Knight Lab Year Two: Progress, use cases and feedback

by Denise Cheng, MIT Center for Civic Media

Rich Gordon and his Northwestern colleagues have had a presence at Block by Block for all three years, and under the banner of Knight News Innovation Lab for the last two. At one of the closing sessions for BxB12, Gordon and several of the Knight Laboratorists presented the progress of some of Knight Lab’s most exciting tools, seeking publishers’ feedback and intent to use.

Seeded with a $4.2 million grant from the Knight Foundation, the lab is a collaboration between Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“We develop software that serves the mission of journalism, media and publishing, and/or an informed citizenry,” the slide deck reads, and projects fall into three categories: technology for reporting and storytelling, technology for publishing and technology for audiences. “That’s a really broad franchise, and what you’re going to see today are seven different things that are in different stages of development,” Gordon said.

Presented today were Timeline JS, SoundCite, Local Circle, Hashtagger, PrintF, Local Angle and TwxRay:

  • “[Timeline JS] emerged out of [a professor's] realization that all the tools for creating timeline based narratives, they all were really lousy. He used his class to develop specs for a new system.” The tool is open source and embeddable (if you use WordPress, just make sure you have an iframe plugin). After journalists fill out a Google Doc template with relevant information, Timeline JS pulls from that information to create a clean and interactive interface for information. The Timeline can contain and will play video and audio clips that are hosted on Vimeo, Soundcloud and other media hosting services.

    The tool is written in JavaScript and JSON, and it comes with predetermined color settings. However, if you’re adept at CSS and have access to your site’s stylesheet, you can change those colors. In addition, there is some customization built into the tool, such as displaying a Google Map as a watercolor painting rather than the typical beige grid.
    Timeline JS now supports 30 languages, and one computer scientist has even created a tutorial to customize Timeline JS for Web portfolios. The likes of Le Monde, RadioLab and GigaOm have used the tool, and Knight Lab is even seeing classrooms using it to learn about the American Revolution.
    Timeline JS is the Lab’s most mature project, and a WordPress plugin is in the works.
  • SoundCite (also JavaScript) is the brain child of Tyler Fisher, an undergraduate student interested in music criticism. The project was publicly released in spring, and in its current iteration, users can scrub through audio in SoundCite’s interface to set the clip they want. SoundCite will generate a URL to that particular clip; for those who want the hyperlink generated for them, they can also paste in the text to pair with the sound clip. When readers click on the hyperlink, the clip will play directly from the article page as the reader reads on. While the project started out as sound citation for music criticism, Gordon suggested that citations of 911 tapes could be a use case, and it also relieves journalists of editing down several sound clips for a single news piece.
  • Local Circle is a widget that suggests relevant articles from a syndication network, and being able to determine members of the syndication network is what sets it apart from other relevant content widgets. The tool grew out of Gordon’s experience with Chicago’s rich media ecosystem as well as feedback from BxB11. “Every one of [the news sites] has some size of loyal audience and every one of them doesn’t visit one of the other 299 sites locally,” Gordon said. The widget is currently only configured for WordPress but should theoretically be compatible with any SQL database. “We’re looking for publishers in a market that would like to try with some other publishers to do this,” Gordon explained, marking Local Circle as a proof of concept. Although Gordon has not seen any data around how often readers click on relevant content suggestions, he suspects that if Zemanta is able to make a business out of it, then there must be something to it.
    Sacramento Press publisher and AdGlue founder Ben Ilfeld pointed out that Local Circle depends on a distributed system, or every publisher’s server being asked to serve up relevant content suggestions. If the click-throughs aren’t significant to offset the load on their servers, then the cost could increase as these syndication networks get bigger. Knight Lab’s Larry Birnbaum explained that the server is only hit up for an article the first time, and then it’s stored with the receiving publisher’s site. However, the product needs a ready market to test things out.
    Knight Lab has built a WordPress plugin, and future customization may include limiting the time horizon for relevant articles.
  • Hashtagger recommends hashtags based on linked stories if Tweeters construct their tweet in the Hashtagger interface. To come up with these hashtags, Hashtagger scrubs through Twitter searches for the most popular and relevant hashtags. The project (written in JavaScript and pulls from the Alchemy API) also sprang from a conversation with publishers. At this stage, users would have to download an Alchemy API key to demo the product.

    When Debbie Gallant (formerly of Baristanet and now with New Jersey News Commons) asked if it could eventually be integrated into a Twitter client, Gordon detailed some of the challenges and changes students made during the process. Twitter is trying to limit hits to its search API, which really melted down the capabilities that students had originally dreamt up for Hashtagger.
    The goal is to make it possible for users to tweet directly from the Hashtagger interface.
  • PrintF – “With newspapers, the front page is built completely from scratch everyday … The basic idea here was, can we give you that kind of layout options within a WordPress system?” Gordon prefaced. PrintF gives publishers the flexibility to categorize their news—top story, breaking news—so that the front page layout automatically adjusts to accommodate content that takes priority.

    “The real question is, is this a capability you currently have with your CMS to be able to change the top of the page without going in and editing the CSS? Question Number Two is would you like to have this capability?”
    Viriginia Citrano of MyVeronaNJ responded, asking if the dynamic layout was designed with any thought to advertising. Gordon said that up to this point, it had not been but that Knight Lab was soliciting feedback because “this is one we’re really trying to decide whether to put resources into.”
  • The Local Angle is another proof of concept project, and “this is a project in search of a use case,” Gordon said. The Local Angle was born out of a conversation between Birbaum and Ph.D. candidate Shawn O’Banion about ways to find more relevant content. The user interface for the service is a map of the U.S. with a listing of all 50 states, and each link leads to a page listing people who have recently appeared in Google News. Beside their listing is relevant geographic ties pulled from Wikipedia.
    Both Gallant and Citrano had suggestions. The Local Angle was also conceived to help publishers come up with story ideas, and Gallant asked if Knight Lab had considered a “This Day in History” widget that can either be used by publishers for story leads or shared with readers. Citrano shared that obits get some of the most hits on her site, and even when natives or once-residents move away, people care to know if they have passed away. She has set up a Legacy.com search, but that only pulls from major papers. That would be another opportunity for Local Angle to surface local connections.
    Meanwhile, Ruffin Prevost of Yellowstone Gate has already used The Local Angle, and since Wyoming has a smaller share of the U.S. population, he feels it would be more useful to map out topics of interest to geographic communities.
  • TwxRay maps out the most frequently tweeted topics of any given Twitter user.
    “Under the hood, this is actually fairly complex,” Gordon said. It looks at the content of the tweets and then matches it up within a database using content categorizations from The Huffington Post. For any entered Twitter handle, TwxRay scrubs the last 400 tweets to present a pie chart with content categories and sample category tweets.

While Knight Lab is seeking feedback from Block by Blockers, Susan Mernit was ready with hers. “It would be great to have a system, virtual or real, to have hack sessions with publishers like those in the room [to make sure there is a use case],” Mernit said. As for potential tools, Oakland Local has been getting into the civic data movement, and Mernit observed that it rarely focuses on a local level; the demand for transparency is usually national. Mernit wants to see students build civic data apps that are easily localized.

Ilfeld suggested a feedback loop to find out what the publishers’ audience think of the tools, not just what the publishers think because ultimately, even Knight Lab’s products will rise and fall by publishers’ end users.

“What we’ve demonstrated to the classes is we can get to a proof of concept,” Gordon said, and to move forward and determine what resources to devote, Knight Lab needs to get feedback.

Get the full notes and details over at MIT’s etherpad.

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4 Responses to Knight Lab Year Two: Progress, use cases and feedback

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  3. Rich Gordon says:

    Denise, this is a great writeup of the projects we demo’d at Block by Block 2012. One small correction, which might have been my misspeaking: Tyler Fisher, who’s developing the SoundCite project, is a Northwestern undergraduate (not graduate) student.