2014 Final Projects Roundup

On May 14, 2014, the Spring 2014 crop of the Future of News and Participatory Media class delivered their final project presentations. We (Ethan, Erhardt, and Catherine) liveblogged their talks. Here they are in presentation order:

  1. Aleszu Bajak & Caty Arevalo: Towards Digital Fluency in the Spanish Speaking Newsroom
  2. Ali Hashmi & Julia Belluz: Can we use Big Data to improve Health Journalism?
  3. Julia Gitis: SchoolsMap
  4. Jude Mwenda: Mapsense: Experiments in visualisation on a 3-dimensional space
  5. Alex Taylor & Elissar Harati: Behind the Expert Sources: Analyzing the diversity of expert contributions in news coverage
  6. William Li & Tammy Drummond: The long shadow of Boston’s gun homicides
  7. Mine Gencel Bek: Future of Journalism Education
  8. Nina Cabaero & Uri Blau: News Trustee Network
  9. Ravi Nessman: Expertpedia
  10. Dalia Othman: NetStory
  11. Jeff Young: Wearable Diaries Project
  12. Hiromi Onishi: Data Workshop for Children: let your kids consume news in smarter way
  13. Alexis Hope & Kevin Hu: FOLD
  14. Stephen Suen: The Newsgame Design Toolkit
  15. Katerina Voutsina: WBUR connecting with the local community

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Visualising Sensor data based on 3 dimensional spatial representation

This project has indeed been eye opening. The main thought behind doing this project, is to better understand the attention economy of maps and spatial based representation. Most maps being used within new rooms are 2 dimensional in nature. This project was to find use cased of three dimensional spatial representation. In all the project has been a success but more needs to be done in building tookits likely to make this simple in a news room. What would be the use case in a newsroom. Several journalists when providing a narrative use 3 dimensional representation of objects to explain certain events. A simple example is this flight disaster simulation.  I also see this as a great tool to tell a narrative around flood simulation. It could also be used for games where the three dimensional structures are created as scenes within the game allowing for an experience close to the actual physical space.


More and more technologies are being used in newsrooms to tell such stories. With the advent of data, and a society with access to data. This experiment was to find ways in which such visualisations could be employed.

Mapsense is a simple first draft to test the concept of three dimensional spatial representation. It can be accessed here. http://jmwenda.github.io/mapsense. The image below depicts the representation of MIT.

 MIT campus

One can zoom and pan the map in different ways. The data used to achieve this was Boston’s/Cambridge raster data collected in 2009. The height of the buildings was retrieved from the City of Cambridge, hence the heights of the buildings are in scale to one another. Data extracted from OSM was also used to provide as and act as the base map.

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Towards #DigitalFluency in the Spanish speaking newsroom (Caty&Aleszu)

Captura de pantalla 2014-05-14 a la(s) 10.51.22


We have designed a workshop to be put on in Spanish speaking newsrooms that will bring journalists and coders together to work on a multi-faceted storytelling project where the data visualization component complements the written or podcasted work.


We want to create a meeting point for Spanish speaking journalists seeking to improve the digital presentation of their stories but don’t know how with developers who want to establish a foothold in journalism.

With this workshop, journalists and coders will become more adept at using digital storytelling tools, have a chance to build something together that they both have a stake in, and see possibilities of what can be built.

The journalist will leave understanding which tools/techniques he/she can take back to the newsroom. Coders will leave with an expanded portfolio and a lesson in journalism.

Both journalists and coders will leave the workshop with a rolodex of contacts with whom to work on future projects.

Why in Spanish?

Because we think the Spanish speaking media still lacks the creation of a meeting point for journalists and developers. We think there are a lot of improvements to be made in digital fluency in these newsrooms, for media outlet websites to include digital storytelling tools. The major Spanish speaking media outlets have an antiquated web presence (e.g. New York’s El Diario, Peru’s El Comerio or Spain’s El Mundo).

We believe that the creation of a meeting point for developers and journalists will improve excellence in storytelling, spur media innovation and improve ways to reach a younger news consumer. Young Spanish speakers have increasing access to the Internet and journalists need to explore these digital avenues to attract news consumers of the future.

But we don’t only want to improve digital fluency in traditional media but also want to help the new wave of independent new media startups. There’s a surge of quality investigative journalists anxious to find new digital directions and meet developers to deploy those.

For whom?

(Five) Journalists hungry to complement their reporting with data visualization will each bring a story and a spreadsheet of their dataset that has been screened for ease-of-use by the organizing committee.

(Five) Coders with a keen interest in becoming a newsroom developer show their portfolio, bring ideas for what visualizations news outlets are missing and explain what kinds of projects they would like to work on.

Selection Criteria

The selection process is key. We are flying out, housing and feeding 5 journalists and 5 coders that are perfectly suited for a workshop where they’ll leave more fluent in digital storytelling tools.

For journalists: Minimum three years experience in journalism, three clips of previous work, a proposal for a visualization project, an organized dataset in spreadsheet form. Journalists working for mainstream media and new startups will have preference. A letter from an editor saying the visualization project will be considered for publication is a plus.

For coders: A portfolio of visualization work. A keen interest in working alongside journalists and possibly getting a job in a newsroom.


We are going to put into action our final project at a workshop we organized with Matt Carroll this Sunday at the MIT Media Lab. Please, join!

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Wearable Diaries Project

Project in a Nutshell
I’m working to produce a series of multimedia diaries that take advantage of wearable technology. The core of the project is the creation of an app for Google Glass that automatically interviews the wearer throughout the day by displaying questions and recording the answers. The app will also occasionally grab video footage as b-roll. The idea is that these video profiles will provide a unique view into people’s lives by capturing moments that might not be otherwise documented and present stories through a person’s eyes.

Progress so Far
I teamed up with Scott Greenwald, a doctoral student here at the Media Lab, and we (mostly Scott) built a prototype app that recorded 10 seconds of video every few minutes (I experimented with different intervals — usually setting it for between 5 and 10 minutes). He coded the app in Wearscript, a system designed by Greenwald and some colleagues to make it easy to quickly prototype Glass apps. The result was buggy, but it let us test the concept.

Primavera’s Biohack Project
Using the app, Primavera wore Glass during three different days as she worked on an art project she is doing called Tree of Knowledge, which involves bioluminescent algae. The idea was to document the project and her vision of it using the POV perspective. Here’s the edited version, with a voice-over interview we recorded later:


I think this video was somewhat successful, but the biggest problem was we missed key moments of action. After running tests using this storytelling approach with the initial app, we learned that taking video every few minutes is too random, and we believed we could find a better way to decide when to turn on recording. I proposed linking the app to the wearer’s Google Calendar. Then we could try to set the app to prompt users with questions a few minutes before each calendar event (while they were likely on their way) and in the middle of events to hopefully get a representative sample of daily activities. Not everyone uses Google Calendar, of course, but the idea would be that I would sit down with the subject the day before they were going to record and help them fill in a Google Calendar with what they expected to do on the day of recording — that way we’re using Google Calendar to custom-program the Wearable Diaries app for each story subject.

We didn’t have time to actually build the prototype app that used this approach. Instead, I simulated it by just asking a fellow student (thanks Leslie!) to manually record moments throughout her day using this rough approach. I also texted her a few questions and reminders throughout the day (using a cell phone rather than Glass itself) to try some prompts that we might program into the app when we do build it.

Leslie’s Wearable Diary
Leslie wore Glass for a day and recorded about 75 short clips (most of them 10 seconds each but some of them longer), for a total of about 17 minutes of footage. I sent her 9 texts throughout the day, roughly one per hour, with prompts such as “Record the next conversation you have,” or “grab 30 seconds of whatever you see.” Leslie did most of the recording herself, though, making sure to get a little video from each activity. I edited the video down to three and a half minutes, with most clips running about 7 seconds each (so that the style is like a series of Twitter Vine videos strung together). Here’s the result:


Leslie was a very good sport, but she reported challenges to wearing Google Glass. “It kind of felt like a chain around my neck,” she said. “It really felt like a collar. It creates this barrier between you and the world.” On the plus side, she said it did give her a different perspective on her day, and she thought the approach could be used for “creating empathy” for someone’s point of view. As she put it, “someone who has a real cause and they want the world to see things through their eyes.”

Important Lessons
1. Many people can’t — or won’t — wear Google Glass.
Several people refused to participate in this project. For instance, I met a street artist last year who I thought would be an ideal subject. I e-mailed him an invitation and made my best case for why he might want to participate. No reply. Then last week, I happened to run into him on the street near my apartment and asked him directly. He declined, saying that “it goes against everything I believe in as an artist,” and that it felt like I was trying to attach a tracking device to him. I told him I respected his decision and I didn’t push it. Two other people turned me down as well in protest of the approach.

So I decided to ask students in the class. Stephen was willing, but he wears eyeglasses, and the Google Glass would not fit comfortably over his specs. While Google now sells its device custom fit to regular eyeglasses, this is too expensive an approach to loan to a subject for a day to record a story.

2. Taking video footage at random is too invasive.
The original plan was to have the camera on Google Glass automatically kick on at various times throughout the day. Sources I’ve talked to about the idea have been most put off by this loss of control, even though I assured them that nothing would be published or shown to anyone else without their permission. As a result, one important function I now plan to add is an opt out before any video recording. In other words, when the app turns on, it will give the user the choice whether or not to record before it begins. That way the source can always opt out of a given prompt.

3. Google Glass too often becomes the story.
Perhaps this will fade in time, but if you wear Google Glass, people will stare, or ask you to try them, or start talking about their views on the technology, or all of the above. That makes it a challenge to try to record a typical day in the life — since on a typical day most of us do not wear a computer and camera and screen on our face. I anticipated that this would be a challenge, but it turned out to be a greater issue than I realized.

Next Steps

I think the approach of recording guided video diaries from a person’s POV perspective is still a promising idea. But Google Glass in its current form may not be the best tool to do it. It’s possible that a similar story could have been shot using a GoPro or other device. Or perhaps I just haven’t found the right story or subject yet. I did apply for a Knight Prototype Grant, so I’m eager to hear suggestions from this group in case I’m able to try to move this project forward.


News room staffs have shrunk by one-third over the past decade even as competition with leaner, more profitable Web sites has intensified. The remaining reporters are forced to produce more stories with less time to prepare for them.

Reporters increasingly find themselves working on stories on unfamiliar topics, leading to a real risk of errors, misleading stories or the type of pack journalism where everyone interviews the same source regardless of relevance or real expertise.

University PR departments and think tanks also prey on overworked reporters. The most aggressive ones pounce on major news stories, offering reporters interviews with their faculty, whether they are relevant or not to the actual story. Harried reporters feel time pressure to accept this.

My project, Expertpedia, aims to be a newsroom tool to help reporters quickly locate the most relevant experts on the needed topic.

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1. Users would input a search phrase on the site. Expertpedia would then input it into Google Scholar. The author of the first article to pop up, the most cited academic paper, would become the first person on our list.

2. That person’s name would then be rerun through Google Scholar along with the original search to call up all the relevant academic papers he/she has written on the topic.

3. The author’s name would then be run through a Google News search to come up with op-eds and analyses he/she may have written in the mainstream media.

4. The site would then trawl through university Websites to pull up contact information on the author.

5. There would also be space for the author’s to be rated by Expertpedia users based on their ability to explain their ideas well on TV, radio and in print.

Unnamed Mockup 2

Expertpedia is not a database that needs curating or updating, like some other Websites that aim to bring experts to journalists. But instead, it operates more like a search engine.

There are some problems here. One issue could be timeframe. A plane crash paper about engine failures in WWI era fighter planes might have more citations just because it’s been out longer than other ones. Also, some scientific papers could have more than a dozen authors.

Using Google news to get op-eds would only turn up current ones, not older, but still possibly relevant ones.

Also, how would we get contact information from people retired from academia? How does it deal with people with common names and would bad ratings for one academic accidentally tarnish another one? How do we prevent PR departments from gaming the ratings system?

And the searches initial Google Scholar searches are not always relevant. The fourth entry on the page of Plane Crash Experts is somehow Mercer Mayer, the author of such children’s books as ‘’Frog, Where are You?”

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Nonetheless, I am confident these hurdles could be overcome in development, leaving reporters with a valuable time-saving tool and the public with better, more relevant information.

Can we use Big Data to improve health reporting?

Our project:

Ali and I built a tool that uses Big Data to help journalists who report on health see how their coverage of a subject (ie., diabetes) stacks up next to what actually kills people and the related research dollars invested. The idea was that the tool could give journalists a sense of whether they are covering health issues that actually affect their readers and also whether there are topics with lots of research being done that they might be under-covering.

Using the tool:

As a health journalist, I was interested in trying out the tool and seeing whether it could give me a sense of missed opportunities in my reporting or ways to improve  coverage.

For this demo, we used New York Times and Wall Street Journal data. I looked at the 2011 visualization for the New York Times, and imagined I was a journalist working at that paper. I found that while heart disease kills a lot of Americans, I was hardly covering it. Meanwhile, I was dedicating a great deal of ink to Parkinson’s disease, even though relatively few Americans are afflicted. Similarly, few die by suicide, yet it received the maximum media attention at my paper, while accidents—which kill many more people—got hardly any coverage. Chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke are both major killers in America that attract a sizable amount of research funding, yet we barely reported on these health subjects.

These gaps between mortality and media attention left me with ideas about how I might be able to diversify and strengthen my health journalism. It allowed me to reflect on where my focus was, and where my blind spots might be. I’d think about doing stories on accidents and heart disease, for example, and looking into possibilities for reporting on COPD, which got no coverage.

Still, this is just a demo with a lot of room for improvement.

Future directions:

1) We want to use DALYs data instead of mortality as our population health measure. DALYs—disability-adjusted life years—are a measure of overall disease burden that measure the number of life years lost due to poor health. They include a range of factors such as smoking, diet, pollution, cancer, depression and asthma. So DALYs would encompass a broader scope of health and lifestyle issues than the mortality measure.

2) We want to add other media outlets from around the world to the tool, and create a feature that allows users to upload data from their own websites to see how they compare.

3) We need to improve our user interface so that the information is displayed on one screen and there is no need to scroll down.

4) We want to build our database so users can compare media attention over a longer period of time and see how their focus is shifting over the years.

5) We need to make sure we are comparing apples to apples. On almost every measure, the Wall Street Journal appeared to have almost zero coverage next to the New York Times and we need to explore why this is happening.

6) We included measures health researchers might be interested in. For example, the ratio of research investment to mortality in the population. We hope to work with health researchers to ensure our methodology is robust enough, and invite them to use our tool for their studies.