News for Digital Journalists

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.

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