News for Digital Journalists

Posts tagged with: Tools

May 17, 2010

BP oil spill: Ushahidi-powered crowdsourced map

Talk about amazing timing. Early in 2010, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (an environmental justice group) and a Tulane University GIS class were using Ushahidi (open-source software that collects and displays crowdsourced news submitted via mobile phone or internet) to build an interactive map about Louisiana’s frequent oil refinery accidents. According to the Ushahidi blog, “The same day as their final class presentation, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.”

Armed with their recent Ushahidi experience, LABB quickly used the platform to launch its Oil Spill Crisis Map to track how the BP oil spill is affecting the Gulf Coast and the people who live there…

As of May 15, 311 field reports (many with photos) were filed for this project—about 80% of which LABB lists as verified. These are displayed as points on a Google Map. Contributors can file reports online, via cell message (text or photo), or Twitter (hashtag #BPspillmap).

Community reporting examples include: Large dead turtle (Bay St. Louis, MS), Fire and chemical smells in the air (Dunedin, FL), and oil-tainted storm water discharge (Meraux, LA). The map also includes reports from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, and references to mainstream media coverage.

So far, Ushahidi has mainly been used by grassroots organizations—but clearly it’s also a useful tool for crowdsourcing unfolding news that affects a geographic area. But takes time to install and learn to use any new tool—and that learning ideally should happen before you have to cover a major breaking disaster.

On May 3, MobileActive published a detailed comparison of Ushahidi and a related tool, Managing News. The post covers installation, SMS integration, and mapping processes, and is a good starting point for any news organization considering map-based crowdsourcing or aggregation options.

Ushahidi originated in Kenya as a crisis reporting tool, but it (and tools like it) could be used for ongoing coverage of “creeping” rather than “breaking” news. It’s also an intriguing way to engage a mobile audience—contributors aren’t burdened with having to craft a complete packaged “story,” but rather can contribute pieces to a larger, visible whole. This lowers the perceived barrier of entry to crowdsourcing, and encourages contributors to promote the crowdsourcing effort (and the organization behind it) to their social and online circles.

If there’s a hard-to-cover but important issue unfolding in your region, experimenting with tools such as Ushahidi now might help you gain traction with mobile users. Meanwhile, you’ll also be better prepared to cover future crises. For more context, read Editors Weblog: What journalists should know about Ushahidi.

Also, Ushahidi was a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, and this tool gained considerable public visibility for reporting the Haiti earthquake aftermath.

August 09, 2010

Publish2 Offers News Co-op Tool to Help Create Wire Service-Like Partnerships

Publish2 has released a new tool that enables newsrooms to create co-ops for content sharing - a key add-on to Publish2’s recently launched News Exchange platform, a do-it-yourself system for newspapers and other publishers to distribute news by automatically exporting shared content to their print publishing systems.

The new “co-ops” aim to let one news organization seamlessly allow others to republish content from its Publish2 newswires.

According to Ryan Sholin, director of news innovation at, newspapers across a state could create a co-op to automatically share local news of wider interest, effectively creating a state wire.

The same tool could be used for national sports co-ops or national breaking news co-ops, he added. It’s also easy to imagine hyperlocal news organizations creating a co-op to share news around their community to challenge (or partner with) metros, either on print or online fronts.

Meanwhile, Publish2 has seen a spate of news services starting up, announcing July 26 that ProPublica, GlobalPost, Texas Tribune, and Texas Watchdog have created their own news wires using the Publish2 platform.

On Aug. 3, Publish2 also announced that photo agency Demotix will publish images on the platform (Neiman Journalism lab has more on the new partnership).

January 21, 2011

US Census upgrades American FactFinder tool, new data coming soon

Many journalists have long relied on the US Census’ American FactFinder online tool to analyze Census data. This week, that tool received a major facelift—and it soon will be populated with data from the 2010 Census…

The new American FactFinder features more ways to search, and more ways to manipulate tables and map data.

Table-related upgrades:

  • Customize table views
  • Sort and filter columns of a table
  • Transpose rows and columns
  • Save customized table

Map-related upgrades:

  • Select geographies from the map
  • Create maps from a table
  • Place labels and markers on maps
  • Download maps as PDFs

Coming soon:

  • Transpose rows and columns
  • Bookmark, download, and save/restore query

Take a virtual tour and read tutorials.

There’s also a guide to building deep links into American FactFinder. If you have existing links to data in the old FactFinder, the Census site warns: “The current American FactFinder will be discontinued in the Fall of 2011. At that time, any deep links into the discontinued system will no longer work.

Data from the American Community Survey, the Economic Census, and Population Estimates will be moved to the new American FactFinder “in the coming months,” says the Census site. For now, you can access that data via the existing FactFinder interface.

February 14, 2011

Sunshine Week shows how to call for open government

Journalists usually shy away from direct activism, but many are willing to advocate proudly for greater government transparency. The American Society of News Editors (ASNE), which organizes the annual Sunshine Week awareness campaign, recently published a tool that news organizations can use to get government agencies and officials to commit to specific types of openness…

On Feb. 11, ASNE published a model open government proclamation which can be used to push for greater transparency in government. This document goes beyond encouraging broad statements of support, and calls for specific pledges and plans of action to enhance the public’s right to know.

How to use this document: Customize it, publish it, and during Sunshine Week (March 13-19) challenge specific government officials or agencies to adopt to it. Then hold them accountable for progress.

Perhaps a coalition of national news organizations might challenge the US Senate to adopt to this proclamation—especially since the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act was killed by a secret Senate hold in December.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

February 15, 2011

The booming data business: Report, conference explore emerging options

News organizations generally don’t think of themselves as data companies, but they are—or at least, most have the potential to develop this business alongside their news and other offerings. A new report and upcoming event from Giga Om could help news orgs figure out where data opportunities might lie, and how to capitalize on them…

>The report Big Data (available to Giga Om Pro subscribers, 7 day free trial) covers the equipment and systems needed to store and manage large databases—or especially complex ones, as might be generated from a content management system and archive of decades’ worth of news stories, or from the web analytics for a complex, dynamic site.

Better data management tools can help journalists and editors analyze or visualize complex issues, especially those buried in unstructured information. It can make your publishing efforts more scalable. And—perhaps most importantly to the news business—it can support advertisers through data, analysis, and services.

These topics and more will be discussed at GigaOm’s March 23 event in New York City, Structure: Big Data 2011. One theme of particular interest to news publishers is how businesses are spinning out separate companies built around their data. The conference is mainly geared toward CIOs and technologists, but news publishers and technology managers might gain strategic insight here.

February 22, 2011

Disaster news prep: Google Person Finder

When a disaster strikes, the first thing that people usually want to know is: Where are the people I care about? Some news organizations step up to this task with forum or bulletin-board style tools. But there’s another option from Google that might be easier to implement and even more useful: Person Finder.

Google just launched the Christchurch Person Finder to help locate people affected by the recent New Zealand earthquake. This is a web application (“web app”)—an interactive, task-focused service that’s delivered via a web browser. It allows users to search for, or provide information about, specific people in the affected region.

This tool is based on Google Person Finder, a free searchable missing person database toolset. It’s open source software running on the Google App Engine platform, and it’s available in several languages.

A few key advantages of this approach:

  • Mobile friendly. Person Finder works well and quickly, even on feature phones with low-bandwidth connections—a key consideration in disaster-stricken region, since limited cell access is often the first communication system to get running after a disaster.
  • Widget/gadget. People can generate a widget version of your person finder, which can be embedded on any web site—thus increasing its visibility and reach. You can also add it to your site as a Google Gadget.
  • Google may build it for you, which saves time and effort—and which may help avoid public confusion. (Explained below).

According to the FAQ for this toolset, “Google engineers built Google Person Finder in response to the January 2010 Haiti earthquake in order to help those affected by the earthquake connect with their loved ones. In 2005, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, multiple websites created missing person registries, so families and aid workers had to search in multiple places when looking for information. Google Person Finder addresses this problem by accepting data from other registries in a common format and searching over all the data.”

How to get started: It’s possible to roll your own Person Finder by cloning this tool’s open source code base and running your own instance of it. If you want to brand this service with your news organization, this is what you’d have to do.

However, a good first step (especially in an emergency situation) is to ask Google to generate an instance of Person Finder related to your disaster. E-mail your request to the Person Finder Google group. Google can set it up in a few hours, and then you can simply add it to your site. This approach make this service more visible and reduces the work required by your developers. It won’t have your branding, but the public goodwill this type of effort can generate in an emergency may prove more valuable.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 08, 2011

Knight Community Info Toolkit: Help make your community stronger with better info

News organizations have always helped local communities function. Now they have new tools for understanding their role in the local information ecosystem, and for helping to make their communities stronger…

Last week the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released the first draft of its Community Information Toolkit. This document outlines steps that news organizations and other community leaders can take to gauge the health of their local media ecology, create a local “information scorecard,” identify opportunities for using local information more effectively, and to start to address local challenges through more robust information.

This toolkit is a joint project of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and The Monitor Institute, with support from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

While the toolkit wasn’t specifically created for local news organizations, it’s clear that news organizations can help muster local support for this project and take an active role in both putting this toolkit to work and being part of the solutions it generates.

The toolkit includes:

  • Getting Started Template: This helps you identify a set of local issues and brainstorm how information influences them.
  • Community Information Checklist: This research tool evaluates your local information supply and infrastructure. It assesses local Internet access, information about government services and activities, digital support in libraries and schools, and civic intermediaries.
  • Community Information Scavenger Hunt: This form lists several tasks that ask community volunteers to access, find, use, and share certain pieces of information. Volunteers must record whether they were able to complete these tasks, which sources they used, how difficult they found this process, and what they learned.
  • Community Information Scorecard: This visualization tool helps you understand, interpret, see, and communicate the responses to the Checklist and Scavenger Hunt. It converts the raw data into color-coded tiles rating the strength of each part of your community’s information system.
  • Planning for Action Template: This planning frame helps transform the lessons from the other parts of the toolkit into an actionable plan to work toward specific local solutions.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

July 29, 2011

New mobile media toolkit from MobileActive

This week, the nonprofit group MobileActive launched its Mobile Media Toolkit—a great guide for anyone (including journalists) who want to learn how to create media using cell phones, or that works well on mobile devices…

This resource offers tips on tools and techniques, as well as case studies of projects from around the world that have used cell phones for journalism, broadcasting, and citizen media—on a variety of platforms and in a variety of circumstances. This project is funded by a 2009 Knight News Challenge award.

The guide is divided into sections for professional journalists, citizen journalists, media development organizations (groups that foster the development of free and independent media) and news organizations and other content publishers.

Although it’s not listed under the resources for professional journalists, don’t miss the guide to mobile security for citizen journalists—especially if you work with sensitive sources or topics, or are otherwise concerned about surveillance.

While this resource offers a lot of great information about smartphones, it also covers opportunities presented by feature phones (which still comprise the vast majority of phones currently in use in the US and elsewhere). For instance, there are tips on how to set up an SMS text messaging system, and how to do mobile polling.

Several of the cross-links between pages in this guide currently aren’t working. If you encounter one, search for the topic in the site search engine and you’ll probably find it.

Although this content is available on the web, it’s a great example of the kind of content that could—and should—be published as an e-book or as an app.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

October 14, 2011

Fuego: New mobile tool to follow the future of journalism, anywhere

Lots of smart people are always discussing the future of journalism and media on Twitter—but knowing which of those conversations are most important at any given time can mean spending your whole day on Twitter.

To help solve this problem, today the Nieman Journalism Lab debuted a mobile-friendly version of its Fuego tool…

According to Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton, Fuego for Mobile is a “heat-seeking Twitter bot, our tool that amalgamates the best and most interesting stories the future-of-journalism crowd is talking about on Twitter and presents them to you for quick reading.”

On a mobile phone, the result looks a little bit like Storify, the popular social media content curation tool. But there are some key differences:

  • Fuego displays a running list of the current most popular or important Twitter conversations about the future of news (rather than tracking the progress of a single story).
  • Fuego’s curation is done algorithmically, rather than manually—which requires far less work than Storify or manual retweeting.

How did Nieman Lab do it? In an interview, Benton explained that Fuego combines the Twitter application programming interface (API) with some custom algorithms to select and weight tweets, plus tools to deliver the results through a user-friendly mobile interface. It was created in-house at Nieman Lab by Benton and write/coder Andrew Phelps.

“The people who talk about the future of journalism on Twitter tend to be a pretty self-referential and insular crowd—and for creating an automated curation tool, that’s actually a very good thing,” said Benton.

“In the abstract, this concept could be applied to other topic areas. We experimented with that. But we found that if the people you’re aggregating tend to tweet about a lot of different topics, if they aren’t as focused, that it doesn’t tend to work as well for this kind of automated curation.”

That said, he acknowledged that it might work well for other niche or vertical topics—such as coverage of specific industries.

Initially Nieman Lab seeded Fuego with about 10 Twitter users who are thought leaders on the future of journalism and who tend to tweet pretty consistently about that topic. From there, Fuego started scanning tweets from everyone those users follow on Twitter—yielding an aggregate set of about 7000 Twitter users.

Since Fuego focuses on links, the system filters out tweets that don’t contain links. Among the remaining tweets, it algorithmically weights results to determine what gets listed via the Fuego interface. For instance, tweets by people who are followed by two or more people in the initial “seed set” of 10 are weighted more heavily; as are more recent tweets.

Based on these computations, Fuego displays right at the top of the page the top three current topics or stories; additional popular or relevant topics are listed below that. This list is refreshed frequently.

Nieman Lab also has a special Twitter account, @NiemanLabFuego, which automatically posts a tweet whenever a new item gets added to Fuego’s top three stories.

The technology used to deliver Fuego to mobile devices is interesting. It’s a mobile web app—which means it functions rather like a mobile app, but users don’t have to download and install anything. Just click the Fuego for mobile link from your phone or tablet and it will immediately launch.

Developing mobile web apps is generally more efficient and less costly than developing native apps for specific mobile platforms. The same code base serves multiple mobile platforms and device types. In contrast, native mobile apps require developing and maintaining a separate version for each platform (iPhone, Android, Mango, etc.).

On most smartphones and tablets, users can save a bookmark for a web app on their homescreen, to provide easy launching similar to that of native apps. On the iPhone and iPad, users can also launch homescreen web apps without all the trappings of the mobile Safari web browser, so you save screen real estate by now displaying the location bar, etc.

Simpler mobile web apps (including Fuego) that don’t require animation or much interactivity will even run on many feature phones—if they have better browser like Opera Mini. You can also save mobile Fuego (or any other web site or app) to Opera Mini’s home screen for a similar easy-launch capability.

Fuego was originally introduced on the Nieman Lab’s website in August as part of their redesign, but the mobile version was just rolled out today. The full web version offers three time-based filters: past four hours, past 24 hours, and past week. So far, those filters are not yet available on the mobile version.

Benton noted that eventually Nieman Lab will probably make its Fuego codebase available, but for now it’s so customized it probably wouldn’t be very useful for other organizations or purposes. They’ll also update the Nieman Lab iPhone app to include Fuego. He notes that for iPhone users, it helps to have your apps in Apple’s app store since iPhone users are trained to look there first rather than seek out web apps.

Still, going the web app route is useful to reach a broader audience—especially crucial since Android now far outsells iPhone in new smartphone sales, and WindowsPhone Mango may become a strong contender in coming years.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

November 01, 2011

New tool compares Presidential candidates’ fundraising

The U.S. Presidential election is just one year away, and candidates are in high gear for fundraising. News organizations looking to cover the role of money in this election have a new tool from, part of the Center for Responsive Politics, last week launched a new Fundraising Over Time tool…

This web app lets users compare the fundraising efforts of individual candidates in a specific time range: by day, week or month. The resulting charts may be used in commercial news outlets with permission from CRP.

The Investigative News Network explained: “For example, by inputting Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, users can see that while Bachmann raised for more in June, Cain was the frontrunner in September. The site also has an interactive map of the United States that allows users to hover over their state to get quick stats, or click for a more detailed breakdown of how much money candidates are getting from their state.”

This is one of several new interactive features for the OpenSecrets project Banking on Becoming President.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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