Getting readers involved – dyslexia

"Cna yuo raed tihs?"  Dyslexia and how its tackled in the Romanian education system.

“Cna yuo raed tihs?”
Dyslexia and how its tackled in the Romanian education system.

Last summer, the magazine I edit published the story above, a long and in-depth piece looking at what happens with dyslexic children in Romanian schools. We believe that getting people to read and pay attention to a story tackling such a huge topic requires that we go deep inside the lives of individuals through which we navigate the landscape. (The story of one can stand in for the story of many).

The goal of this is to create empathy. The danger, often, – as Rowan Williams said in a lecture on empathy at Harvard – is that focusing narrowly on one person (especially in pieces about social issues) you only trigger the emotional response, which leads people to take action that takes care of their immediate discomfort, but doesn’t always trigger the cognitive response, which can generate larger-scale solutions. (This research on the moral molecule, empathy, and donations is an illuminating. // Williams also wrote a more convoluted and calm version of the Dobelli piece.)

If we accept the premise that journalism should help find ways for people to get involved, the challenge – both of the journalism itself, as well as of any way of involving the public – is to balance the emotional response and the cognitive response.

Let me go quickly through what we tried in both the journalism and the follow-up, and then see what we could have done more of/better.

The story. We had one character, Robert, who lives in a small town with his working class family. He was diagnosed late, the parents though he was lazy, the school didn’t offer any remedial classes. All in all, he somehow made it to VII-th grade with little to no progress. We also had a contrasting character, Ioana, who lived in the capital, had a wealthier family, was diagnosed early by good psychologists, her parents moved her into a private school, and paid for speech classes. She was the same age as Robert, and flourishing.

We didn’t want to leave it there, and we also looked into the systems: what made one school work, and the other not. We looked at the psychologists and therapists and found that schools in Romania are understaffed – a therapists would have to evaluate an average of 45 kids/day for 5 minutes each to get through all. We also looked at NGOs and associations involved in this space, and learned that their funding had dried up (they had done good work publishing special manuals, and training teachers). We also looked at the law and saw that it actually said everything it should – it was not implemented because it required both material resources, as well as more involvement from families.

This seemed like a complicated, but interesting set of conclusions. The law is good, but there are no resources. Some schools do good, but families need to learn about them.

It seemed like there was an entire universe of stakeholders that could all do a better job: kids, parents, teachers, administrators, lawmakers, doctors / therapists, NGOs.

The follow-up. We didn’t have a systematic approach to involve readers – it wasn’t something we had done before. We did publish it on our website immediately (which we don’t do), we gave out the contact details of the reporter (which we also don’t often do), and we did encourage people to reach out if they had ideas of how to help. This is how we got a few people reaching out to contact Robert’s family, and somebody donated an iPad, which Robert dreamed of.

The bigger thing we did is an event, where we tried to facilitate the interaction between some of our stories, and our readers. At the event, the reporter laid out the issues, and also presented a bulleted list of the needs of some of the relevant NGOs in the field. Unfortunately, most of the needs were in the realm of fundraising, and I don’t know exactly if something came out of it.

Looking back, here are some other things we could have done better to increase the potential of getting people involved. (I’m still working on these kinds of ideas, as it is a priority for us in the next year or so).

The story. Should have definitely used some of the tools and processes discussed in class:

  • the way the system works could have been much clearer explained in infographics. The visual representation would have spotlighted more clearly where the system breaks;
  • we could have created interactive elements that attempted to put the reader in the experience of a dyslexic kid – reading texts, writing texts etc.
  • we could have used videos;
  • in the style of solution/constructive journalism we could have more clearly did sidebars/breakouts on how various situations have been handled, and/or what best practices are around the world;

The follow-up. This is the more difficult part. The advocacy, if this is the word, is not (necessarily) the problem. It’s tougher to decide how you use resources, and whether you need to take over the lives/action of others (doctors/teachers/parents). That being said:

  • we could have pointed to groups/ways to contact relevant stakeholders;
  • certainly we could have pointed to the more traditional petitions/donations opportunities.
  • we could have brought together all relevant stakeholders for a series of meetings, and moderate a conversation, and offer the results to the public. The journalist as a facilitator of dialogue seems an important role in a culture where stakeholders don’t read, take action (as it still happens in Western media).
Posted in All

Data story: Internet use in Romania

The approach I took was to look at data available on Internet use in Romania, compare it to countries in EU28, interrogate it, and come up with potential stories — my initial interests to find something on citizen involvement.

This post is more an account of the process than a finished story; it reflects better the lessons I learned.

My first and most immediate lesson is that tracking good data and making a relevant data set – even when the information is publicly available – is time consuming (especially when you use different sources). The other lesson was even more humbling. Once I gathered the data I needed, I realized that combining it, merging it, and illustrating the new set takes skills that I don’t yet have (both technically & creatively), and the learning curve was to steep to master for this assignment. I will keep trying.

What I used and looked through: data from Eurostat (the EU’s statistical office), ITU (UN’s information technology arm), UNESCO, Net Index etc. What was great, although it took some time to realize, is that ITU and Net Index make some of their data available on Google’s Public Data, which comes with handy visualization tools. Eurostat also creates visualizations, but they are less appealing.

My first step was to rank the percentage of individuals using Internet in EU28 (ITU, 2012), a dataset which has Romania coming in last. (The Eurostat numbers for 2013 shows it has now passed Greece and Bulgaria, so one potential question would be whether the penetration rate is accelerating — it was almost flat in the years when most countries had their boom – 1997-2003). Another interesting question that comes up looking at the data is whether EU accession (Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007) has sped up Internet penetration. Countries now vying for accession – Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia – have even lower usage.


I then looked at download speed in EU28 on Net Index, knowing I’ll find the reverse. According to Net Index, Romania has the third fastest download speed in the world. This discrepancy remains staggering and the potential causes/correlations are interesting to investigate: #8 in the world in terms of originating attack traffic (Akamai data),  high level of piracy (BSA data), a strong engineer culture and a budding startup culture, a hacker/cyber crime base.

2 3

Another question I’d explore is whether such low internet use might be explained by the urban/rural divide, still about 50/50 (53/47 to be more precise) in Romania compared to EU28, and, more interestingly, holding steady for the past 15 years – most countries, according to UNESCO data have experienced urban migration


The speed/penetration difference is even more interesting if you look at other indicators in which Romania continue to be reliably at the bottom: e-commerce and regular use (daily & weekly). This data and the accompanying visualizations were generated from Eurostat data.



Predictably, Romania also ranks last in e-governance/interaction with public authorities.


PublicAuthoritiesMAP[The gray circle is that country’s level of interaction. The red outline is the EU28 average.]

Looking at the public’s interaction with government, a host of other question and stories spring to mind:

  • what’s with the gigantic outlier in 2012? Is it a question of measurement? Did something happen? Was data misreported (intentionally or not?)
  • does this lack of opportunity appear in any candidate’s discourse/promises (presidential elections are slated for the fall)?
  • what explains these numbers? How does this explain the gigantic recent failure of the e-Romania portal for which the Romanian government spent 8 millions of euro?
  • what does this mean for initiatives such as ReStart Romania, which aim to use technology to further public dialogue and change?

Other directions suggested by the data:

  • there seems to be a digital divide. Does it track along geography (as mentioned above)? What about income? How does it manifest itself in different generations (e.g. 50 percent of people between the ages of 35 and 45 go online every week compared with the EU28 average of 82 percent.)?
  • the computer/internet literacy market (both public and private). Eurostat data shows only 26 percent of Romanians have basic computer skills (the EU28 average is 60 percent). What programs exist? Are they working – why/why not?

Data project: Internet in Romania

I will look at data about internet penetration in Romania, and the paradox of being one of the countries with the fastest Internet connection, and one of the lowest rates of penetration in Europe (second to last in the EU28, for sure).

I’m trying to tie that with what I can find on e-governance and the relationship citizens have with authorities through digital means. As a new generation of civic-minded activists is looking to online for offline change, I thought it’d be interesting to survey the infrastructure landscape.

I’ll use Eurostat data for the most part, and I’ll return with questions as they arise, which I’m sure they will.

Simona Halep match preview

Simona Halep - Thinglink

Click the image to go to ThingLink and see what’s behind the bullets.

For this assignment I tried to use a different form of curation than the in-the-moment stream of Storify or Rebel Mouse, which are more popular (Carvin is on Rebel Mouse, for example). I was specifically looking for something more contained and less cluttered that wouldn’t give the impression of drowning in information.

As subject I chose to preview the fourth round match between Simona Halep, Romania’s top player and #7 worldwide, and Eugenie Bouchard, scheduled for Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 2pm EST.

I used ThingLink, which allows the use of a photo upon which one can overlay other information (YouTube videos, photographs, links to other information). It’s not perfect (I couldn’t embed it on the blog), and it does take you outside of the piece on almost every click, but I liked the idea of containing all relevant information in an interactive image. (The concept I guess is not unlike a static infographic).

I imagine this type of curation could work great as a preview or summary, and could then be supplemented by real-time work.

Fact checking: 11 ways to please Romanian women

I looked into an e-book called “100 Ways to Please a Romanian Woman”.

The resulting work is here. (Or click on the image below).

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 4.35.39 PM

Notes: What I was most interested was the second part of our assignment: the presentation of the information once verified/checked/contextualized, and if this can make a difference in retention or changing one’s mind. I was also interested in whether one can turn a seemingly trivial topic (that is also heavily stereotyped in this case) into an opportunity to transmit information or deliver context.

I decided to use Zeega because it plays seamlessly with animated GIFs, which are a staple of our current meme culture, and tried to structure the resulting piece as a listicle, a popular form of content delivery.

As a journalist, I couldn’t help thinking that if I was doing this for publication in a different format (a more “serious” one for lack of a better word), I would have done further checking and contextualizing of the sources (adding caveat to caveat), arguably to a point where it might have bogged down the experience. One potential solution is to provide jumping off points from each of these topics – alcohol consumption, natality figure, religious practices etc – into well-produced and complex platforms where the public can learn more from, while also interacting with the data. (I’m thinking of the work the New York Times has done on upward mobility.)

Cristian / 4h Challenge / First Kiss map

Challenge time: Feb 14, 8am-noon EST

Challenge: Gather 100+ first kiss stories from people around the world and overlay them on a map. The topic was chosen for its universality, and ease of recall.

Kiss Map Screenshot

Click to view the map and the stories. The map clusters all stories from a certain city. To view them all, expand the list (>>) on the left of the map.


  • do a project pegged to a timely and (largely) shared theme, Valentine’s Day, that involves other users in creating content;
  • find alternative ways to gather/present information;
  • do a story that broadens traditional news values – from “what is new” to “what is”; from “public interest” to “personal stake”; from “conflict” to “life events”.


  • (I discovered this tool early in the morning; it’s the first map making tool I came across that looked easy enough. The ability to upload spreadsheets sealed the deal.).
  • Google Forms – decided to use forms to collect data (Name, Story, City, Country) for two reasons: 1. Ease of input by users. 2. Some form of control over what gets posted to the map.
  • – to make custom URLs to be shared and later be able to count clicks.
  • Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Instagram.

Results (at 11:50 am, 10 mins before closing the challenge):

  • 180 collected stories;
  • 36 shares on my original Facebook post (doesn’t count direct posts by others);
  • 4 retweets on four total Tweets;
  • 498 clicks on form link; 212 clicks on map link;
  • 8 bogus entries deleted


  • given the response rate, this was a successful project, that would be easy to replicate for other topics – from the mundane (favorite restaurants) to the more serious (stories of poverty);
  • many of the shares were endorsements, with people commenting and praising the project, not just passing it on. This is a sign of sharing because it was relevant/interesting to them;
  • couldn’t embed the map directly into WordPress, because the iframe code isn’t working, and I couldn’t figure it out in time;
  • the map tool clusters all entries from the same city, and makes browsing less satisfying. One can still see all entries on a list, but it’s less fun. Potential solution for future projects: use streets, GPS coordinates, different types of markers;
  • a pre-existing social network is extremely helpful for quick-turnaround projects. Facebook was by far the tool that helped me best; Twitter barely had any traction;
  • such projects are – at least early on – heavily biased to the geography of one’s network. Potential solution: partnering with others across the globe, extending one’s social network.
  • I had issues with Romanian diacritics and had to clean the spreadsheet by hand and turns ASCII (?) code into letters.
  • a tool that collects and uploads data/stories to a map in one-step (ideally with administrative privileges) would make the process smoother. One could even build analysis tools on top of it: sort by gender, by age, by other variables. [They might exist; I didn’t have time to look for one in the allotted challenge time].