#Gnomedex 09 – Day 2 – Mark Glaser and Jim Ray – Hacker Journalists

The second morning kicks off with an entertaining talk by Frank Eliason, the famous Comcast Customer Service guy who’s been providing customer service on Twitter, without having had any official permission from Comcast to do so (@ComcastCares).

The second talk is Hacker Journalists by Mark Glaser (@mediatwtit) and Jim Ray (@jimray). Mark hosts the Mediashift site on PBS.

What programmer journalists do is to try think up ways to take public information and mash it up to present the data in a different way (e.g. maps, images, etc). He’s asking the audience to get involved this morning in a contest for the best media hack this morning.

A brief history – there’s always been technology in journalism and there have always been people reporting on tech. What’s different is database journalism and having people in the newsroom who have done programming and hacking. In 1986 a journalist used databases to expose school bus drivers’ bad driving records. Adrian Holovaty put together chicagocrime.org – picked up crime data from police department and put it on maps.

Journalists job – gathering, distilling, and presenting information. That’s what Holovaty was doing, in a new way. Then he created a site called EveryBlock – for some cities aggregates lots of data about what’s going on in each block, pulling things in real time from around the web.

PolitiFact – had the truthometer during the election campaign. Their latest thing is the obameter – keeping score on 500 promises Obama made during the campaign and keeping track. Won a Pulitzer for the truthometer.

Bronx Rhymes – “located media”. Traces the history of hip hop in the Bronx. Put up posters at important sites, and then asked people to text in rhymes about that site.

Jim Ray, msnbc.com – local, member of original R&D team at msnbc. MSNBC doesn’t have all the baggage and infrastructure of traditional media companies, but a lot of the people there came from traditional companies. MSNBC just purchased everybolock – had Adrian in the newsroom where he faced some tough questions from people. Jim’s team interfaces directly with the editorial team but it’s not part of it. Everyblock was funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, with a proviso that it be open source. When the grant ended the code was released. So the question was why was MSNBC purchasing it? A lot of it is the people, not the software. For instance, Holovaty is also the guy who invented the Django python framework.

MSNBC projects – Politics Dashboard – pulled data and came up with a county by county map going back the five or six elections including election results, campaign donations, demographics.

Created a map with a live hurricane tracker, then pulled NOAA information back to 1908 and put that in there too. Are people asking whether this kind of thing is valid and will generate revenue? Built it once and then as long as the data is available there are little additional costs. There are questions about the value of news versus background and archival information. What are the things that a journalist knows and assumes the reader knows?

How do we get more tech-savvy people into the newsroom? Also have the inverse problem of techie people who are interested in journalism, but too often it’s the old-school software development paradigm. It’s helpful to start at universities with journalism programs that acculturate people to using technology tools like databases, programming, and think differently about things.

The traditional mantra of journalists is that you’re not supposed to have opinions about the matters you’re reporting on. As journalists are moving beyond just reporting to have personal blogs and other expressions it’s a tricky issue. It used to be the policy that if you’re writing for an organization that you shouldn’t have a personal public expression, but that’s breaking down. The wall between journalism and blogging and professional and amateur is getting very blurry, whether that’s good or bad.


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