Wednesday, September 9th, 2009
I think that visualisations and interface innovation hold great untapped potential for journalism, not only helping journalists and audiences to see trends and understand complex sets of data but also as a tool that will dramatically improve news site usability. The last few years have seen a lot of innovation in visualising data with the advent of mash-ups and easier visualisation tools from Google, Many Eyes from IBM, etc., but there has been too little interface innovation for news websites.
By and large, news websites still reflect their print heritage. They make the classic mistake of rigidly reflecting their own structure while ignoring the semantic connections that cross desks and departments. Most news web site interfaces obscure the vast amounts of information we produce as journalists. Good interfaces go beyond design and search to issues of information architecture, user experience and discovery.
I believe that interface innovation can unlock the power of technologies, helping them break out of a small group of technically adept early adopters to a much wider audience. The Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer interface helped open up computers to a much wider audience than when command line interfaces were dominant. The graphical web browser helped unleash the power of the world wide web. In 1990, when I first used the internet, I had to learn arcane Unix commands to even read my e-mail. In August 1993, I used the seminal web browser Mosaic for the first time in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois, where I was studying journalism and where that groundbreaking browser was created. I instantly realised that the web browser would become a point-and-click window to a world of information, communications and connection.
I’ve been interested in interface innovation since the late 1990s when I first saw the Visual Thesaurus from a company then called Plumb Design, now called Thinkmap which showed the connections between related words. The company did even more impressive work for Sony Music and EMPLive, an online exhibition for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. In many ways, the work was way ahead of its time and sometimes ahead of the capability of the internet. The projects used advanced interface concepts more often found in CD-ROM projects of the day than the internet. One of the things that impressed me about especially the EMPLive project was that it allowed virtual visitors to the navigate the music collection a number of ways, whether they were interested in time, genre or a particular artist. The presentation also showed relationships between elements in the collection. I like Robin Good’s description on the Master New Media blog of Plumb Design’s work:
The original goal at Plumb Design was to create dynamic interfaces to information systems that reveal interrelationships often obscured by conventional methods of navigation and information display.
In many ways, Plumb Design showed what was possible with data, semantic analysis and rich interfaces more than a decade ago.
While interface innovation has not been an area of focus for most news sites, thankfully we’re seeing some tentative steps forward after a post-dot.com crash period of stagnation. Slate has launched a service called News Dots. Chris Wilson describes it like this:
Like Kevin Bacon’s co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.
Like EMPLive and the Visual Thesaurus, News Dots helps show the interconnection between stories. The feature uses Calais, “a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth”. Slate has built its own visualisation tool using the open-source ActionScript library called Flare.
It’s a good first stab, but Slate admits that it is a work in progress. I like that the visualisation clearly links to articles and sourcing information. I like that the dots are colour-coded to show whether the dot represents a person, place, group, company or ‘other’. I think there might be a possibility to better show the correlation between the tags, but as I said, this is a good launch with a lot of possibility for improvement and experimentation.
Another project that I think shows the potential of improved interfaces is the Washington Post’s visual commenting system called WebCom. As Patrick Thornton explains, it is a visual representation of comments n the site. As new comments are posted the web expands. Those comments rated highly by other commenters or those that spur the most responses appear larger in the web. The web not only allows for navigation and discovery, but users can comment directly from within the visual web interface.
The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at washingtonpost.com. A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of washingtonpost.com with different user interfaces.
Wow, that’s impressive in terms of turnaround time. Django is quickly becoming an essential tool for the rapid development of journalism projects.
Thornton points out that it doesn’t work on mobile browsers or older computers. I might quibble with the focus on most popular comments or comments that spur the most response; comments that draw the most responses can often be the most inflammatory or intemperate. Likewise, popularity often becomes self-reinforcing, especially when it drives discoverability as it does in an interface like this. I would suggest that a slider that weights other factors might be useful. A simple search or tagging system might help commenters to find threads in the discussion that interest them. Again, this is a good first attempt and, with the development time only taking a few weeks, it shows how rapidly innovations like this can built and tested in the real world.
It’s exciting to see these kinds of developments. News organisations are struggling during the Great Recession, but often these times of crisis spur us to try things that we might otherwise think too risky. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see this kind of innovation. If this can happen during the worst downturn in memory, just think what we can do when the recession eases.