My notes from news:rewired - Data journalism and social media

 by Martin Belam, 28 May 2011

I spent a really good day at news:rewired yesterday. With one track dedicated to data journalism, and another to social media, it was no surprise that I found plenty of things of interest. Here are my notes on some of the things that stood out for me.

Resources, resources, resources

Alex Gubbay from the BBC gave a great talk about how they verify social media contributions, including things like whether the shadows in a video look right for the claimed time of day, using Google Street View to try and recreate a point of view shot, and how they check with the BBC’s Arabic and Persian services whether the accents of foreign contributions are appropriate.

He said the BBC were lucky to have those resources available to them, and it does throw some things into sharp relief if you are outside the BBC. At the Guardian, when the Japanese tsunami story broke, one of our brilliant designers who I work with closely ended up sitting on the news desk sifting through social media content because she is a native Japanese speaker. We were very proud of our coverage, and she did an amazing job, but we may not be so lucky if a similar disaster hit Sri Lanka or Indonesia. It simply isn’t the same as having BBC Monitoring on the end of the phone.

“Stuff about stuff”

One of Greg Hadfield’s best lines, and he had quite a few, was observing that “Data is just stuff”.

As Paul Bradshaw explained at FutureEverything, in a digital world where everything is zeroes and ones, spotting data patterns in video and audio and still images becomes the same computer-driven task as spotting patterns in the numbers that we traditionally describe as data.

And from a nerdy IA point of view, if “data is just stuff”, then metadata becomes “stuff about stuff”. That seems about right to me.

A journalism start-up that makes money?

There was a moment I couldn’t quite believe when OWNI’s Federica Cocco said that they had put together some developers, designers and journalists, and started making money. Someone making money from journalism, I thought to myself, are you sure you are at the right event?

It seemed that freed from the grind of having to produce a certain amount of daily news to a tight fixed deadline, OWNI had taken the opportunity to be innovative not just in the way they present storytelling of issues like immigration or mining safety, but also in their business model.

My feeling for many years has been that large media organisations will find themselves inevitably slimming down for a digital era and becoming more commissioning houses than news factories, and small businesses like OWNI seem well placed to be the type of start-up that would enhance a news site with slower-burn interactive content.

Movable Type isn’t dead!

“Movable Type isn’t dead!” - not a rallying cry from a print union, but the fact that I ended up sitting next to someone from the Editors Weblog, and spotted her using Movable Type to blog whilst the event was going on, whilst I was fiddling about with currybetdotnet. It may be the first time that two people have been using Movable Type as a blogging platform at a journalism conference since something like 2006...

Tracking down eyewitnesses with social media - Nicola Hughes

I think Nicola Hughes aka DataMinerUK was my favourite presenter on the day. She had an incredible urgency and passion about showing us how she had used social media tools at CNN to track down eyewitnesses to events and get them on air. It was, I think, reassuring to some of the more traditional journalists in the crowd to hear that this involved a good deal of “old-fashioned” reporting skills like following a lead and making phone calls. She had a great tale of getting a sea captain on air whose boat had exploded and who had spent three hours stuck in a tree in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese tsunami.

Her digital toolset included Trendsmap, Tweetdeck and Topsy. She had some neat little tricks like collating a list of people together who were talking about an event, then searching the column in Tweetdeck for Foursquare check-ins to see who might actually be in the vicinity, or find out where they went to university. She also had regular searches for trigger keywords like “rape” and “murder”, which might not become trending topics, but always signify an event that might be newsworthy.

Nicola made an interesting point about hashtags and the use of Unicode characters. She showed on screen how she used Google Translate to help her with some foreign language tweets, but pointed out that for hashtags to work they have to feature only Roman characters, which pretty much forces people to tag everything in English. This is a great advantage for a primarily English-speaking journalist, and one of those unintended social consequences of the way that computers handle the extended character sets required to display languages like Arabic or Japanese.

Getting permission to re-use social media content - Fergus Bell

One issue raised by Fergus Bell was that of getting permission to re-use social media content. As well as going to extraordinary lengths to track down and verify the originators of photos and videos that have been posted to the web, Fergus thinks news organisations have a duty of care to also make sure they seek permission to reproduce material before re-publishing it. This is particularly important for him because of the way that material distributed by Associated Press is then further distributed.

There has been a massive shift in control here, I think, in favour of media companies. It used to be that when a young teenager was a victim of a murder or a natural disaster, the grieving family got to carefully select the picture presented to the press - those iconic images that we see again and again, for example, of Milly Dowler.

By contrast, at the moment, as soon as someone becomes newsworthy, it feels that there are some elements of the British press who immediately rummage through their Facebook photos to see if there are any bikini shots. I think the public will eventually become resistant to thinking that everything they have uploaded online is “fair game” for the media, and it is an issue of ethics that should be addressed.

“Who live blogs the live bloggers...?”

The answer is Adam Tinworth of course. I sat next to him whilst he live blogged a session on live blogging, and nearly vanished into the space/time continuum. Just before the live blogging session started my Twitter stream was suddenly full, coincidentally I think, of a different bunch of people discussing live blogging. Matthew Buck and I discussed the worrying possibility that Twitter had started running faster than real life.

You can find Adam’s posts on all the sessions here:

I did ask Adam about whether he feels under pressure to live blog events now that he has a reputation for doing it, and he explained that, actually, he would feel under more pressure if he wasn’t publishing and trying to suppress the urge to. He said since he is going to be taking pretty comprehensive notes anyway, why not share them?


The last session of the day on live blogging was really excellent, and I think over the next few days I’ll publish my notes from that as a separate blog post.


Adam Tinworth points out that he was using Movable Type too - and I've just spotted someone at the Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Jam the very next day using it as well. Perhaps it is making a comeback!

A come back may be a bit strong, but there are a good chunk of people out there who have never had a compelling reason to move off, myself included. We just tend not to talk about it, because you get inundated with "WTF, why aren't you using WordPress?" type comments.

Plus, of course, Movable Type is big in Japan. ;-)

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