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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Visualisation for news and community discovery

Posted by Kevin Anderson

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.
Slate's News Dot project
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.

Thornton says:

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.

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One Response to “Visualisation for news and community discovery”

  1. Tom Tague Says:

    Tom Tague from Thomson Reuters OpenCalais here.

    First - thanks for taking the time and effort to write a thoughtful piece. It’s always refreshing to see something that goes beyond the “Look! A cool thing.. here’s the link)”.

    We agree that there’s an enormous opportunity space for using visualization / innovative interaction metaphors powered by semantics to improve the news consumption experience. What we see as a big part of the challenge is selecting the right metaphors from the enormous library of innovative visualization approaches that will “click” with the end users. We’ve all been guilty at some point of using tools that are overly sophisticated or non-intuitive.

    Slate has taken a step in the right direction by not trying to do too much. One day’s news, source material on the right, limited functionality. It’s a first step - but it’s a good step in the right direction of simplicity. As a next step I’d like to see it simplified even further and put right next to the article so I can see what’s connected to what I’m reading - rather than the entire universe of connections.

    This tool - and others like it - also serve another purpose you touched on in your article: serving the needs of the Journalist. If you move beyond simple “tags” and use the full power of OpenCalais you have the opportunity to enable more effective and timely enterprise and investigative journalism as well.

    A simple example: Take FOIA documents about government contract awards in a region. Run them through OpenCalais and create a graph of contract awards, people and companies. Step two - take the births, weddings, death and news from local papers. Extract family relationships and person to company relationships. Make a graph.

    When you start banging those two graphs together you’ll probably find interesting things that could target some hands on investigative work.

    That’s just an example - and we’re just at the very first stages of exploring how semantics can improve journalism and news consumption. This promises to be an exciting few years.

    Again, thanks for the article.

    Regards