“There’s no more powerful force in modern society than the news. It shapes how we see the world, what we judge to be good or bad, important or silly, right or wrong.”
~ Alain de Botton, “Have you Heard the News?” Psychologies, 4/2014
In the April 2014 issue of Psychologies Magazine, Alain de Botton’s interview discusses his new book The News: A User’s Manual, and his philosophical reading of the news as trending toward more personal, more philosophically predictable. It’s perhaps significant that I’m reading this article in an airport news stand out of a pop magazine, rather than reading his book. More on this trend in abbreviated news ingest later…but for now, his points about our pot-boiler appetite for the news does well to introduce some of my recent professional happenings, perspectives on crowd-driven data journalism, and particular perspective on crowd-data programs in Africa.
In Nairobi, while the news has been of late focused on other topics, the last two weeks of my workflow concentrated on two conferences, a IDLELO: FOSS conference and a Global Innovation Competition for citizen-driven government initiatives; they share crowdsourcing and open journalism as themes. I had the pleasure of speaking at the IDLELO-06 conference, supporting Ms. Angela Odour’s talk on Ushahidi prior to preparing my own with James Raterno and Daniel Cheseret of Internews-KE. Of the few journalism organizations presenting, we applied the free-and-open-source-software (FOSS) theme to investigative news reporting and interactive political commentary. Our talk was a case study in health projects, demoing three interactive news stories from this past year at Internews-Kenya. Each interactive delved into some aspect of health monitoring in Kenya, spanning a spectrum of topics from medical services availability to mapping the outposts and effects of extractive industry across the country. While the details and data behind these stories are important and interesting, the presentation in each case was paramount; TL;DR the realities of healthcare and economic/industrial health of the nation were best communicated via interactive charts, and Internews’ series of Data Dredger infographics. The refrain of this and de Botton’s Psychologies perspective persists: attractive and interactive stories, stories that engage with personal, psychological topics, stories that illustrate rather than allude to data are driving our journalism programs and our teams.
And part of that means democratizing the newsroom to a broader population of citizen journalists and crowdsourced contributors, part of this also means broadening our view of where data journalism trendsetting is happening in our world, but to persist on these points, let’s move off the African continent briefly. Among the most popular articles in the NY Times last year were approachable, interactive pieces; it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the appetite for news often bends to people’s visceral interests, regional perspectives and even “popular biases” as de Botton suggests in his Psychologies interview. Likewise, the Guardian’s 2013 popular titles for most popular articles (among Snowden and the Boston bombing coverage) include the following:
- Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?
3.2m page views, 1,263 comments
- Michael Douglas: Oral sex caused my cancer
2.0m page views
- Royal baby: Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to a boy – live
1.5m page views
This is not to suggest that the most popular news publications follow predominantly potboiler subject lines, but rather to note that there is a persistent appetite for pop culture throughout all news sources and dissemination platforms, irrespective of reputation. Mixed in with the seriousness and severity of crises worldwide, the presence of pop culture news commands significant attention; perhaps reflecting an appetite for popular and approachable media. When de Botton claims that “the ideal news would take into account people’s natural inclinations…it wouldn’t start with the wise, good, or serious outlooks,” I thought the judgement was a bit unfair and dismissive of journalism’s future, but maybe, on reflection, not so removed from reality in journalism’s present (Psychologies Magazine, 54).
This media appetite is agnostic to journalism hierarchies, persistently attracted to personalized stories, that show how one girl lives in NYC projects, or how a population’s accent differs according to regional divisions. We crave a personalized experience with the news even in the most distinguished publications, we crave a flat structure of open contribution, where the stories are interactive, where we can comment publicly in the thread following each post, where the content is sometimes crowdsourced, and the platforms are participatory. Our appetite for pop culture parallels publication output. In a digital media landscape where everyone from Buzzfeed to Fbook to O.K. Cupid have a data science team, our population of increasingly connected readers is interested in the personalized analytics of their networks, in the data science that drives our personal lives and pop culture as much as our professional publication platforms, and sometimes, in how all of these data fuse.
One way to adapt to this is to invite more contributors into the news reporting community from the reported community; to flatten the reporting structure, to amplify the data-driven projects that drive the page view counts often used to index our community impact. Promoting “popular” media isn’t just about echoing celebrity gossip and simplified story-lines but rather developing a sensitive authoring practice, crafting stories that readers can identify and interact with, and this trend is carrying into bootstrapped newsrooms across the African continent and throughout the world. In supplement to interviews, we crowdsource data collection in the way of Ushahidi, instead of lone-wolf work of an re-located investigative journalist, we train teams of indigenous journalists to report on their own local communities in the way of Internews. I’m privileged to work with organizations actively contributing to this type of globalized citizen journalism and crowd-reporting, likewise privileged to work with journalists when I am at best an “outsider-[FOSS]-artist.”
This is not new science of course, most established papers have a data teams these days, and it’s not uncommon for teams of developer-journalists to collaborate on investigative pieces, but to recognize the trends as reflective of an interest in crowd-driven projects, and citizen-journalism engagement globally is perhaps important and worth considering as we re-evaluate where journalism is, and where it is going.
Crowd-sourcing information, crowd-funding and crowd-feedback loops in the journalism community are more popular, and not just in the USA. Analytics permit us to track what our crowd of readers actually reads (or at least what they click on), to adapt our stories and investigative practice to suit those interests. Though we still have a rockstar reporter hall-of-fame that celebrates individuals and their contributions to the industry, with data-driven projects, we can now appreciate more than ever, that often, and maybe always, the byline includes a team, a small crowd of developers-journalists-researchers working on a comprehensive and data-informed investigation.
“I doubt if it makes much difference, frankly, but at the margin I think that we’re moving to a kind of journalism that is more casual, more informal, more personal, and a very formal byline seems as out of place as a three-piece suit in the newsroom.”
~ Nicholas Kristof, “What’s Missing in my Byline,” New York Times: Opinion Pages, 1/2014
And this isn’t only happening at the New York Times or The Economist, it’s happening in Africa too. This brings me to the second conference happening of the past two weeks of work. At this week’s Global Innovation Challenge week in Nairobi, we’ve been working with teams of selected delegates from 10 countries around the world, teams who are working to connect their citizens more directly with their governments and foster policy change through open data. This type of effort can read as a quixotic ambition, but with developer and data-driven programs, it is possible.
Further, it’s noteworthy that all of the delegates are paired teams, not-lone crusaders, these efforts are built on partnerships between multiple contributors (developers, political activists) and multiple institutions, on crowd-driven programs meant to collect a maximum of opinion and surface a population of opinions from a representative sample of constituents. Supported by Ushahidi and hosted by iHub, this week of conference talks, pitches and programs is designed to foster more crowd and community driven data reporting across the globe, and model the crowd-centric trends so observable in our increasingly personalized and popular media.
Crowd-driven journalism and FOSS initiatives have in one respect opened the community to a broader population of self-taught developers and scrappy reporters, and also broadened the potential for citizen-sourced, -funded, -voted journalism projects. The crowd will doubtless drive even more data projects in the future, and craft a more personalized and popular media with a global scope. Crowd + Africa doesn’t have to mean crisis mapping or violence, it can mean participatory reporting and progressive reform, it can mean a program of re:activism, or react-ivism, piloted by a crowd of programmers and a ragtag group of pirates and outsider journo-artists. We’re working to amplify the crowd, and data-driven newsrooms internationally, in keeping with up the [journalism] Joneses.
To that end, and in conclusion, I leave you with a link to our Ushahidi community survey, an effort on our part to make crowdsourcing a part of our own analytics and feature development workflow. Please fill it out so that we might improve our software and help other investigative journalists spin up custom instances of geo-local data collection all over the world:
HELP US OUT, FILL THIS OUT:
- Spoke @ IDLELO 2014 and mentoring presentations @ Global Innovation Challenge Week
- Working on a metrics dashboard for Ushahidi to track crowdsourced deployments worldwide and publicize citizen-driven implementations of our open software
- Developing election monitoring interactive analytics visualizations for an Ushahidi deployment and internationalized/translated charts for deployers in Yemen
- Working on LandQuest for submission to data journalism awards, post to go up Friday! Stay tuned!
- Camping in Kenya – Nairobi-based for the next month
- Check my fellowship repo for updates!
Images in this post courtesy of XKCD, IDLELO06, Global Innovation Competition, and FloatingSheep.org (African tweetmaps)