Paul Lewis, Alastair Dant & Jonathan Austin at the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Jam

 by Martin Belam, 29 May 2011

Having recently been to FutureEverything, the BBC Social Media Summit and news:rewired, you might think I’d be a bit “conferenced out” - but on Saturday I spent the day in the Guardian’s offices as a guest at the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Jam. As a preamble to the actual brain-storming and designing, there were a few talks. Here are my notes from them:

Paul Lewis

“There are fewer investigative journalists, but more people doing investigative journalism” - Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis spoke about how he had used Twitter to track down witnesses to the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga. He said that one of the things that was interesting about social media was that it allowed the crowd that had been present at a physical event to reconvene themselves in a virtual environment.

He said that now stories that express a sceptical view of the official view of events act as “online magnets” and that his style of writing had changed to specifically put in phrases that conveyed that the Guardian thought there was “more than meets the eye” about certain stories. This invited people to contact the paper with more details.

Paul Lewis thought that there was nothing big that happened in the Western world now that didn’t get digitally captured or recorded somehow, and that this was a brilliant opportunity for journalists. It also posed problems. He said the two important things that journalists don’t yet have in their toolbox for dealing with digital material was a quick way to verify the identity of social media users, and a way of getting to important or significant things before they have become popular.

If you are interested in Paul’s tale of how he used Twitter to track down witnesses to the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga then you can watch his TEDx presentation, and here are some notes I made earlier this year when he spoke at an event - “The Guardian's Paul Lewis on crowd-sourcing investigative journalism with Twitter

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Jonathan Austin

The BBC’s Jonathan Austin gave a presentation introducing the way that the BBC News Specials team work, and describing some of the technical innovation the corporation was doing around open web standards. In fact he told the room that during Wimbledon their experiments with web sockets and node.js had left them with a scoreboard on the web site for Wimbledon that actually updated faster than the scoreboards on the courts did. He also talked about the dynamic semantic publishing the BBC did for the 2010 World Cup and intends to do again for the 2012 Olympics.

Part of the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation challenge is a competition to win fellowships which include placements in the BBC, the Guardian, the Boston Globe and Zeit Online. Jonathan explained a little bit about how you would need to be a resilient kind of person to cope with the pace and pressure of doing technology to the deadlines of a newsroom.

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Alastair Dant

My Guardian colleague Alastair Dant spoke about the way that news sites use interactive technologies for storytelling. He talked about the varying life cycle of projects within a news organisation. Some interactives can take between one to three hours where they are very driven by the news agenda, and they use set templates that the team have. Other projects last from one to three days, and again the team will try to employ libraries and existing components to bring something together. Longer projects can take up to three weeks, especially if complex database integration is required.

This can lead to a tension within a news organisation. Alastair said that often there is a pressure to get something live early when, as a technologist, you don’t really want to release software until you are sure it is “finished finished” rather than just “finished” or “sort-of-ready”. The performance of interactives with the audience can also depend on scheduling. It can be frustrating, Alastair says, when you work for a couple of weeks on something that has a pre-ordained launch time, and then breaking news developments mean that it can’t get the full promotional focus of the website.

During the course of his talk, Alastair cited the production department as the “unsung heroes” of interactives at the Guardian. Often they are the people wrestling with spreadsheets and site building tools that enable an interactive to go live and be populated with real data, long after other disciplines within the business have ceased working on it.

Since the event was supported by Mozilla and had a view to HTML5 and open web standards, Alastair took a little time to compare the state of play between building interactives in the new mark-up language and using Flash. At the Guardian we have begun to make some production HTML5 interactives like this timeline and map of NATO bombings in Libya. Alastair’s main concern at the moment is the lack of tooling and workflow around HTML5. Because Adobe’s suite of publishing tools are so closely integrated, it is currently relatively straightforward for the interactive team to take work from elsewhere in the building in the form of Illustrator files, and start working on animating them. That kind of workflow just doesn’t yet seem viable using open web standards.

Oh, and being a Mozilla event, Alastair got a round of applause for announcing that we had recently ditched testing support for Internet Explorer 6.

You might also want to read some notes I made when I saw Alastair giving a similar talk last year - “Alastair Dant talks 'Interactives - now and the future' at Hacks/Hackers London meet-up


Over the next few days I’ll have some further notes from the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Jam, including how I came to find myself writing on a wireframe sketch “we will tell your mum.”

1 Comment

Thanks for the great write-up, Martin! And please tell us about the public shaming wireframe. And the troll idea mockup. ^^

Was lovely to meet you on Sat.

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