Monday, December 19, 2011

A breakthrough in data visualization, what it means for data journalism, predicting the news

Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation announced a new system to help researchers make sense of stores of scientific papers, and potentially find the “next big thing.”

The Action Science Explorer, or ASE, developed jointly by University of Michigan and University of Maryland faculty, takes a difficult cognitive task -- backtracking through paper citations to identify a breakthrough -- and “offloads” it to the much easier task of perceiving density in network visualizations. In other words, it takes mounds of difficult to digest research, and uses social network analysis techniques and graphing to make the information immediately recognizable.

The ASE visually represents papers and concepts as they appear over time, identifies the moment where fields branched out and flourished, and also finds moments where other research became obsolete or lost. It also identifies emerging fields of study:

“Users can quickly appreciate the strength of relationships between groups of papers and see bridging papers that bring together established fields. Even more potent for those studying emerging fields is the capacity to explore an evolutionary visualization using a temporal slider. Temporal visualizations can show the appearance of an initial paper, the gradual increase in papers that cite it, and sometimes the explosion of activity for ‘hot’ topics. Other temporal phenomena are the bridging of communities, fracturing of research topics, and sometimes the demise of a hypotheses.”
(from the ASE tech report)

Here’s how it works:

The ASE researchers say this software has potential in the fields of linguistics, biology and sociology, writing “Both students and educators must have access to accurate surveys of previous work, ranging from short summaries to in-depth historical notes. Government decision-makers must learn about different scientific fields to determine funding priorities.”

But suppose data journalists use similar tools to analyze legislation over time, to forecast future bills and political alliances. Clusters would indicate where certain provisions failed, where lobbyists and special interests had influenced legislation the most, and possibly how those interests would proceed in the future. Instead of conducting reactionary reporting, or relying on too-late intelligence that lets legislation slip through unnoticed, reporters could use the system to help guide questions and investigations.

In September, computer scientist Kalev Leetaru here on the University of Illinois campus did something just as remarkable. He compiled more than 100 million media reports, text-mined and crunched them in a supercomputer, and was able to chart and even predict the instability in Libya and Egypt.

Impressively, Leetaru was also able to use those news reports to estimate the location of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Ladin with a 200km degree of accuracy. From the BBC news, who reported on Leetaru’s research:
The computer event analysis model appears to give forewarning of major events, based on deteriorating sentiment.
However, in the case of this study, its analysis is applied to things that have already happened.
According to Kalev Leetaru, such a system could easily be adapted to work in real time, giving an element of foresight.
"That's the next stage," said Mr Leetaru, who is already working on developing the technology.
"It looks like a stock ticker in many regards and you know what direction it has been heading the last few minutes and you want to know where it is heading in the next few.
“Predictive reporting” or “news forecasting” could prove invaluable to digital newsrooms, where seconds mean the difference between breaking the news and just being one of the reporting mob. And if news agencies work on integrating advances in computer and information science into the office, instead of just reporting on them, it could enhance reporting across the entire organization.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Founding a Professional Society of Drone Journalists

It’s been quite a month for drones. After Iranian armed forces captured one of the coveted American RQ170 stealth drones, the very same stealth drone that pierced Pakistani airspace to spy on Osama bin Laden, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman released previously unpublished photos of the carnage that U.S. military drones unleashed in Waziristan.

Later, the Los Angeles Times wrote about how the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection lent a Predator B drone to North Dakota law enforcement. Sheriffs in Nelson County, N.D., fearing a search for missing cattle would end with deadly firefight with a “sovereign citizen” group, spied on the group and arrested members after the drone revealed they were unarmed. The report went on to reveal that local law enforcement had used Predators stationed at the Grand Forks Air Base for at least two dozen surveillance flights since June, and the FBI and DEA have used Predators in their own investigations.

Salon’s Glen Greenwald warned of the expansion of domestic drones, and the sizable lobbying power of drone contractors in Congress, writing “the escalating addition of drones — weaponized or even just surveillance — to the vast arsenal of domestic weapons that already exist is a serious, consequential development. The fact that it has happened with almost no debate and no real legal authorization is itself highly significant.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post dedicated its December 4 front page to the Israeli military’s use of drones in Gaza. But one Post reporter asked the question that journalists like me have been wondering for some time: What’s the potential use for drones in journalism?

Melissa Bell’s piece, “Drone journalism? The idea could fly in the U.S.” mentions my writing on a drone journalism Google group, where I mention that drone technology could help journalists “to take water or air samples or to scan for topographical data to make assessments about industrial impact on the environment.”

Bell mentioned Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and developer of Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact, who just began the world’s first drone journalism lab. Waite unveiled his plan for a drone journalism lab at a News Foo conference, where the immediate reaction was skepticism.

“News Foo had a number of tech people very interested in and sensitive to privacy issues and they were quite wary,” Waite told data journalist Ben Welsh. “They immediately went to TMZ+Lindsay Lohan as an example of how drones could be misused.

“So when I started thinking about this idea, I immediately thought that people would rightfully be wary of this and that the sooner we started talking about ethics and laws, the sooner we could have answers for criticisms and guidelines to balance the public’s right to know and people’s expectations of privacy.”

I was unaware of Waite’s announcement, or his drone journalism lab, until the WaPo story. But given the most spectacular breach of journalism ethics in recent history (the News of the World/NewsCorp phone hacking scandal), it was not lost on me how important it would be to establish a code of ethics for drone journalists. The code of ethics would be deliberated and drawn up by experts in the field, similar to the way the Society of Professional Journalists developed and supported its code of ethics.

To that end, I purchased as the future home of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ). At the time of this post, the website is dominated by a placard that displays the mission statement of the PSDJ: “Dedicated to developing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism.”

I also called Waite to bounce ideas about the first professional organization for drone journalists. One of his ideas was that the organization pursues a code of ethics via Wiki-style collaboration, but that the collaboration should only involve experts and practitioners of drone journalism. He, too, realized the need for an organization to help pull down a concrete ethical framework for journalists.

“This is really cool on one side, really creepy on the other,” Waite said in the conversation. “I think you are being dishonest if you are on the cool side, not thinking there’s something creepy about [drone journalism]. There’s a significant opportunity for mayhem and privacy violations.”

On the other hand, he said, “I think you are missing the point if you don’t see the amazing things you can do with the technology.”

For an example, Waite pointed out that Russian citizen journalists had employed an SLR-equipped drone to obtain aerial shots of a recent protest. The Daily Beast, one of the first news organizations to use a drone, surveyed tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri, and flood damage in Natchez, Mississippi and Minot, North Dakota.

Video from a citizen journalist capturing footage during Poland protests.

Waite said one of the first things he’s going to try to do with his first drones is attempt to violate his own privacy. And, of course, if the drone does violate his privacy, that would make a first case study for developing an ethical framework for drone journalism. “I could stand on a public sidewalk and see if I can’t get a drone high enough to get into my backyard with my kids with a sign that says ‘you’re violating my privacy,’” he said.

But there’s two other components to the PSDJ besides ethics: education and technology. We need to teach journalists how to use the equipment safely and effectively, and we need to keep journalists at the forefront of civil drone technology.

Waite used a $1,000 grant from the company he founded to purchase an off-the-shelf drone, the AR Drone quadcopter by Parrot, to be equipped later with a GoPro HD video recorder. Out of the box, the AR Drone provides a relatively stable platform for shooting video, and is controllable by iPhone or Android smartphone. Steve Doig, a Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist who teaches at ASU, also is experimenting with the AR Drone platform.

"You can get it at Brookstone in the mall," Waite said. "It's got an API and you can hack it. It's made of stock parts. You can controll it from your smartphone. And it's cheap."

A Parrot AR Drone in flight.

The next step for me will likely be purchasing the same drone and outfitting it in the same fashion. Not too much later, I hope to be able to develop some Arduino-based, fixed-wing aircraft to shoot photos along a predetermined path, and stitch those photos together later. But Waite and I know this is just a starting point; an inexpensive, yet effective demonstration of the concept. From there, it’s experimentation and learning.

“What I would love to do, once we have these platforms, is let’s cover some news,” Waite said.  “A house fire in your city. Spring floods. There will be tornadoes, it’s as predictable as the sun coming up. Let’s cover them and write about our experiences and through those.”