Tools from yesterday’s discussion

Alexis from FOLD here—thanks for the great discussion yesterday!

Here are some of the tools and resources mentioned during my presentation:

  • Storify
  • Genius
  • Embeddable Context Cards by Vox
  • Sketch (alternative to Adobe Illustrator, also allows you to create interactive prototypes. $99, but cheaper with a student discount)
  • Balsamiq (another prototyping tool, draws interface elements in a “sketchy” style, which can be really useful for getting honest early-stage feedback)
  • Meteor.js (Javascript framework we used to build FOLD)

If you’d like to give FOLD a try for one of your assignments this semester, head over to to make an account. You can log in with e-mail or with Twitter (signing up with Twitter allows you to embed tweets in your stories).

We’ll be releasing lots of new features over the next month. Please let me know if you have any questions or feedback! You can reach me at alexis [at], or on Twitter: @alexishope / @readFOLD.



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.

Final project proposal: FOLD

Kevin and I have been working on FOLD, a tool that adds structure and context to news stories.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.51.26 PM

FOLD allows you to expand and contract elements of a story (to get more or less detail), and associates a context bar to each section of the story. A context bar can include many elements, including historical background, maps, photographs, citizen media, videos, or technical descriptions.

From observing people consume news, we recognize that readers spend significant time acquiring contextual information in additional browser tabs, taking their attention away from the story at hand. FOLD offers journalists a way to provide readers with a curated “tangent.”

For the final project, Kevin and I would like to continue our work on FOLD by:

1) Conducting further observations of readers interacting with complex and/or emerging stories so we can see their processes of trying to understand the news (e.g. Do they pull up other sources to look up a specific concept or prior event? If so, how often? Do they give up reading the article altogether? What is their understanding of the article after having read it?)

2) Making changes and improvements to the design based on our observations of readers and feedback from the class

3) Adding an authoring platform (so writers can easily turn plain text and photos/videos into FOLD vertical and horizontal ribbons)

4) Conducting user studies with a few journalists in the class, to see if and how their writing process changes when structuring stories in the FOLD way. Extending from that, we can also see if FOLD changes not only how something is written, but what is written.

5) Re-making an existing story into a FOLD story to create a nice demo of what the tool can do


Background: Kevin Hu & Travis Rich built a site called GIFGIF, which aims to crowd tag animated gifs with various emotions. From GIFGIF’s website: “An animated gif is a magical thing. It contains the power to convey emotion, empathy, and context in a subtle way that text or emoticons simply can’t. GIFGIF is a project to capture that magic with quantitative methods. Our goal is to create a tool that lets people explore the world of gifs by the emotions they evoke, rather than by manually entered tags.” As we know, animated gifs are also a popular storytelling mechanism for social news and entertainment websites.

The cultural phenomenon of using animated gifs to express emotions has been the subject of numerous journalistic inquiries:

Fresh From the Internet’s Attic – NYTimes

Christina Hendricks on an Endless Loop: The Glorious GIF Renaissance –

GIF hearts Tumblr: a fairytale for the Internet age –

Visualization project for this week: Kevin, Travis, and I built a map tool so people can explore GIFGIF’s current dataset to see which gifs are most representative of certain emotions across different countries. Out of 1.8 million votes, 1.4 million votes had IP data which links the votes to the location of the voter. GIFGIFmap can be found here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 1.03.12 AM

In a future version, we would like to show the top gifs per emotion that countries have in common with each other, and what are unique top gifs for each country (along the lines of What We Watch). However, there are limitations to the GIFGIF data set in terms of global coverage. For example, the top 21 countries account for 92% of the votes. Additionally, we excluded countries that had less than 10,000 total votes across all categories, so as to avoid making generalizations based on limited data. We chose to include the number of votes per country (per emotion) to make the data set more transparent in terms of representation.

We think the tool we are building could complement existing stories about the phenomenon of using animated gifs to communicate (stories like the ones we linked to above).

These are some potential questions that we hope journalists could explore using a map interface to the GIFGIF dataset:

1) Do people from different countries interpret the emotional content of gifs differently?

2) If there are variances in interpretation, are there clusters of countries that have more similar interpretations? Do these match up with proximity, or immigration patterns?

3) What top gifs per emotion are unique to a given country?


Note: GIFGIF’s data will soon be made publicly available through an API.


Visualizing GIFGIF by country

Kevin Hu & Travis Rich built a site called GIFGIF, which aims to crowd tag animated gifs with various emotions. From GIFGIF’s website: “An animated gif is a magical thing. It contains the power to convey emotion, empathy, and context in a subtle way that text or emoticons simply can’t. GIFGIF is a project to capture that magic with quantitative methods. Our goal is to create a tool that lets people explore the world of gifs by the emotions they evoke, rather than by manually entered tags.”

For this project, Kevin and I are building a map tool, along the lines of What We Watch, so that people can explore GIFGIF’s current dataset to see which gifs are most representative of certain emotions in each country.

GIFGIF’s data will soon be made publicly available through an API.

FOLD prototype

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.51.26 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.51.40 PM

Kevin and I are working on a project called FOLD, which borrows the accordion metaphor for understanding the news that Ethan described last class, and tries to anticipate the reader’s contextual needs.

FOLD allows you to expand and contract elements of a story (to get more or less detail), and associates a context bar to each section of the story. A context bar can include many elements, including historical background, maps, photographs, citizen media, videos, or technical descriptions.

From observing many people consume news, we recognize that readers spend significant time acquiring contextual information in additional browser tabs, taking their attention away from the story at hand. FOLD offers journalists a way to provide readers with a curated “tangent.”

We decided to use the FOLD prototype to create an explainer of the current situation in Ukraine and Crimea. We chose this story because historical context is very important for understanding the political, economic, and social dynamics at play in the region.

The FOLD prototype is live at (works best in Chrome for now).

What the World Ate for Breakfast

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 1.22.29 AM

I wanted to do a story on what the world eats for breakfast, pieced together by posts from popular social networking tools in various countries. However, many social networks required in-country mobile phone numbers to join (e.g. Mixi in Japan), or had strict privacy settings to interact with other users (e.g. Line) and so I could not pull content from them.

My process involved finding a colloquial term for breakfast in the language of a variety of locations, and then trying to find a geo-tagged post with a picture of breakfast that I thought might be interesting, surprising, or just tasty looking. I was able to retrieve photos from Weibo, Instagram, Twitter, and Google Plus. I tried to find breakfast photos that looked more-or-less home-cooked, as opposed to photos from restaurants.

Once I found the photos, I put them on a Pinterest map. Take a tour of breakfast!

Fun facts:

Breakfast in German = Frühstück
Portuguese = “pequeno-almoço”
Russian = “завтрак”
Japanese = “朝食”
Turkish = “kahvaltı”

I Opened a Zoo in Alaska: You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

I find myself standing in front of my new enterprise. I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m determined to find out. The sun is shining, and I am clad in a starched khaki ensemble. The sign in front of the entrance says “Alaska Animal Sanctuary.”

My operating budget appears to exceed 30,000 Zollars, and climbing fast. However, I seem to be the only zookeeper. I walk over to the elephants who appear to be under my care, and offer several bananas. They are enthused. Then, I visit the Rhinoceroses and give them a bath.

Why am I here?

My days become routine. Feed the animals. Clean up the poop. An endless stream of challenges follow me each day, promising increased animal satisfaction, and increased guest happiness.

I sleep fitfully and recall in a rare dream that I used to manage large cities in a past life. I was the mayor of Sim City. And now I am a Zookeeper.

Suddenly, I am invited to leave Alaska and join a troubled zoo in the United Kingdom. Anything to break the monotony. I pack my bags, and head to Cambridgeshire Animal Park.

Upon my arrival, I learn that Scotty the West African Giraffe is lonely. “Why don’t I adopt a companion for him?” my advisor asks. I select Oliver the baby West African Giraffe. He is delivered in a crate by a magnificent helicopter.

I have found purpose. Oliver breathes new life into my mission to steward my animal companions. He wobbles on his tiny legs, and frolics around Large Savannah 2.

With my budget now at 50,000 Zollars, I am invited to invest in a Zoo Keeper Center. Might I finally be able to hire some staff to help me? And some fellow animal lovers to talk to? I hire Bonnie. Derik. Miguel.

Suddenly there is life in this zoo. We are a seamless team. I begin making much needed improvements to the crucial zoo infrastructure. A balloon and souvenir shop is erected near the Pale-Throated Three Toed Sloth exhibit. Burger Barn, strategically, is opened next to our extremely popular Asiatic Lion exhibit. Our zoo’s operating budget has doubled since I began my reign. I build a Breeding Center.

I discover a new feature of my world: I can, at my will, command myself to leave the confines of my body and view the entirety of my zoo at once. I am told later by my advisor that this is “Tycoon View.”

I purchase a motorized buggy to travel across the vast expanse of my zoo estate. I can reach the Tundra Small 01 from Rainforest Medium 02 in 30 seconds.

In a cruel twist of fate, Oliver is taken from me. Between upgrading the restrooms and starting an advertising campaign for this troubled park, I seem to have neglected poor Olver. The same helicopter that brought him swiftly ushers him away.

I sink into despair.

Review of Zoo Tycoon™, for Xbox One®, the all-in-one games and entertainment system from Microsoft. February 18th, 2014.

Available exclusively at Wal-Mart.


For this four-hour challenge, I wanted to experiment with the genres of review, critique, and humor. I played this game for 2 hours, while pausing to write notes about the narrative arc of my play. I recorded and stored gameplay using the Xbox Game DVR feature, which allows you to record the previous 30 seconds of gameplay. I filmed the stored video clips with my phone because you need to purchase a subscription from Xbox to allow you to upload the video elsewhere.

My main challenge with this piece was to use humor and a fictional narrative while still conveying factual information about the game. If I had more time to work on this, I would have sharpened the critique of simulation games in general a little bit more.