All the fun stuff we’ve been up to at the Trib

The blog has been a bit quiet lately (to the disappointment of very few, I’m sure) — but we’ve been releasing apps and blogging furiously over at our team site. Here’s a roundup of our recent posts:

Tools we love to use

Development techniques and best practices we’ve discovered

Sharing our infrastructure

For links to our recent projects, and to keep up on our work, visit apps.chicagotribune.com!

Stock charts for everything else: Google Public Data

Google rolled out a simple little feature today: enter “unemployment rate wayne county” and they’ll offer you a chart. Click it, and you’ll see the unemployment rate since 1990, and be able to add other counties to compare. It ain’t much, but it’s neat.

Now, unemployment data *is* take-my-shirt-off-WOO-HOO-high-five thrilling, but this’ll get much more interesting if Google follows through (from the Official Google Blog):

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. … we have been working on creating a new service that make lots of data instantly available for intuitive, visual exploration. Today’s launch is a first step in that direction.

Tidy snippets of civic information, linkable and comparable, from all aspects of public data — that’s one damn cool almanac! More like Everyblock than Wikipedia. Data, but easier. Fucking linkable!

Who’s gonna step up?

From this day forward, any news story about unemployment must link to the chart, just like business stories link to stock charts. Anything less is a disservice to readers. It’s zero-effort, free, informative, and damn neat. Why the hell not?

The future

The sci-fi geek in me sees this as just one more step towards Google’s lofty mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It’s coming: All the data, one gesture away, on my cornea-screen. Oh, hell yes.

Help! What’s a great news problem to solve?

Rich Gordon’s got programmers but no project:

Between now and when the [next Medill innovation project] starts (Sept. 23), we have to decide what the focus of the project will be. In my experience with previous projects, the key is to come up with an interesting challenge or question for the students to explore.

Right now there are two competing ideas, neither of them yet specific enough to organize the class around:

  • Civic engagement through online conversations
  • Mobile content and services

This project will be my primary focus for the next three months. We’ve got a great team, but we’re still hunting for a killer idea. What’s a great news problem to solve?

As for the platform, I’m leaning towards Android. (Admittedly, I’m putting the cart waaay in front of the horse here. The platform should always follow the idea, buuut…) The new gear from Google’s phone project is coming soon, and I agree with John Biggs at TechCrunch:

An open, powerful platform backed by a major, web-focused corporation is better than a useless accretion of outdated functions owned by a Borg-like conglomerate [Microsoft] or an OS created by a gnomic, arbitrarily pissy design company [Apple] in my book.

What do you think six budding new media journalists, two of whom code, should do for a quarter? Ryan and I could hack something pretty substantial in three months!

Any ideas?

Dearest journalists, stop being jerks: Why not publish the data too?

My comrade in arms Ryan Mark sez:

The Sun-Times published the names, salaries and positions of 145,000 Illinois, Cook County, and Chicago employees on their website this weekend. The names and salaries are online in the form of a simple searchable database.

But the data is buried. There’s no way to get to a spreadsheet of this information. On paper there are physical limitations to publishing your data, but online, you’re unlimited. Why not just post the file? Ryan is spot-on:

I want a link to download a csv file. I want to plug it into Many Eyes. I want to run my own reports on it.

If I had to pick the one craziest thing about journalism, it’s this. We closely guard our sources, even from our colleagues at the same organization. We make FOIAs and file them away. And now that we’re online, we don’t link to our source materials, we don’t publish our data, and we’d never, ever link to another news source for background. WTF!?

Centre Georges Pompidou, by Thomas Claveirole
Centre Georges Pompidou, by Thomas Claveirole

We demand transparency and act with opacity

Forgive the n00b if I’m wrong, but from what I gather this attitude is the result of years of fierce competition between (and within) news organizations — we’re trying to scoop the cross town gazette.

Well, quit it!

Journalism needs an attitude adjustment. The house is burning! The ship is sinking! The, um, battlestar is circling the event horizon! Pick your metaphor — the deal is, we’re all in this together. Start playing nice, for chrissakes.

We’re here to help our readers better self-govern, and we’re failing them, because we’re being competitive assholes. And maybe — just maybe — if we give them a proper web experience, they’ll go to us instead of Google and we’ll make a buck too.

Froot loops, search addicits, and augmented reality

Quote of the day goes to David Coen: “I wish I could just “command-F” for C.T.C (Cinnamon Toast Crunch).”

Amen! My pinky finger twitches for the “/” key (old-school Firefox shortcut) all the time: when I’m scanning ingredients, reading a news story, and finding my location on a map.

After a taste of what the web can do, I’m hooked. I need it all the time.

cereal aisle, by Ben McLeod
cereal aisle, by Ben McLeod

More from Señor Coen:

If you wanted to know what happened in the world you either turned on the TV or checked the headlines in your morning newspaper. Google has them beat. It’s too late to try and become the aisle sign (the first thing people go to). But there is still room to become the helpful employee roaming the aisle. That’s where news organizations can still make their mark.

So, paper is out, and journalists will become be the online guides. Boing Boing does this remarkably well. They post the stories that matter to me, and a whole lot of people like me. (Who knew copyleft, unicorns, and cryptozoology could command such an audience?)

But we’re still trapped in our computers

Find as you type makes the web livable. But off-screen search, now that would make reality livable. Epiphany, the just-barely-science-fiction augmented reality device from Vernor Vinge’s excellent book Rainbows End, gives the wearer queryable visual (and haptic) overlays of the real world:

If you override the defaults you can see in any direction you want. You can qualify default requests — like to make a query about something in an overlay. You can blend video from multiple viewpoints so you can ‘be’ where there is no physical viewpoint. That’s called ghosting. If you’re really slick, you can run simulations in real time and use the results as physical advice. That’s how the Radners do so well in baseball.

This is the sort of stuff journalists need to be geeked about. If we’re to be the sensemakers, as David’s post implies, we can’t let ourselves get stuck in the narrative tar pits.

We must create new ways to make sense of the world.

(I’ll happily host the first meeting of the sci-fi for journalists book club. Who’s bringing the chips?)

Tell your story with data, without writing a line of code

I’ve been on the hunt for quick and dirty ways to show off data: visualization tools that are free, pretty, and easy to embed in a story.  Here are my finds so far.

Kick-ass embeddable visualizations

Upload your data set to ManyEyes, and you can turn it into all kinds of neat charts and wacky interactive stuff like word trees. They make it really easy to share. Click on the “share this” link below any visualization to get a snippet of HTML to paste into a story.

Amy Gahran loves word trees too:

You specify a word or phrase, and ManyEyes shows you all the different contexts in which that string appears in a tree-like branching structure. This helps reveal recurring themes in the document, and shows how topics and subtopics are related.

The other hot ManyEyes demo is the government expenses visualization. Use the menu on the left to drill down into spending categories. (Can you find the S&L bailout?)

There are so many kick-ass things you can make with ManyEyes: tree maps, tag clouds, and bubble charts, to name just a few. Here’s a map!

Timelines get sexy

It’s easy to make sweet, interactive timelines with circaVie. Like, really easy. Sign up, click “start a timeline” and add events. Like ManyEyes, they also make it simple to embed a widget, just paste in the provided snippet.

http://www.circavie.com/flash/timeline.swf
Text message scandal timeline by DFP Graphics

Words are pretty

Wordle makes pretty text visualizations by shuffling words from a file, web page, etc., and sizing the words based on how frequently they occur. Much simpler than a word tree, but sometimes simple is just what you need.

Sixth W on Wordle

Need a map, fast?

Google’s Charts API is suuuper cool.  It can make you bar charts, maps, venn diagrams, even sparklines.  But it’s a tool for web developers, so it’s a bit chewy to use if you’re not familiar with a few things.

Lucky for us, lots of folks have built tools to make it easier. The Google Chart Creator is one of the better ones.  I made this map in under a minute.

Google chart map of the Middle East

What else?

It feels like I give the NYT props every day for their data viz skillz. Their stuff is pretty and awesome, but they’ve got a team of developers, designers and whiz-bang specialists.

What other tools are out there that make it simple to create embeddable news visuals, sans a staff of flash savants?

Flash just got better, but it’s still (usually) very, very bad

From Slashdot:

Adobe systems made an announcement that it has provided technology and information to Google and Yahoo! to help the two search engine rivals index Shockwave Flash (SWF) file formats. …this will provide more relevant search rankings of the millions pieces of flash content.

This is good news

Flash is a terribly popular platform for interactive news, and it’s opacity to search engines was a serious problem. Content in Flash applications was not findable in the same way that regular web content is, effectively hiding large areas of the web from searches.

But it ain’t great news

Ace of Cake\'s has a terrible web site
The navigation at Ace of Cakes is so mysterious, it has its own guided tutorial.  Let’s consider this: You need to study a tutorial. To read about a television program. About cakes.

Eight years ago, usability guru Jakob Nielsen called Flash “99% bad.” Everything he said then is still true now. But there are waaay more Flash apps now.

The problem is that it’s frequently used to present text in a prettier fashion. Add music and some magical menus, and paragraphs get better, right? Wrong. Adobe says that the text will now be searchable, but that fixes only one of Flash’s many problems.

Among many other reasons, Flash sucks because:

  1. You can’t link to content within a Flash app.
  2. Flash apps usually don’t work like the web, so a reader has to learn how to use it.
  3. It usually stinks for people with disabilities.

The above aren’t always true, but the exceptions are few and far between.

When it works

When Flash is at its hottest, it presents information to the user in a way that text never could. The New York Times has been putting out excellent apps that do this, like their Obama-Clinton support visualizer, and their map of the impact of the cyclone that hit Myanmar.

The Spiderman analogy applies: With great power comes great responsibility. Flash lets you jam practically anything into a web site, but the temptation to do so must be resisted.