Showing posts with label data journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label data journalism. Show all posts

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A call for journalists and makers to join hands around IOT and evidence-based journalism

Writing for Al Jazeera English, D. Parvaz reported on a recent conference for atomic experts organized by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), where it was remarkably difficult to get answers from atomic experts.

The conference, titled “International Experts’ Meeting on Radiation Protection after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident – Promoting confidence and understanding,” was generally closed to the media. Journalists received presentations on USB drives, but were not given any opportunities for Q&A. The media handlers were pleasant, but not very helpful, Parvaz noted.

Great! I requested an interview with the IAEA Scientific Secretariat, Tony Colgan (no can do). Or a statement on why the conference was closed to the media (not so much). How about an IAEA expert on the effects of radiation on sea life? (Nope).

For a conference designed to “promote confidence and understanding” with the public, there was very little engagement with the public. Despite this, Parvaz did find one group of presenters who were very helpful and answered her questions.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Satellite images show devastating effects of a big tornado on a small Illinois town


The Nov. 17, 2013 tornado outbreak ended the lives of three people in the town of Washington, Ill., and upended the lives of many in the town of 15,000.

Many news stations released aerial photos of the devastation, but only recently were satellite photos released which gave a new appreciation of the scope of the disaster. As many as 500 homes were damage or destroyed during the tornado outbreak.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Building and flying an incredibly tiny quadrotor drone

At the National Science Foundation grant where I work, EnLiST, we've been tinkering with various different drone platforms which could be easily deployed in classrooms for valuable STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) lessons.

Although we're focused on STEM education, it's not hard to see how some of these drones can be used in a variety of other fields. The quadrotors we develop one day could be deployed for research in environmental science, geology, city planning, and even "evidence-based" journalism.

Drones are useful like that. At the end of they day, they're simply a means of getting a sensor from one place to another. What you use that sensor for, is entirely up to the teacher, scientist, or journalist.

We needed a drone that was small enough to fly in a classroom, easy enough for children to fly (not saying much as kids tend to pilot drones with relative ease), and hackable enough that we could mold it to fit our science curriculum.

Enter the Crazyflie nano, a tiny, open-source drone developed by Swedish hackers at At 19 grams, and measuring 9 cm from motor to motor, it's one of the smallest quadrotor drones on the market today.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Drones, journalism, and the peak of inflated expectations

It's a story that's been repeated time and time again with emergent technology. Researchers publish some new breakthrough, and the press grabs hold of the news release and begins extrapolating stories about how the new tech could revolutionize our lives. Expectations build as ideas bounce within the media echo chamber, pitchmen evangelize audiences at the trendy tech conferences, and venture capitalists make power plays in the market.

Everyone wants a piece because the sky is the limit, and the sky is the limit because everyone wants a piece.

Products finally hit the market, and eventually, reality sets in. Like the doomsayers who predict apocalypse time and time again, the prophesied miracles fail to materialize. The technology is immature. Deliverables fail to match objectives. Most importantly, the technology was overvalued, and an adjustment takes place.

This "hype curve" -- rising expectations, peak interest, and curbed enthusiasm -- doesn't happen to every piece of technology that comes around. But this bubble does happen with surprising regularity. Every year, Gartner, a tech research corporation, produces a report that attempts to identify where various technologies are riding on this bubble.

Gartner released its latest report, "2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies," last month. In it, the company prognosticates that drones and other unmanned technologies are coming up to that peak. At that point, the unmanned systems sector might be in for some pain.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Heat island effect and asthma: an argument for temperature nodes for journalists

Meteorologists shouldn’t be the only people in the news ecosystem concerned with temperature. Extreme temperatures can exacerbate food shortages, hurt the economy, affect energy prices, provoke health crises, cancel public events and disrupt public services.

At the moment, Australia is undergoing the worst heat wave it’s ever recorded. Pavement has melted, and gasoline evaporates right out of the fuel pump, making refueling a car a challenge. Fires are burning out of control in coastal regions. People have died.

It’s gotten so hot (all together now: how hot is it?) that the Australian weather service has added a new color to its heat map which denotes temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 50 degrees Celsius, or half the boiling point of water.

This also doesn’t seem like a problem that will disappear in the near future. Climate scientists believe extreme temperatures are only going to be more prevalent. Due to climate change, many parts of the world could experience more extreme high temperatures and fewer extreme low temperatures, with climate models predicting higher maximum temperatures and more heat waves in the future (Easterling et al, 2000).

By some estimates, these heat waves will increase by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next four decades (Barriopedro et al, 2011). Without countermeasures, these high temps could cause “increased adverse health impacts from heat-related mortality, pollution, storm-related fatalities and injuries, and infectious diseases” (Field et all, 2007).

Some might point out that we have a national service that tells us what the temperature is. Election forecasting virtuoso Nate Silver pointed out in his book “The Signal and the Noise” that it’s such a valuable service, in fact, that a multi-billion dollar service industry in weather forecasting has sprung up from the National Weather Service freely sharing its weather data (it should be noted that these services are providing independent forecasts, not simply repackaging NWS data).

In an age where many phones come pre-loaded with weather apps, does it make sense for a publication to have a network of temperature sensors?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Time-lapse photography with drone parts

Let’s say you’re a journalist and you want to record an important event taking place over an extended period, say 12 to 72 hours. Or even a week, or longer. If you want to record the event with video, that’s far too long to expect anyone to watch it in its entirety.

You can, however, record the whole thing and use some kind of time compression in post-production software. But if you’re recording on high definition video, you can only expect to record about four hours on a 32 gigabyte SD card. Even if you manage to capture 12 or 72 hours of high-definition video using a hard drive, it’s going to be hard to work with such a big file.

The solution is time-lapse photography, which simply means taking photos at regular intervals and turning them into individual frames on a video. During hurricane Sandy, a number of news sites and tech-savvy citizens used a time-lapse photography to document the storm's impact on New York City (below). If you’re not in a hurricane-prone area, you can find other weather-related applications for this technique, such as recording a flood-prone area during a storm.

Of course, you could just as easily record important non-weather events, such as big construction projects, or traffic on a bottlenecked road. Compressing these large-scale but slow-moving events into a one or two-minute clip makes for dramatic video.

At its most basic, you only need two things to pull off a time-lapse video. You’ll at least need a camera equipped with an intervalmeter (a fancy way of saying it can be programmed to take photos at regular intervals), and software to turn the photos into videos.

A camera battery will only last so long, though. If you’re hoping to capture an event longer than three hours, you’ll probably have to rig up an external power supply. This power supply can be as simple as a motorcycle battery hooked up to a voltage regulator, or it can be a sophisticated, computer-controlled lithium polymer setup with photovoltaic (solar) cells. Then there’s the matter of finding a memory card of sufficient size, and a mounting solution with sufficient stability.

Simple is better. If you’ve got drone journalism equipment lying around as I do, you likely already have all the requisite components to make a great time-lapse video. The following is a breakdown of my own experiment in time-lapse photography, which you can replicate or modify to suit your own needs.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Journalism Drone Development: aerial photo mosiacs, and what's the spatial resolution on this drone, anyway?

Above is an aerial mosaic -- a series of 11 photos taken from a small unmanned aerial vehicle (colloquially known as a drone) that have been stitched together in a mosaiking program.

That program, Microsoft Image Composite Editor, is normally used to stitch together a series of sweeping photos taken from the ground to make a single panoramic image. However, the algorithm used to find and match the edges of a series of sweeping photos of, say, the Grand Canyon, is the same algorithm needed to fit photos together to make a map or similar map-esque image from aerial photos.

So, what kind of drone journalism could you do with this kind of image? Aerial photographers have been able to capture a breathtaking, panoramic view of Moscow protests from drones. These drones offer a perspective that is especially helpful at documenting the scope or extent of protests, political rallies, construction projects, landmarks, geographic features, and natural and man-made disasters.

But what kind of data journalism can you do with these drones? That's to say, what kind of hard data can you obtain from these images to launch investigations? How about proving the existence of or extent of something, such as oil spills, wild fires, droughts, or lax construction codes following a disaster, with actual metrics?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Drone stalkers, privacy, ethics and the future: A Drone Journalism Q&A

One of the MAV (Micro Aerial Vehicle) test platform that developers are working with.

Recently, a journalism student from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth emailed me some questions about drone journalism. She was doing research as part of an ethics and law class, and was wanting to know what I believe the future holds for drone journalism and the potential ethical conflicts that might arise from using that technology.

Given the interest many others have had about domestic drones, I thought it would be useful to make that Q&A public. She agreed, and so I've decided to post it here.

Do you think there needs to be an specific mention of drone use in journalists' codes of ethics? Would the guidelines differ from the ethical guidelines for a photographer using a handheld camera?

While existing codes of ethics have proven helpful, blind spots come up when we introduce disruptive technology, or have a communication revolution. I think drone journalism is one of those innovations that forces journalists to take stock of their traditional ethical responsibilities and make some revisions or additions.

We’re trying to establish what those new ethical responsibilities are at and the Professional Society of Drone Journalists. The most frequent ethical concern I hear about involves privacy. Can you ethically allow a drone to film a private person on private property? (Generally, no, you cannot) But there’s more to these drones than just that.

For example, the force needed to keep camera gear, radios and batteries aloft is not insignificant. The rigs we are experimenting with could easily injure a person. If a quadcopter is hovering above someone’s head at 300 feet and suddenly loses power, the results could be disastrous. So a big part of our ethics code is safety. Am I capable of controlling it? Is it safe to operate under these conditions? Am I prepared to take action when something goes wrong? The ethics of safety will trump the value of the story every time.

Something else to consider is that drone technology right now is not as advanced as some would fear it to be. Most multi-rotor craft (helicopters, quadcopters, hexacopters) can only stay aloft for 15 minutes or so. Fixed-wing craft (airplanes) can fly for much longer periods of time, but they can’t be deployed easily or legally yet. And the weather has to be just right. At this stage, a malcontent with a telephoto lens can do more damage than the drones we’re developing. Still, even at this stage, intrusion of private spaces is possible and needs to be discouraged.

Here in Champaign, for instance, we had a story about someone following people at night in a park with what we think was a drone. Pretty scary stuff. This person wasn’t being a journalist, but the event made me realize that these things can really terrorize people if they’re not used properly. It’s not just the footage or data we’re collecting that we need to think about, but how we’re disrupting public spaces with objects that spin at a high rate of speed.

Getting back to the point, a drone journalist really needs to have the classic set of photojournalism ethics (don’t stage shots, don’t alter photos, don’t pay for coverage, be accurate, and all of the other points of the NPPA code), plus additional guidelines that encompass safety and the preservation of private spaces. Because the risk of intrusion of privacy is greater with this technology than any previous, a drone journalist must “amp-up” their ethical considerations.

In the media law and ethics class that I'm taking, I've learned that citizens don't usually enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, but could you see drone use in public spaces raising concerns with the general public, especially because they are less likely to know they are being photographed/observed (depending on the size of the drone, it could be much easier to spot someone standing on the corner with a camera)?
Very good question. Absolutely, people act differently when they know they’re being photographed. A person might chose to walk the other way when they see a journalist with a camera, whereas with a drone, they’d continue on unaware of the situation.

But I also think there’s something to be said for reporting on things as they actually happen, and not the way things happen when a journalist arrives on the scene. So I don’t categorically think it’s wrong to record people from a drone in a public area, even if those people think they’re not being watched. I think what you do with the footage or information is far more important.

If your story is on how private people behave in a public park (littering, smoking, indecent or illegal activity, what have you), you should try everything possible to withhold personally identifiable information. This becomes more important when you’re recording illegal activity, or events where you anticipate a strong public reaction.

What ethical standards would your propose for journalists using drones near or around private property? Would it ever be okay to capture photos or videos of what's happening on someone's private property? An example that immediately comes to mind is a political rally or fundraiser on someone's ranch.
The Supreme Court ruled it’s legal to take photos above private property (SCOTUS views the national airspace as a public space, and anything you view from that public can’t be offered the legal expectation of privacy – see California v. Ciraolo, Dow Chemical v. United States and Florida v. Riley). However, I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I’m not saying that journalists should never photograph the private property or private persons. Some investigations might be of critical importance to the public, and drones might be the only way to uncover the story. But those should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and never for sensationalism. The litmus test must be: does the public benefit outweigh the invasion of privacy? And could we get this information any other way?

For your example, I would have to consider the people at the rally. Presidents, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, and city council members are considered public figures, so they have different expectations of privacy. However, if the ranch is owned by a private person, that’s their private property, and so ethics might dictate you keep some kind of distance. But what if this person was highly influential, someone who’s being investigated for criminal activity, and a journalist wants to know who his closest political allies are – I think a journalist would be operating in the clear if they were to maintain a high enough altitude (200 or 300 feet, and perhaps not flying directly above the property). I don’t think there would be any case where it would be ethical, not to mention legal, to fly a drone at a low altitude over private property.

Are there any new ethical quandaries journalists might face once they start using drones that they may never have had to deal with before?
Yes, absolutely. There was an interesting panel recently at the Brookings Institute about the impact of drones on privacy, where Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU, made the comment that it’s rare that we have a chance to talk about the potential problems of technology before we adopt it. I think that’s a good thing that we’re having this conversation now, because I think the quandaries will only increase as the technology becomes more capable. Right now, the discussion about ethics is centered on the expectations of privacy and do we or do we not let our journalism drones cross those boundaries. What if a drone spies on a private citizen who is sunbathing in a back yard somewhere? What if it crosses over someone’s property? Those are the questions at the moment.

But the discussion is based on the capabilities of drones in the near future and not on drones 10 years from now. A decade into the future, drones are going to have more advanced sensing capabilities, more freedom of movement, and will have more advanced artificial intelligence. As their capabilities increase, so too will the complexity and the importance of tasks we assign them. We won’t really know to what extent these robots will be capable until they become adopted, so we will invent new jobs for them as we go along. So I can’t really hazard a guess at what we’ll be concerned about in the future, except to say that the current discussion will be resolved by then, and a new discussion will take place.

What do you think the most common news room use for drones in the near future?
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between what I think most news rooms (that have access to drones), and what I would hope news rooms would do with drones.

The way I see it playing out in news rooms, at least initially, is a wiz-bang fascination with technology that stops short of pushing the boundaries. Initial adoption might mean simple television newscasts that could be accomplished outdoors with a tripod are suddenly now “dronecasts.” The news producers might think it a great idea to film the segment from a drone from the sky. It might be visually impressive, but it lacks any sort of substance, and smacks of sensationalism.

I’ll explain why I believe that. Here in Champaign, there’s a local television news station that has failed to make good use of a similarly disruptive technology – online social media. But instead of really understanding the technology and using it to set up, for example, virtual town halls in Twitter, or increasing community outreach, or to source stories, they’ve used it to splash random, unmoderated, comments from random members of the community. These comments never add any substance to the story and they don’t do anything to advance public understanding through journalism. They’re simply a gimmick to hike viewership.

Now, that’s only one station, but you’ll find a similar attitude at most stations. Most television news stations happen are in small markets, and have small budgets, and do not generally chose to invest in the time or expertise it takes to make use of this disruptive technology. That said, I would expect these networks to improve their coverage in some regards. I imagine they would use drones to film local man-made and natural disasters, and certain newsworthy events that could best be covered live and from an aerial vantage point (car chases and crashes, construction projects, shootings, protests). To put it another way, think of all the things that mid-sized and large-market television news stations do with news helicopters, and now give those privileges to even small-market stations.

Of course, that’s just television news. Newspapers and websites probably would use drones more for data collection than aerial footage. In other words, think of all the things that researchers do with these drones (tracking pollution on a beachfront, calculating the oil flow from a damaged rig in the Gulf, mapping land development, conducting environmental surveys), but apply those methods to journalistic investigations.

I see the most hope where journalists can collaborate with scientists in multiple disciplines, conduct investigations using drones, and then package the findings in a digital format that the general public can easily digest. That is, so long as there’s funding, foresight and the will to do those types of projects.

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.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being a More Versatile Journalist: Data Journalism Veteran Steve Doig Wants Journalists to Know Statistics

Aerial photograph of the devastation from hurricane Andrew in 1992. Steve Doig, who was a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time, used his data journalism chops to survey the damage and write a Pulitzer-prize winning expose on construction malpractice. Earlier this year, I asked him what aspiring data journalists should be learning.

I cringe when bloggers begin a post by apologizing to readers for a lack of updates. This is partly because most people do, or should, understand that the gig doesn’t pay. But mostly, every word you waste on explaining your absence is one more chance for a reader to lose interest and go somewhere else. So I’ll just say it’s been an eventful couple of months, and tell you why it’s actually relevant to this blog.

Having just finished a master’s in journalism at the University of Illinois, I was extremely lucky to find a National Science Foundation grant that is training better K-12 science teachers.

At the grant, we do this by teaching lessons in entrepreneurial leadership to science teachers. That translates into experiences like students constructing their own spectrophotometers, or high school students manufacturing their own biofuel, or even collaborations where high school students set up demonstrations on electricity for grade school students to work through.

It’s a radical, but practical approach that hopes to improve the nation’s competitiveness in science teaching. In January, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress report card on teaching showed that 47 percent of all high school seniors in the country are deficient in the sciences.

Why would an NSF grant want a journalist? For one, I understood their language. Being a former undergraduate student of mechanical engineering, I had taken chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics courses. Secondly, they wanted someone experienced in the ways of conducting interviews (i.e., collecting data) and translating the information into an easily digestible form (i.e., not only help write reports for the NSF but also write for public dissemination).

That was all they were looking for initially, until I mentioned I had worked with NodeXL, a template that turns Microsoft Excel into a tool for analyzing social networks. I was introduced to the program by Brant Houston, in his investigative reporting class at the university. The Excel plug-in comes in handy during an investigation when you need to do things like plot like the flow of money or political influence within organizations or among groups of people. As it turns out, the grant was conducting a first-of-its kind analysis of teaching networks and needed someone with my expertise.

The moral of this story could be that if you develop skills beyond traditional journalism in undergraduate/graduate school, it’s easier to parlay your skills into a new career when the journalism jobs market tanks. But the fact is I’m still practicing journalism, albeit during my off-hours.

I recently submitted an investigation of a local church with more than $100,000 in tax liens to, a Knight foundation-funded community news website. The investigation required digging up and looking through nonprofit tax records, federal tax liens, city ordinances, and even credit union call reports. The investigation stemmed from a legal notice I stumbled upon in the aforementioned investigative journalism class.

Rather, this is why a journalist should learn data journalism: to become a more versatile investigator.

When I was teaching introductory journalism classes to freshmen and sophomore university students, I wanted them to know exactly why it’s useful to have computer and data journalism skills. So I put together a presentation on data journalism for a lecture of about 100 students, and asked data journalism veteran Steve Doig, who is currently the Knight Chair at the Walter Cronkite school of journalism, for a few bits of advice.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What improved word clouds reveal in Obama, Bernanke jobs and economy speeches

The above is a word cloud using President Obama’s Sept. 8 address to Congress. As is customary with word clouds, the more times a word occurs in a text, the larger the font size in the cloud. Even if you weren’t aware of the nature of the speech, it’s obvious from the cloud that Obama’s address to Congress dealt with “jobs” in “America.”

But word clouds have limits. Seth Duncan, analytics director for the digital public relations firm WCG, wrote on the blog in 2010 that the simplicity of the word cloud could contribute to a decline of reading comprehension. In his post, “Word Clouds and the Cognitive Decline of PR and Marketing,” Duncan wrote that he strongly believed “that the word cloud is the biggest enemy of deep reading and lowest form of artificial intelligence in marketing and PR.”

“You can read the content very quickly (because they don’t contain much information) and they have a unique look. I also think that word clouds can provide useful information for SEM or SEO planning. But people are fooling themselves if they think that a word cloud offers a satisfactory summary of hundreds or thousands of pages of text,” he wrote.

NYU political science PhD student Drew Conway has a similar, but different beef with word clouds. Conway looked at a word cloud, essential a plot of words in three dimensions (x, y, and font size), and saw a missed opportunity. “They are meant to summarize a single statistics—word frequency—yet they use a two dimensional space to express that,” he wrote.

His solution came from his background in statistics, which oftentimes compares two sets of data. For his improved word cloud, he compared two speeches by political figures and used the x-axis to describe the similarity between two speeches. To accomplish this, he used the free, open-source statistical programming environment R, which has a data-mining and graphics plotting features, along with some custom coding.

But what to compare the Obama jobs speech to? That same day, bankers and business executives at the Economic Club of Minnesota waited eagerly to hear the Fed Chair Ben Bernanke outline what the Fed would do to alleviate economic concerns.

Obama and Bernanke were speaking to two very different audiences, and had different objectives. Obama was speaking to a Congress hell bent on being re-elected and an anxious, under-employed American public. Meanwhile, Bernanke was speaking to titans of industry and banking. These differences shouldn’t be an excuse not to compare the two speeches; rather, both speakers are components of the administration weighing in on essentially the same issue.

Differences in their speeches could signal a difference in opinion and discord about an appropriate response, while similarities could point to ideas with a measure of political support. If nothing else, it’s worth looking at how two high-ranking officials in an administration tailor speeches on economic issues to two different audiences.

Here’s what those two speeches look like in Conway’s “better word cloud.” Click to see the plot in a higher resolution.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

South-side children have greatest exposure to lead in Chicago, health department data shows

This interactive heat map, compiled using Chicago Department of Public Health data, GIS files, and Google Fusion, shows where Children with the highest rates elevated blood lead levels in Chicago live. Data is from 2010.

Chicago Department of Public Health data shows that children in the poorer, industrialized south of Chicago are more likely to have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies than children in more affluent neighborhoods.

The data, obtained by a FOIA request from the health department, shows the levels of lead the agency found in children 17 and under in the city of Chicago. Most children tested for lead, however, were under 6 years old.

“An EBL or elevated blood lead level, is defined… as the child’s highest venous test with a result of 6 or more micrograms lead (Pb) per deciliter blood,” the health department wrote.

According to the EPA, there is no safe level for lead in the human bloodstream. At 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, children can develop symptoms such as “lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior.”

The most recent results are from 2010, but the file contains annual results back to 2005. They were compiled with the help of an epidemiologist in the department.

“Multiple blood lead tests were determined using an algorithm that matches children by name, date of birth and sex, while allowing for common typographical and data entry (eg, reversing first and last name) errors for blood lead tests conducted within a calendar year,” the health department wrote.

In the interactive heat map at the top of the post shows the rate at which children in each of Chicago’s 77 communities reported elevated levels of lead.

The Englewood community has the highest EBL rate, where 9.15 percent of the children who were tested for lead came back with a positive EBL. Neighborhoods in the north end of Chicago had EBL rates between 0.8 percent and 3.31 percent.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Visualization - Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood struggles with pollution

The Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago faces unique challenges in terms of environment and health. It retains some of its manufacturing base from when it was an industrial center for Chicago, yet it is primarily residential and now houses a large Latino population. The combination of a dense population and high emissions mean that pollution for the neighborhood is a major concern, as the above visualization demonstrates.

This visualization is part of the series "The Battle in the Barrio: The Struggle in Chicago's Pilsen Neighborhood Against Pollution." Part one, "Four sisters, one rare disorder," is here. And part two, "Old problems, new attention," is here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google scholarship signals growth in data journalism field

Google announced Monday that it would give $20,000 to journalism students who can mash-up computer science and enterprise reporting.

The scholarship program is a joint venture between the Associated Press (AP) and Google, and will be administered by the Online News Association (ONA).

“The AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship program will provide $20,000 scholarships for the 2012-13 academic year to six promising undergraduate or graduate students pursuing or planning to pursue degrees at the intersection of journalism, computer science and new media,” Google and the AP wrote in a press release. “The program is targeted to individual students creating innovative projects that further the ideals of digital journalism.”

On the official Google blog, ONA executive director Jane McDonnell said the goal of the scholarship was “to shine a light on the hidden treasures in schools across the country—the digital-minded journalists who will be the future of our industry.”

More information is available at

The AP-Google scholarship is one of the latest initiatives to bolster the ranks of journalists with data specialists who can use computer skills to sort, filter and describe important trends hiding in a sea of public data. Those trends can be a springboard to launch investigations into a wide variety of issues, including poverty, health, crime and social justice.

The need for those types of computer and analytical skills is only increasing as governments begin to publish on the internet troves of documents that were previously difficult to access.

Brant Houston, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation chair for enterprise and investigative reporting at the University of Illinois, wrote in the summer 2010 Nieman Reports that data journalists could help improve the nation’s investigative reporting strength.

 “Digital media’s capabilities might provide ways to hold public agencies accountable while expanding journalists’ role as community watchdogs,” he wrote.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Radical New Mission for Drones: Helping Journalists find Truth

Drones are mostly associated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan – where they continue to shoot missiles and drop bombs on the insurgency. Between 1,492 and 2,378 died from drone attacks in Pakistan between 2004 and May 24, 2011, according to theNew America Foundation, and the number of drone attacks have more than doubled under the Obama administration.

The drones present serious concerns for the Pakistanis about their own safety and sovereignty, and have sparked protests at the UK parliament.

The military-industrial complex and global politics have greatly advanced both the application and development of military drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as they’re called in military parlance. A large, jet-powered stealth drone played a majorrole in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Now there’s entire military expos dedicated solely to UAVs.

But armed conflict and espionage are not a drone’s raison d'ĂȘtre. Strictly speaking, a drone is simply an unmanned vehicle that guided remotely, or is self-guiding. And just as the advancement of drone technology has increased the military’s capabilities, those advancements have trickled down to the private commercial sector.

With a little know-how, a resourceful civilian – or journalist -- can order “off-the-shelf” components and make and fly a drone.