Spring 2015 Final Projects

This past Wednesday, students in the Spring 2015 Future of News and Participatory Media presented their final projects. Below are summaries of each project:

  1. “It Gets Smaller” – Léa Steinacker, Charles Kaioun, Gideon Gil, Luis Orozco, Melissa Bailey, Melissa Clark

Student debt is a serious problem: the average debt per student in the U.S. is $30,000. Léa explains the problems facing students who are looking at taking a loan: too much information dispersed across multiple sites; existing debt calculators are offered by for-profit platforms with questionable motivations; and people often feel isolated and alone in their quest to fund their education.

With It Gets Smaller, students can input the amount of debt they will have and what they are majoring in. Then, they are offered tools to help them see how the amount they will owe each month might change depending on different parameters. They also offer students a way to connect with other people who are facing similar debt circumstances.

It Gets Smaller helps journalists better understand student loan issues by connecting them with communities dealing with debt. They created two stories centered on how social workers deal with student loan debt.

The team plans to continue to keep It Gets Smaller online to see how it is used, and think about how this model could help journalists understand other complex topics.

  1. “Egg: a place for science stories to nest” – Sophie Chou

Sophie is a machine learning expert and a science buff. The goal of her project, Egg, is to portray science in a more human way.

People can submit artistic depictions of the research that they do on the Egg website. Egg structures the illustrations in a flipbook format. As an example, Sophie created a short storybook to explain Markov chains in language that is accessible to broad audiences. The goal of the tool is to present complex ideas in a simple, clear manner. One of her inspirations was the Boson & Higgs piece by The New York Times.

While Sophie created a prototype of how Egg might work as a platform, she is also exploring whether or not Egg works better as a format and a process for the translation of science, rather than a full publishing platform.

  1. “Backstories” – Celeste LeCompte, Liam Andrew, Sean Flynn

The backstories behind breaking news can be complex. For most of us, these stories can be incredibly difficult to understand them if you haven’t been following them. Fortunately – some smart people in television have been thinking about this problem: they’ve created the recap sequence. It helps you get up to speed on the facts so you can jump in to a new episode.

Sometimes you don’t want all the facts, though. Explainers in journalism are great because they are comprehensive, evergreen, and search-optimized, but they’re focused on seekers, difficult to make, and are quickly out of date in situations that are changing frequently. The team envisions a way that recap sequences could be quicker and more flexible in some scenarios. But how can you make recap sequences for news without having to create new content?

Backstories remixes structured data from previous stories (leveraging your archive) to create a new story, which is called backstory. Backstories videos are composed of headlines and key images from previous stories, and background music. The videos are automatically generated, but users can fine-tune the content to make it more coherent.

  1. “Memento” – Thariq Shihipar & Tomer Weller

Thariq and Tomer present Memento: a writing and research prosthesis. They begin by talking about how they are software developers, and in this class they had to become writers and give up their IDE (Integrated Development Environment). IDEs come with tools to help software engineers write code. Unfortunately, they had no such tool to help them while writing, so they decided to build an “IDE for writing.”

From talking with Matt and other journalists, they discovered people don’t actually write in a CMS – they use a separate app and copy and paste. They decided to create a tool that was separate from the web, but brought in elements from it to support the writing process. The interface juxtaposes writing with research content.

Memento is inspired by the movie of the same name – in the movie, the man forgets what he sees each day, and leaves himself notes to remember. In Memento the software, the writer can see his or her search history and notes to keep tabs on prior research. They can drag citations from the right into the writing area. The tool extracts information based on the content that they are writing and displays it in the research panel.

Memento brings them back to the feeling they get when they are coding – everything is right at their fingertips. Now they can feel that way when they are writing. Their goal is to tame the Internet – use it when they need it, but don’t let it get in the way. Ethan suggests that Thariq and Tomer explore what Memento might look like as a collaborative journalistic writing platform. Could it integrate with email or Slack?

  1. “WeCott” – Alicia Stewart, Amy Zhang, Giovana Girardi, Anna Nowogrodzki, Wahyu Dhyatmika

Welcome to the 21st century, Alicia says. Consumers are armed with information, and much of it is coming from journalists.

WeCott, which started as a hackathon project, is a social action platform for boycotts that allows people to create a petition of boycott or join existing petitions of boycotts. People can share their favorite alternatives and strategies; commit to a donation/funding amounts; get news updates on these issues; and see a real-time tracker of the boycotts. It’s a 21st century version of the boycott.

The central thesis of WeCott is that impactful journalism and empowered consumers are integral for action-based social change. Wahyu describes a successful boycott campaign against Procter & Gamble in 2013 (led by Greenpeace) that caused P&G to stop harvesting palm oil in a way that causes deforestation.

As a sample story for WeCott, they created a boycott campaign related to the recent NYTimes story about abusive labor practices in nail salons. Additionally, they wrote a story about the availability of gender neutral bathrooms – this story demonstrates an example of a “BuyCott” – giving readers an opportunity to support businesses engaging in positive actions.

  1. “Periodismo de Barrio” – Elaine Diaz

“Periodismo de Barrio”, in Spanish, means “Neighbourhood Journalism.” It’s a news media outlet for people that have been affected by a crisis. It’s primary audience is vulnerable communities that are impacted by a natural disaster, particularly those people who do not have access to a media outlet. The focus will be advocacy journalism. Transparency is the key for making it a viable project in Cuba.

The approach of Periodismo de Barrio is “paquete first” – paquetes are USB drives with information on them. This is how many people receive and consume media in Cuba now, not through web or mobile.

Periodismo de Barrio is a work in progress. Elaine started a Facebook group, a Twitter account, held a logo contest, received many job applications from people who want to help the effort, and conducted a survey in 3 provinces about media consumption in Cuba. After the class, she will work on trying to create partnerships, fundraising, and hiring a small team.

  1. “Urban Data Watch” – Pau Kung

Pau presents a tool for democratizing data-grounded hypotheses that lets users explore multiple data sets at once. It looks at data correlations and discovers insights using statistically meaningful methodologies. The hypotheses are classified in one of three categories: 1) negative correlation;  2) insignificant 3); and positive correlation. Only the positive and negative correlations stand out to help with high-level browsing.

There’s a wealth of data out there – it’s easy to get crime data and put it on a map, for example. When you just look at it, you can come to some naive conclusions. There can be a lot of spurious correlations. The methodology for Data Watch helps you test hypotheses by quickly exploring data.

Pau also built a mapping to show “news gaps” — when news coverage over- or under-focuses on crime in the area.

  1. “Why Screens Can Ruin Your Sleep” – Sarah Genner

Sarah used FOLD to write a story about how blue light can ruin your sleep. This story is a small part of her research about online connectivity.

She offers some feedback on the tool as part of her final project: for example, better explanations of Creative Commons licensing options.

Sarah asks “What is a good way to give feedback on a tool? What kind of feedback do developers expect and how would they like to receive it?” In the future, she plans to write a best practices guide for how to use a tool like FOLD for academic research.

  1. “Opening up the MIT Brown Book” – Austin Hess, Michael Greshko, Miguel Paz

Every year, MIT publishes its “Brown Book,” a summary of the contributions to and expenditures of the entire Institute. The team focused on creating an exploratory tool for the Brown Book and presenting it in a friendly format. This will make it easier for MIT users and people to explore the data on their own, and hopefully allow people to have an intelligent conversation about funding at MIT.

Each bubble shown on the chart is funding over 100K. They’ve included a glossary of acronyms and technical terminology – this can be a major barrier to people understanding the data. You can search by lab or PI. You can also discover funding inequality within departments – the information is gathered from a large set of PDFs.

  1. Phillip Gara – “Emergent.TV: Long Tail Internet TV News”

Phillip presents Emergent.TV, a concept for helping journalists and leaders of newsrooms think through how to develop content for the Internet tv revolution. Philip says this is poised to take off in the next three years. He argues that we won’t be watching channels, but something more like feeds, and that producers should be developing “long-tail content” that can be effectively matched to niche and specialized tastes. There’s endless supply – a backlog of stories – and incredible new recommendation tools. Can you use recommendation systems to get better use out of existing content?

With Emergent.TV, curators can collect and share a stream of stories. He shows an example about content that he has created related to immigration. These are videos that got a lot of views initially but then viewership dropped off and the videos sat unwatched.

This model lets you aggregate standalone videos across different outlets through curators, and lets newspapers potentially monetize archival content. With discovery tools, distinctive stories standout longer; in other words, their shelf-life will be longer.

  1. “Peanut Gallery” – Bianca Datta, Kitty Eisele, Vivian Diep

Comments are integral for content feedback and engagement. “Peanut Gallery” is a sentiment-based comments tool.

We know that people are really interested in commenting – take a look at the success of Reddit, for example. Reddit has some visual language for comments, but often people create their own. This served as the inspiration for Peanut Gallery. The team’s goal is to explore design choices that enable us to step back and remember the humanity behind the comments.

They created user profiles for people who interact with comments: lurkers, commenters, and publishers/authors. They were interested in how each group behaves, what they want to do, and what drives them.

The wireframes for Peanut Gallery show the team’s design explorations: sentiment analysis pared with visuals to quickly get a read on how people feel about the story. Comments are translated into aggregated data that is translated into output features for the tool–for instance, an audio soundscape to match with the comments based on sentiment analysis.

In the future, they want to work on more dynamic way of interacting with the comments.

  1. “GIFS for visual journalism” – Savannah Niles & Audrey Cerdan

Savannah has been working with GIFs for the past year with her thesis project Glyph, which is a tool for creating evocative, seamlessly looping GIFs. She and Audrey worked on a guide for best practices for using animated GIFs like these in visual journalism.

They first talk about the history of GIFs in journalism and then move on to describe different types of GIFs and how they are used. They talk about relevant design considerations for GIFs: Time, Emotion and Empathy, Attention, Authorship, and Trust. They include a tutorial for how to process GIFs from video in a way that creates a high-quality product in the end, and close with the tl;dr design recommendations.

The beta of Glyph will be available later this month.

Emergent.TV: Long Tail Internet TV News

Emergent.TV is an effort to help newsrooms develop coherent economic and editorial models for Over The Top Internet video news. Rather than simply replicating the live TV Cable news broadcasting structure on the Internet – which is the direction many newsrooms are heading in releasing their own subscription OTT channels – Emergent.TV presents a new way to think about producing, distributing, and selling Internet TV news.

Emergent.TV is a Long Tail Internet TV news model for a Black Swan world.

Long Tail

The Long Tail is both an economic and a cultural argument. It says that Internet distribution provides an “unlimited selection” of goods, which can cater to increasingly specific tastes. Internet aggregation and recommendation technologies – ranging from abstract clustering algorithms to curation over social networks, from Google and Flipboard to Facebook and Twitter – provide valuable connections between an “unlimited” supply and unique audience tastes.Kims video Authors like Chris Anderson argue that a more diverse culture will emerge over the Internet when compared to the mass broadcasting era. Rather than aggregating towards the mean, or middle ground demographic, you can reach diverse audiences with distinctive stories. Think of the rise of “time shifted” independent home video stores in the 80’s and 90’s being recreated – but this time add in the power to hold any title and reach any audience instantaneously with near-zero distribution costs.  This is Long Tail 101 – which may or may not be news to you.

Social Network

However, The Long Tail is also a statistical theory, which may hold special relevance for newsrooms looking to keep up with the increasingly complex events of the 21st century. As  Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black Swan, the most disruptive events exist outside of normal bell curve distributions and in a long “fat tail” power law distribution. A small highly connected event can be more impactful that a large, less connected one. This event could be a disruption in normal world affairs – 9/11, The Arab Spring or the bundling together of climate change effects and complex critical infrastructure systems. It could also mean the rise of new “Superstar” stories and cultural producers.


(Image: Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, “Linked: The New Science of Networks”)

The difficulty lies in predicting these unlikely events or hits before the fact rather than after. According to Black Swan theory, the key factor is that the event is unexpected – highly random, difficult to predict, and not easily modeled by experts. It is emergent.

What does this mean for newsrooms looking to develop Internet TV channels?

Emergent 1 post

Newsrooms have the ability to harness the power of long tail Internet economics to keep pace with Black Swan events. Rather than replicating a 24/7 news cycle and a mass broadcasting programing model targeted at reaching the “mean” audience in the middle of the bell curve, Internet TV newsrooms can focus their editorial and economic strategies on reaching a growing tail. This means producing differentiated news, providing a much wider array of stories that meet specialized audiences interests. Instead of spending limited resources reproducing the same mean demographic news story – see your latest Cable TV news swarm – Internet TV newsrooms can increasingly cover the unexpected tail of stories.

Emergent 2 post

These Long Tail stories may then be aggregated and curated into flexible playlists on Internet TV news channels. While live news is immediately irrelevant once the news cycle moves on, Long Tail stories will have a  prolonged economic cycle and cultural relevance. Internet TV provides newsrooms an unparalleled ability to produce unique narrative pieces that will have a much longer archival afterlife, and which may also lead to unexpected hits.

Here is an example of a Long Tail playlist of Internet TV news videos on the subject of immigration, which may become unexpectedly relevent. https://vimeo.com/127974857

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WeCott, an online platform to act on journalism

WeCott is a tool for investigative journalists to engage with users in creating a civic movement around investigative stories. The original prototype was built by Amy Zhang and friends during the iCorruption hackathon. They envisioned a platform of communities where people could participate in boycotts together – offering advice on alternatives, uploading photos of their boycott, and otherwise supporting each other.


We (Amy, Wahyu, Alicia, Giovana and Anna) updated the idea in order that WeCott could serve to engage readers based on solid evidences and compelling stories produced by investigative journalists. They could engage not only in boycott, but also buycott or even “vericott” where we ask users to verify a story in their nearest community/neighborhood.

The objective is also allow the participants to offer advice on alternatives, uploading photos of their boycott or buycott or vericott, and otherwise supporting each other. Not only would this make the process more fun and supportive, it also allows people and companies to see the effects of the movement all in one place.

The nail salon exposé published by The New York Times this week is one of the best examples of stories that could generate this kind of engagement. After the first part being published, hundreds of readers wrote to NYTimes asking what they could do, as customers, to help solving the problem. We believe that a tool as WeCott could be perfect to offer some options. For example, people could contribute to create a map pointing salons with bad practices, but also those who develop good practices.

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Backstori.es: A “Previously On” For News

Inspired by “Previously On…” recap sequences on TV shows, Backstori.es is a web-based tool that allows journalists to semi-automatically generate a background explainer video for any news story. In less than 5 minutes, users can generate a list of relevant previous stories (using the current story’s inline links and other structured data), select the headlines and images that matter most, arrange them in a sequence and customize transitions. Backstori.es then automatically creates a short, dynamic explainer video using the Stupeflix API. Continue reading

MIT Financial Explorer: Opening the Brown Book data for everyone

MIT Finance Explorer

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Brown Book is the “annual report of sponsored research activities” for MIT Campus and Lincoln Lab (a federally funded research and development center of technology for national security). While the Brown Book is published on a regular basis, with details about the millions of dollars in funds provided by major sponsors such as the Air Force or Shell; and expenditures by MIT Schools and Centers, it is not well known by academics, staff, students or citizens of Cambridge. Nor it is available in a format that is easy to understand by people who are not subject experts. Which are MIT`s top money receivers? Who are the top donors? How much funds does a Center receive and for what? What companies and government organizations are the major sponsors of grants and contracts? The MIT Financial Explorer is a project developed by Austin Hess, Michael Greshko and Miguel Paz. It aims to give you answers about the financial structure of MIT and release all the data in a friendly format so you can reuse it for your own projects and amusement. Please enter here.

Egg: a place for science stories to nest


Frustrated with the perception of certain sciences as “cold” and the programmer-storyteller divide, I wanted to create a space with tools and stories that gently remind us there is in fact no such divide aside from the ones in our beliefs.

Here’s a prototype, without uploading capability.

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Student Debt Project Team: “It Gets Smaller”

Charles, Gideon, Luis, Melissa B, Melissa C, and I started off with an interest in the crisis of rising student debt in the United States. After perusing resources and tools for students to figure out how to afford college and plan their financial future, we realized that (1) information on student loans is dispersed across the web and confusing, (2) most calculators are offered by profit-driven platforms, and (3) the convoluted facts about loans and scary numbers of debt and future payments can make users feel isolated instead of part of a community of affected students. Therefore, our first goal was to create a tool that combines basic information and a comprehensive calculator for financial planning with tailored connections to relevant online communities. We hope that our tool can be used both by affected students and by journalists in search of a streamlined way to crowdsource information on the topic and connect with pertinent groups. You can see the tool, the It Gets Smaller website, here.

Our second goal was to use the tool in two journalistic pieces. We proudly present Gideon and Melissa B’s article and Melissa C’s video.

The Student Debt team is looking forward to your feedback!

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