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Working with coders to maximise readership

Bringing coders and journalists together is one of the big issues in newsrooms today, causing many journalists to think about how much coding knowledge they should invest in.

The problem is that coding is an enormous subject that many of us simply don’t have time for. It requires thousands of hours of hard work and dedication. For this reason having coders work alongside journalists in the newsroom will always be the best solution: having experts next you in the office is the most effective way of learning on the go.

Last January I attended Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired event where one discussion generated particular interest amongst attendees. Cynthia O’Murchu from the FT described how they used developers to create infographics on a piece entitled ‘Oil and Gas Executives: Are they worth it?’.

Taking complex data like this and turning it into easily understood visual information, otherwise known as data mashing, is the practice for which today’s journalist will most likely be required to delve into design and coding. So as well as the ability to write and communicate, journalists are going to have to acquire a certain flair for design and some practical technical understanding, even if we don’t turn into full blown coders ourselves. So where is a good place to start?

3i = Immersive, Interactive, Intuitive

These are three words we hear a lot working in technology journalism: immersive, interactive and intuitive. They represent areas in which journalists will do well to excel, especially given the imminent arrival of the iPad and other tablet computers. Touchscreen computing creates a childlike desire to delve into a webpage and explore information like never before, and it will be the publishers producing the right kind of content that will have the heavy traffic.

The general election has been great for this kind of rich content. For the first time we’ve all been able to interact with that famous swingometer on the BBC’s website, while live blogging appeared to be firing on all cylinders during the hung parliament negotiations.

Working with designers and coders to create these apps is great if you have the budget, but obviously we don’t all work for the Guardian or the BBC. So getting some basic understanding of how to go about doing these things is going to be a good career move for many journalists.

From a design perspective, Adobe Fireworks is a great image and graphics software programme. It is perfect for beginners looking to start creating their own basic infographics. Similar to Photoshop, but smaller and more instinctive, it is useful for creating web optimised visual data in both vector and bitmap formats.

Have a look at this infographic from the Guardian on MPs expenses for an idea of what you can aspire to.

Code breaking

Stepping up to the next level and actually developing your own web applications gives you a problem experienced by every newbie developer starting out today: which languages do you learn first?

The good news in that most web development languages today share similarities, so tackle one and you’re going to find the next one much easier. It’s a bit like learning European languages; the more you understand the easier it becomes to make relevant connections.

HTML and CSS are your basic starting points, giving you colours and structure. If you want things to start sliding across the screen and getting interactive then J-Query and PHP (the web’s top scripting language) are the next ones to move onto.

As for getting your content on mobile phones, that is a whole other ball game.

John Hillman is the editor of PC Site which reviews and compares laptops and software. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnjHillman. Read his first post for the Journalism.co.uk editors’ blog at this link.

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#DataJourn part 2: Q&A with ‘data juggler’ Tony Hirst

As explained in part one of today’s #datajourn conversation, Tony Hirst is the ‘data juggler’ (as titled by Guardian tech editor Charles Arthur) behind some of the most interesting uses of the Guardian’s Open Platform (unless swear words are your thing – in which case check out Tom Hume’s work)

Journalism.co.uk sent OU academic, mashup artist and Isle of Wight resident, Tony Hirst, some questions over. Here are his very comprehensive answers.

What’s your primary interest in – and motivation for – playing with the Guardian’s Open Platform?
TH: Open Platform is a combination of two things – the Guardian API, and the Guardian Data store. My interest in the API is twofold: first, at the technical level, does it play nicely with ‘mashup tools’ such as yahoo pipes, Google spreadsheet’s =importXML formula, and so on; secondly, what sort of content does it expose that might support a ‘news and learning’ mashup site where we can automatically pull in related open educational resources around a news story to help people learn more about the issues involved with that story?

One of the things I’ve been idling about lately is what a ‘university API’ might look at, so the architecture of the Guardian API, and in particular the way the URIs that call on the API, are structured is of interest in that regard (along with other APIs, such as the New York Times’ APIs, the BBC programmes’ API, and so on).

The data blog resources – which are currently being posted on Google spreadsheets – are a handy source of data in a convenient form that I can use to try out various ‘mashup recipes’. I’m not so interested in the data as is, more in the ways in which it can be combined with other data sets (for example, in Dabble DB) and or displayed using third party visualisation tools. What inspires me is trying to find ‘mashup patterns’ that other people can use with other data sets. I’ve written several blog posts showing how to pull data from Google spreadsheets in IBM’s Many Eyes Wikified visualisation tool: it’d be great if other people realised they could use a similar approach to visualise sets of data I haven’t looked at.

Playing with the actual data also turns up practical ‘issues’ about how easy it is to create mashups with public data. For example, one silly niggle I had with the MPs’ expenses data was that pound signs appeared in many of the data cells, which meant that Many Eyes Wikified, for example, couldn’t read the amounts as numbers, and so couldn’t chart them. (In fact, I don’t think it likes pound signs at all because of the character encoding!) Which meant I had to clean the data, which introduced another step in the chain where errors could be introduced, and which also raised the barrier to entry for people wanting to use the data directly from the data store spreadsheet. If I can help find some of the obstacles to effective data reuse, then maybe I can help people publish their data in way that makes it easier for other people to reuse (including myself!).

Do you feel content with the way journalists present data in news stories, or could we learn from developers and designers?
TH: There’s a problem here in that journalists have to present stories that are: a) subject to space and layout considerations beyond their control; and b) suited to their audience. Just publishing tabulated data is good in the sense that it provides the reader with evidence for claims made in a story (as well as potentially allowing other people to interrogate the data and maybe look for other interpretations of it), but I suspect is meaningless, or at least of no real interest, to most people. For large data sets, you wouldn’t want to publish them within a story anyway.

An important thing to remember about data is that it can be used to tell stories, and that it may hide a great many patterns. Some of these patterns are self-evident if the data is visualised appropriately. ‘Geo-data’ is a fine example of this. It’s natural home is on a map (as long as the geo-coding works properly, that is (i.e. the mapping from location names, for example, to latitude/longitude co-ordinates than can be plotted on a map).

Finding ways of visualising and interacting data is getting easier all the time. I try to find mashup patterns that don’t require much, if any, writing of computer programme code, and so in theory should be accessible to many non-developers. But it’s a confidence thing: and at the moment, I suspect that it is the developers who are more likely to feel confident taking data from one source, putting it into an application, and then providing the user with a simple user interface that they can ‘just use’.

You mentioned about ‘lowering barriers to entry’ – what do you mean by that, and how is it useful?

TH: Do you write SQL code to query databases? Do you write PHP code parse RSS feeds and filter out items of interest? Are you happy writing Javascript to parse a JSON feed, or would rather use XMLHTTPRequest and a server side proxy to pull in an XML feed into a web page and get around the domain security model?

Probably none of the above.

On the other hand, could you copy and paste a URL to a data set into a ‘fetch’ block in a Yahoo pipe, identify which data element related to a place name so that you could geocode the data, and then take the URL of the data coming out from the pipe and paste it into the Google maps search box to get a map based view of your data? Possibly…

Or how about taking a spreadsheet URL, pasting it into Many Eyes Wikified, choosing the chart type you wanted based on icons depicting those chart types, and then selecting the data elements you wanted to plot on each axis from a drop down menu? Probably…

What kind of recognition/reward would you like for helping a journalist produce a news story?
TH: A mention for my employer, The Open University, and a link to my personal blog, OUseful.info. If I’d written a ‘How To’ explanation describing how a mashup or visualisation was put together, a link to that would be nice too. And if I ever met the journalist concerned, a coffee would be appreciated! I also find it valuable knowing what sorts of things journalists would like to be able to do with the technology that they can’t work out how to do. This can feed into our course development process, identifying the skills requirements that are out there, and then potentially servicing those needs through our course provision. There’s also the potential for us to offer consultancy services to journalists too, producing tools and visualisations as part of a commercial agreement.

One of the things my department is looking at at the moment is a revamped website. it’s a possibility that I’ll start posting stories there about any news related mashups I put together, and if that is the case, then links to that content would be appropriate. This isn’t too unlike the relationship we have with the BBC, where we co-produce televlsion and radio programmes and get links back to supporting content on OU websites from BBC website, as well as programme credits. For example, I help pull together the website around the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet, which we co-produce every so often. which gets a link from the World Service website (as well as the programme’s Facebook group!), and the OU gets a mention in the closing credits. The rationale behind this approach is getting traffic to OU sites, of course, where we can then start to try to persuade people to sign up for related courses!

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@FootyTweets saga: The ‘cease and desist’ emails in full

April 8th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Legal, Social media and blogging

For a full explanation of the following emails, see ‘FootyTweets’ use of fixtures info breached copyright, says firm representing UK professional football leagues,’ on the Journalism.co.uk main site, which reports how the sport fansite FootyTweets and its Twitter feed will no longer use club logos or include live match updates, after receiving a cease and desist letter on behalf of the company which handles match report licences for the four professional UK football leagues.

Here are the emails from NetResult, on behalf of Football DataCo, sent to FootyTweets’ Ollie Parsley, asking him to change the way he used information and images for his site and Twitter feed:

Dear Sirs,

DataCo_NBCAD_25050

We write on behalf of the Football Data Co Limited which is the appointed licensee of the FA Premier League, the Football League, the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League (“the Leagues”) in respect of the licensing of certain intellectual property rights of the Leagues, including UK Club Crests, for use by third parties. We have noticed that your website http://footytweets.com/ is displaying UK Club Crests without permission.

We wish to make you aware that we have a good faith belief that your present use is an infringement of the Leagues’ legal rights and that all such unauthorised use must cease immediately. Please confirm by return your agreement to this and give your undertaking to cease all such infringements on any and all of your web sites. Pending your response the Leagues’ rights are fully reserved. We thank you for your cooperation.

Yours sincerely,
Philip Stubbs
NetResult A Division of Projector NetResult Ltd Broadway House,
2-6 Fulham Broadway,
London,
SW6 1AA

Another email:

Hi Ollie,

Thanks for your reply. You can find our website at the following address

http://www.nr-online.com/

http://www.nr-online.com/clients.php

and we are also mentioned on the football dataco website at the following addresses (Football dataco license live data, fixtures and work on behalf of the UK leagues to protect their rights, NetResult helps protect these rights)

http://www.football-dataco.com/

http://www.football-dataco.com/partners.htm

I did send formal cease and desist emails to the addresses supplied on your footytweet site and the address in your DNS lookup, i can reforward these on to you tomorrow if you wish.

The logo and league crest content covers all UK domestic leagues. In order to use these you will need to contact the League and each club in question and ask for their permission to use the logos. All content will need to be removed until permission is granted.

Your site was actually bought to our attention by several clubs who are not happy their rights are being used unorthorised and have asked us to contact you to get this content removed.

Also, if you had planned to update scores during matches or add fixtures to your tweets you will need to purchase a license from Football DataCo that allows you to use this content.

If you have any further questions please do ask.

Kind Regards

Philip Stubbs

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Personal comments detract from original MMR / LBC debate

Jeni Barnett, the LBC radio presenter at the centre of the Goldacre/LBC case, has received ‘hundreds of extremely personal and abusive comments,’ her agent, Robert Common, confirmed to Journalism.co.uk today.

“[The comments] do not address the debate about the use of MMR and that is the reason for taking the comments off Jeni’s website,” Common said.

As Journalism.co.uk reported yesterday, support for Goldacre’s complaint against LBC had gathered fast, with high-profile figures such as Stephen Fry lending support to Goldacre. However, as Ben Goldacre has now made clear in a new blog post he does not want people to direct abuse at Jeni Barnett in such a personal manner.

“Do not send Jeni abusive emails, it’s not nice or helpful,” Goldacre wrote on his site, after being contacted by the programme director at LBC.

“I am sorry if people have sent unpleasant emails. I would want no part in that (…),” Goldacre said in a reply to the programme director.

The incident comes after a timely piece published by MediaGuardian on Monday, which looks at what happens when journalists face personal online attack.

Barnett’s agent, Robert Common, told Journalism.co.uk that he has “personally been very shocked at the hurtful level of criticism and and its very personal and threatening nature. LBC have aired the MMR debate several times in the last four weeks on other presenters’ shows where the debate has been continued.

“Jeni would never wish to restrict discussion on this topic or indeed any other, however, when that debate encourages threats and abuse it is impossible to do so and I have advised [her] not to continue to make any further comments,” Common said.

Update to post #1, 12/02/2009: In response to questions and issues raised in comments below this post Journalism.co.uk asked Robert Common what he meant by ‘comments’, since it has been suggested that the original comments on Barnett’s blog were not personal or abusive (e.g Andy / John ED’s comments below). Robert Common, Jeni Barnett’s agent, told Journalism.co.uk: “The comments/emails [to which he previously referred] are the ones that have been unpublished.”

Update #2, 12/02/2009: Journalism.co.uk took the additional questions raised in the comments below this post to Robert Common:

  • Why was it decided to delete inoffensive comments (as re-published by various blogs)? Will there be a way in which people can raise (inoffensive/non-personal) complaints and comments with Barnett, or will she maintain this silence, which could be said to fuelling the outrage further? It has been alleged that you have deleted blog posts as well as comments: is this true? People feel that ‘primary sources’ (such as the originally published comments and blog posts) shouldn’t just be deleted. If they are (legal reasons etc.), it should be explained why. Do you have a comment policy [for Barnett's blog]?

Robert Common told Journalism.co.uk that he would not be making any further comment. However, he said that if commenters have specific, non-personal and non-abusive, questions or points to raise with Jeni Barnett they could email him via talent at rcmgmt.co.uk.

Update in response to comments, 12/02/2009:

[Judith Townend, comment] Thanks for all your input. I’m extremely disappointed that many commenters think Journalism.co.uk has been unbalanced in its reporting. Perhaps I should have made it clearer in the original post (though content was linked) that since Friday I have run three articles based mainly on two lengthy interviews with Ben Goldacre, which I will provide links for at the bottom of this update, including a 30 minute audio interview, in which Goldacre explains the background of the case, as well as broader issues in science journalism.

Given that Barnett had removed the comment facility on her blog I thought it was important to put the many questions being raised around the web to LBC and Barnett’s agent – for example in the posts and comments at Holford Watch and Quackometer. LBC did not want to make an on-the-record comment. Robert Common eventually agreed to make this statement on the record although said that Jeni Barnett will not make further comment herself. All I have done is report what Common said to me – and that by no means endorses or tries to prove his claim. When I do occasionally provide my own opinion on issues via this blog, or our main site, I try to make that clear. This piece was simply reporting a quote given to me.

I can do my best as a reporter to put questions to the relevant parties but it will be very difficult to find out and clarify how many or what kind of comments were submitted as we don’t have access to any unapproved comments or the emails sent to Barnett. I have contacted Common with your questions about the comments: the challenge that the original comments (now deleted) were not personal and abusive, and to clarify the distinction between emails and blog comments. I will report back here with further information, if received. Any further suggestions please don’t hesitate to leave them below. Also, if you don’t see your comments immediately appear it’s because we have a pre-moderation system, but the majority of comments will be approved as long as they don’t present any legal issues. Also, you can subscribe to new comments on this post by checking the tick box.

LINKS:
10/02/09 – Goldacre’s law: the Bad Science ‘nerd’ talks to Journalism.co.uk (with audio) http://www.journalism.co.uk/5/articles/533461.php

10/02/09 -Online support for Goldacre gathers pace http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/2009/02/10/online-support-for-goldacre-gathers-pace/

06/02/09 – Goldacre on the ‘intellectual property absolutists’ – LBC’s legal warning http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/2009/02/06/goldacre-on-the-intellectual-property/

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J.co.uk: Murdoch dismayed by the amount of celebrity coverage in The Sun, claims its editor

January 16th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Online Journalism

We’ve run this news story on the main site:

http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/530935.php

We’ve also run a further, related piece:

Internet ‘significant in 14 or 15 years time’ until then the paper makes the money, claims Sun editor 

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Christmas multimedia competition

Journalism.co.uk is running a multimedia reporting contest with fabulous prizes, have a look over on the news pages for details:

http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/530865.php

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