How we built News Mixer, part 1: free and open-source software

This post is first in a three-part series on News Mixer — the final project of my masters program for hacker-journalists at the Medill School of Journalism. It’s adapted (more or less verbatim) from my part of our final presentation. Visit our team blog at crunchberry.org to read the story of the project from its conception to birth, and to (soon) read our report and watch a video of our final presentation.

We could not have built News Mixer without free and open-source software. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, this is how the Free Software Foundation describes it:

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

The Free Software Definition, Free Software Foundation

Now, journalists in the room might be surprised to hear a nerd talking like this, but the truth is that we’re remarkably similar, journalists and technologists — free software and free speech are the backbone of the web. The Internet runs on free software — from the data center to your desktop.

LAMP =
Linux (operating system) +
Apache (web server) +
MySQL (database) +
Python (teh codez)

I won’t dwell too long on the super-nerdy stuff, but for those interested, News Mixer runs on a LAMP stack, sort of the standard for developing in the open-source ecosystem. Notably missing from the list are non-free technologies you may have heard of like Java, or Microsoft and .NET.

The biggest tech choice we made was to use Django. Its a free and open-source web development framework put together by some very clever folks at The Lawrence Journal-World. For those of you in the know, it’s a framework similar to ASP.NET or the very popular Ruby on Rails, but with a bevy of journalism-friendly features. Django is how we built real, live software so freakin’ fast.

And you can have your very own News Mixer, gratis, right now, because News Mixer is also free and open source. We’ve released our source code under the Gnu General Public License, and it’s available for download right now on Google Code. So, please, stand on our shoulders! We’re all hoping that folks will take what we’ve done, and run with it.

That’s it for part one! Can’t wait and hungry for more? Check out the Crunchberry blog, or my other posts on using free and open source software to practice journalism.

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