But it’s looking like people now know what it takes to publish a good community news sites. Believe it or not, they’re not so innovative any more.