Kick Ass News Apps! — projects to inspire journos

To introduce ourselves and our skills to the Trib newsroom, Joe and I showed off some news applications we love, and that we hope will inspire the journalists here to think about telling their stories in new ways online.

For the folks who missed the show, here’s a quick rundown of what we talked about. (I am sad to say that there is no way to serve refreshments through the web, so to get the full experience, you’ll have to get your own punch and pie.)

PolitiFact’s Obameter

Politifact's Obameter

Reporters and editors from the [St. Petersburg Times] fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups and rate them on our Truth-O-Meter. We’re also tracking more than 500 of Barack Obama’s campaign promises and are rating their progress on our new Obameter.

  • Brian sez: It hits the sweet spot between software and old-school reporting. Hacker journalism at its best.
  • Joe sez: Demonstrates the power of the web to provide context over time beyond each day’s story.

Tampa Bay Mug Shots

Tampa Bay Mug Shots

Our goal is to provide a complete profile for individuals booked into jail in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco counties. A complete profile on Mug Shots constitutes: name, photograph, booking ID, height, weight, age, gender, eye color, birth date, booking date and booking charge.

  • Brian sez: It’s tabloid, trashy stuff in a great-looking package. Pretty hot for a system that shows off public records.
  • Joe sez: I’m not sure how I really feel about this app, but it is a great example of making bulk data accessible to the general public.



ChangeTracker watches the White House’s web site so you don’t have to. Whenever a page on changes, we’ll let you know — via E-mail, Twitter, or RSS.

  • Brian sez: This is my project, so I’m partial, but… It’s a simple concept with many interesting uses — as both a reporting tool, and as a publishing device. Plus, it’s free and dead-easy to set up your own.
  • Joe sez: Tools like this protect us from the risk of information going down the “memory hole.”



Some senators like to filibuster and keep the majority from having their way. You might think they’re heroes. Or jackasses. Either way, they’re worth keeping track of.

  • Brian sez: It’s tightly focused site that does a great job explaining an issue that most folks don’t understand.
  • Joe sez: This one was a winner in Sunlight’s Apps for America contest. It would be easy for us to tap into the same data about legislators, bills, and votes that feed this one.

Represent and Repsheet


RepSheet lets you…

  • look up your elected representatives…
  • see the political zones you live in…
  • and track news about your reps.

  • Brian sez: The Times’ Represent and Windy Citizen’s loving rip-off, Repsheet, are, like Filibusted, tightly focused and explain something most folks don’t understand — in this case, the overlapping districts of representation. And they give you an easy way to follow news on what your reps are up to. Kinda hard to believe how difficult this was before, eh?
  • Joe sez: With the amount of information on the web, we need more tools like these that help people focus on what matters most to them.

Investigate your MP’s expenses

Investigate your MP's expenses

Join us in digging through the documents of MPs’ expenses to identify individual claims, or documents that you think merit further investigation. You can work through your own MP’s expenses, or just hit the button below to start reviewing.

  • Brian sez: How would *you* search through a half million pages? And the UI is wonderfully simple.
  • Joe sez: This app does a great job of keeping on the story while it’s current. Its release is an attention-grabber and can help the Guardian investigate the data even if the public’s participation is minimal or inaccurate. This Nieman Labs article provides some good lessons learned from Simon Willison, the application developer.

Many Eyes: Word tree and US Gov’t Expenses chart

Many Eyes: Word tree

Many Eyes is a bet on the power of human visual intelligence to find patterns. Our goal is to “democratize” visualization and to enable a new social kind of data analysis.

  • Brian sez: Many Eyes is a fun kit of visualization tools that are easy for anyone to populate with data and embed in a story. They’ve got maps, charts, word trees and all sorts of other neat toys to play with.
  • Joe sez: Not only are these tools a great way to provide basic data visualization, but most of them also provide readers with the ability to explore different views of the data.

Names, Lists, Photos, Stories – California’s War Dead

Names, Lists, Photos, Stories - California’s War Dead

Military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001-Present

  • Brian sez: It’s a simple application that uses data to tell a story from many angles. If you’re a parent, maybe you want to see how many kids the soldiers had, or maybe you want to explore based on where they were from. Simple, but powerful stuff.
  • Joe sez: By collecting information about all of the dead, the Times creates a richer story center around which they can also aggregate their original coverage.

Know thy Congressman

Know thy Congressman

“KTC” is a bookmarklet that displays an abundance of political and biographical information about current members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

  • Brian sez: It’s a totally novel tool, a great use of public data, and incredibly useful. Plus, they probably coded it in a weekend. Love it in every way.
  • Joe sez: Another great example of how the web makes it so much more possible to provide background and context for stories.

Watching the Growth of Walmart Across America

Watching the Growth of Walmart Across America

Yesterday I quickly put together my own Walmart growth video using Modest Maps. It has the usual mapping features – panning and zooming – while you watch Walmart spread like wildfire. It starts out slow with the first location in Arkansas in 1962 and then spreads vast in a hurry.

  • Brian sez: Eye candy, for sure, but damn tasty eye candy.
  • Joe sez: Visualization across space and time tells parts of the story better than words possibly could.

Making no little plans: The Windy Citizen’s Brad Flora

Combine many sleepless nights, a killer open source platform, and one very ambitious young journalist, and you just might get a kick-ass news site like The Windy Citizen. Brad Flora took the leap from graduate student to publisher when he started the acclaimed Chicago news site The Methods Reporter while still in school. Now he’s going beyond the straight news format and is building a community to foster “A conversation about Chicago.”

His efforts have been written about in the Chicago Tribune, blogged on by McGuire on Media, and picked up on Romenesko. Brad and I sat down for a beer this Monday and talked about his plans.

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Boyer: Chicago’s got a a mess of web sites, from those put up by newspapers and television stations, to indie web outlets and arty zines. The founder, coder and editor in chief of The Windy Citizen, Chicago’s newest news source, is a fella named Brad Flora. Flora’s concept is different. He is creating the sort of democratic, open news organization that could only exist online. He joined me for a beer on a fine and sunny afternoon in Old Town to talk shop.

Flora: The idea is to kind of run the Windy Citizen as a blog network with a news organization resting on top of it. And so the idea is to reach out to and recruit and gather together as many interesting, thoughtful voices here in Chicago — people who want to write about local issues, local ideas, local stuff, and to kind of gather them together in one place, writing on our site, and then to use them to kind of provide interesting, colorful coverage of local news events, by also kind of feeding in freelancers in kind of a distributed news network on top of it.

Boyer: In his vision, the Citizen is much more than an aggregator of blogs, it’s a place for news gatherers to, well, gather and do what they do best, to write stories about their city.

Flora: And we’re building a platform, rather than a newspaper, or rather than a magazine. You know, for instance, on Thursday, I got an email out of the blue with a pretty, a pretty hot tip. And I made some phone calls, to kind of look into it, and verify that this might be an interesting story. I kind of went through my rolodex of underemployed, hungry journalists in Chicago, and I assembled a strike team of people who are each now working on a piece of the story, for free, but in the hopes of, and in the interest, and in the love of reporting out a really awesome story. And it’s the kind of thing that, at the jobs that they’re able to get right now they might not get a crack at this kind of story, because it would go to the old guys, or the old women in the news room.

Boyer: There’s no shortage of young, hungry journalists in Chicago, and among them, Flora’s idea is catching on.

Flora: We have the benefit of it being kind of a contageous concept: This idea of you know, hey, if you want to write, now there is a place for you to go and write about local stuff, and you’ll be in a conversation with other people who are writing about local stuff. And you know, so far, people have responded really well to that.

Boyer: Beyond his rolodex, Flora’s trying to reach a new set of news gatherers, to borrow Dan Gillmor’s term, the former audience. He envisions the community writing the news outside of the newsroom — in groups and forums made available to Chicagoans so that they may organize themselves, and gather and spread the word — a sort of open source journalism. The experiment is how to make that work.

Flora: Yes. Yeah. There’s now, there’s an element of this that I still don’t understand, and don’t have a firm grasp on is, you know, what do you do when you get that tip? You know, if we were really open source, I’d publish that tip, and then I’d say, hey, you guys do what you want with it. And so, we’re still kind of feeling that out. And there may, you know, we’ve been talking with this story, we’re gonna, our plan is to have a couple days of coverage on it, and the first day is gonna be the story. Day two is gonna be video interviews with the main characters in the story. And then, day three is gonna be kind of looking at one of the side issues of the story, and how it impacts people here in Chicago. But then after that, I think, you know, we’re probably gonna toss up a blog post and say here’s what we don’t know. And then promote that pretty heavily to local bloggers and local writers and journalists even, and just see what people do with it.

UPDATE: I botched the spelling of Romenesko.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure — I am not affiliated with the Windy Citizen, though they have published my writing via the Medill News Service, and I have on occasion given Brad technical help, without compensation, since we’re both newsy nerds from Northwestern.