Prototyping Terror: Mumbai in NY

Two hours before our company holiday party, several of us were contemplating mass murder in Manhattan.

Not exactly Christmas cheer. But some good certainly came of it.

Really.

Several top thinkers and decision-makers reviewed the horrible events in Mumbai last month and considered how our news department would respond to a low-tech, coordinated attack on multiple locations in New York.

Here are some of our points of discussion, which could apply to any organization, journalistic or otherwise:

The Visioning Thing. We didn't do a full-scale drill, we simply took time to really visualize how things might happen. It was pretty powerful.

First we tried to think like terrorists and, as a group, picked three targets -- a transportation hub, a hotel and a shopping center. No sense naming them here; suffice it to say, we all knew each of them well and could picture the devastation and chaos.

Then we carefully imagined where each of our key people would be on a weeknight at 9:30, when Mumbai's night of hell began. Who lives where? Who's still at work? Who could get in fastest? What route would they take? Where would the first available reporters go? How would they stay safe? Think.

Our Civic Duty. We're journalists. It's second nature to pursue the facts and try to present them quickly, accurately in context. But as a broadcaster in a city under siege, our public service mission takes on new qualities, and raises questions. What do we do for people still in or near danger? Can we be better oriented to provide public warnings, safety and health info, comfort, maps, conversation, rumor control ... help? The conversation has started to adjust our operating Point of View, and could make a huge difference in how we serve our city (lowercase c) in those first few hours.

Information Overload. Phone calls, reporters, sources, Tweets, network audio, news wires, emails, web comments, TVs ... we easily came up with more than 20 distinct streams of audio, text, and visual information key to covering the story. In an era when all of this information is available to everyone on our staff, are we ready to monitor them all in a sophisticated, organized way? (Ah, no.)

Online, Under Pressure. Our methods for broadcasting have changed since 9/11 and The Northeast Blackout. We now use web alerts, social media, maps, and other tools to convey information. But when the adrenaline pumps, and minutes matter, we have to be ready to take advantage of all of these channels while maintaining our standards of accuracy and context.

Bias Toward Action. It's been 7 days since this meeting, and we're far better prepared than we were 8 days ago. What we've done, and are doing, is the subject of my next post, Break Glass Now.

[Photo by Andy Eakin]

Let's Date!

On your first date, you wouldn't plan your wedding. Or sign a prenup. Or name your baby.

So why do so many collaborations start that way?

Companies and organizations clearly need to learn how to date. See if you click. Get to know each other. Play.

Prototype, really.

Recent discussions I've had with a large company about collaborating quickly turned to who was going to walk the unborn child to preschool and pay for her clothes. It reminded me that people and organizations almost compulsively skip the playful exploring time. And the fun.

So let's take lessons from the millions of partnership prototypes that happen over dinner every Friday night:
Start with dinner. Get together. Talk. Dream. Learn. Over food, of course.

Don't be self-centered. You'll kill a relationship quickly if you spend all evening talking about yourself, your needs, your wants. Instead, find out about your potential partner. Learn about their hopes and dreams. Think about how they may enhance or build on yours.

Don't name the baby. Put off the discussion of branding, naming the project, how credit is bestowed. This gets emotional fast, and quickly moves you out of the realm of low-risk prototyping.

Put off the prenup. In fact, I'd avoid writing anything down at first -- especially anything regarding goals, directions, duties, etc. This starts to define the relationship from the outset instead of allowing for open innovation and low-risk experimentation.

Respect each other. Be nice. Be giving. Be open. And if that costs a little, consider it an investment in the potential of the partnership. Pick up the check here and there.

Meet up again. And again. Make a plan -- and put it in your calendar -- for the key people to meet regularly, preferably over a meal, to check in on how everyone's doing. That's the time to make sure nobody feels disrespected, over-committed, or unhappy. Then adjust accordingly.

Break up gracefully. If the partnership just doesn't click, part ways, remain friends, and be sure your team gets together to learn from, and record, what parts worked.
I won't kiss-and-tell about our newest collaboration, but I will say this is the approach WNYC took when we approached Iowa Public Radio back before the Iowa caucuses. We made a concerted effort to learn about them and focus on their needs. We talked a lot. We shared info and a common effort. And we didn't name the baby. The result was an amazing night of radio, and smiles all around (scroll to the bottom). It's also how we've approached a lasting relationship with the wonderful folks over at the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, where we first prototyped this kind of coverage.

Happy dating!

[Photo by hypertypos]

Passive, Aggressive Crowdsourcing

I've been awed by the power of passive crowdsourcing -- harnessing the power of crowds without the crowd realizing it.

Here are three examples, all by Google (natch):

Free 411. Dial 1-800-GOOG-411 and you get directory assistance from Google for free. No ads, no charges. Why would that be? As Wired pointed out, when you request the number for your favorite pizza place, Google captures your voice and actions to build and refine a voice-recognition system. You provide the error correction by picking from a list of its guesses, or even spelling out the request. Once a match is made, you get the phone number and Google's software gets a tiny bit smarter. The result? Today, Google added voice-recognition to its popular iPhone application.

Flu Tracker. Google has been able to track the severity and geography of the flu by watching the frequency and location of people searching for "flu symptoms" and other telltale keywords. Google's results closely match the CDC's national tracking data, which are based on reports from health care providers nationwide.

Location, location, location. When I got my new GPS-enabled phone home, I did what any self-respecting geek would do: use Google Maps to pinpoint my apartment to a silly degree of accuracy. For comparison, I then did the same thing on my wife's phone -- which also has Google Maps, but no GPS. To my surprise, it pinpointed exactly where I was! After a while, I figured out what had happened: With the search on the first phone, I had "taught" Google's systems the exact location of our particular combination of nearby cell phone towers, wireless networks, maybe even a bluetooth signal from the guy next door. When it saw the combination again, even without the GPS signal, it knew where it was.

So is there a role for passive crowdsourcing in journalism? I think so, but still thinking.

The driving force in each of these examples is that participation by the crowd is driven by utility: getting a phone number, searching for flu information, finding one's location. Hard to imagine a utility that a newspaper or radio station might provide to attract a large enough data set for a particular purpose.

However, I do know that people respond to direct requests by radio personalities and newspaper columnists to participate in crowdsourcing projects. Might such a request lead people to actively participate in a passive collection of data?

My friend Daniel Liss and I have brainstormed some nifty ideas we hope to try out.

Do you have any?

Election Night Design: Post-Vote Post

Prototype. Prototype. Prototype.

It really saved us. Monday we had everyone sit in place for a talk-through drill and discovered issues that would have been problematic on election night. The only thing that didn't work (once) was a wireless microphone setup in the newsroom which, ahem, we hadn't tried before.

One interesting tidbit: Virginia didn't prove to be the early key we thought it might be. In fact, with the earlier-than-expected call of Ohio for Obama, we knew he had won even before Virginia went his way.

And in a departure from many networks, we actually took our newsroom conversation to the air as early as 10:20 p.m.: Our host was honest about how we expected Obama to be called as President at 11 p.m., straight up, when the California, Washington and Oregon were declared his. As it then happened.

We're conducting a full internal critique Monday at Noon -- using the d.school's "I Wish, I Liked, How To" format.

Details to follow.

Election Night Design: Gaming and Planning

ITEM 1: There's a solid writeup of electoral vote scenarios at FiveThirtyEight.com expressing much of what we've been gaming out in our newsroom.

ITEM 2: Several weeks ago we worked to select a few Counties That Count, half-remembering* a prescient article that suggested a few Florida counties could decide the 2000 election.

Andrea Bernstein has counted our counties among her stops for The Takeaway, and points out that in the last few days Barack Obama has been doing the same -- visiting Clark County, Nevada; Pueblo County, Colorado; Prince William County, Virginia; and Palm Beach County, Florida.

This weekend, the journo-programmers at The Takeaway are working to make sure you can track the real-time election results from our Counties That Count on the show's website.

ITEM 3: To get more info in our face, I set an overhead monitor to flip through several websites automatically, for free. Here's how:

-- I put the Firefox 3 browser on a computer attached to the monitor
-- Next I installed the ReloadEvery Firefox add-on, which auto-reloads websites
-- Installed the Tab Slideshow add-on, which cycles through tabs at a set interval
-- Installed the Full Fullscreen add-on, which hides the Firefox toolbars
-- Pulled up several sites in separate tabs
-- Set ReloadEvery to 1 minute, and Tab Slideshow to 5 seconds
-- Turned on the Full Fullscreen feature to hide the toolbars
-- ... and voila!

* Anyone who remembers the specific article, please let me know!

A Recorder in My Pocket

My iPhone is my new flash recorder.

As a manager, I'm not often out collecting sound for air. But I've been carrying a Nagra flash recorder just in case I need to contribute in a crisis, happen upon breaking news, or want to capture an aural moment we might use.

Today, I gave the Nagra back so someone else can use it.

That's because Adam Hirsch, a producer on The Takeaway and a fellow iPhone geek, showed me an impressive, new (and currently free) iPhone app that records fantastic audio using the phone's built-in microphone. It's far better than any apps I've tried for this purpose, and good enough to impress our engineers.

It's called the iTalk Recorder, from Griffin. The recordings really do sound great. At the top setting, it makes CD-strength AIFF files at 44.1k and 16 bits. If you have a Mac, a nifty download allows you to transfer the audio from phone to computer over wifi.

It certainly won't replace our reporters' professional recording equipment. But in a pinch, or as a backup kit, it's fantastic.

For me, that's perfect. And one less thing carry.

Election Night Design: The Virginia Monologue

The state of Virginia is poised to throw an interesting dilemma at newsrooms across the country.

Consider the following:

A) Based on current projections, if Obama wins Virginia he very likely wins the election. Try it yourself: go to this interactive map and turn all the tossup states to red for McCain. (As of this writing, that would be Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida.) Obama still wins. Then change Virginia to red, and McCain wins.

B) Virginia's polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern, just as election night coverage begins.

C) At 7:58 p.m. on election night 2006, 20 percent of Virginia's votes had been counted and reported to news organizations via the Associated Press. By 10:17 p.m., 90 percent of the votes were reported.

Throw exit polling into the mix there's the very real possibility that Virginia is called -- and the presidency known with a pretty good degree of certainty -- as early as 8 or 9 p.m. What's a broadcaster to do?

Ambient Information: The Power of a Gaze

In our old building I had an office with a window onto the newsroom. Above the window, on the newsroom side, three TVs fed a steady stream of cable news to the producers and reporters.

Sitting at my desk, I knew instantly when something big was happening because people would stop what they were doing and gaze intently at the spot over my window. I sensed their alarm before even they could articulate, or know, what was going on.

So in our new newsroom, we intentionally positioned the newsroom TVs over the studio windows. The hope was that hosts working inside the studios would get that same early warning from the body language of producers in the newsroom.

Tonight I was routing cool information onto one of those monitors (more on that soon), and was gazing up to evaluate and adjust the display. David Garland, a music host who was on the air at the time, came out of the studio and into the newsroom.

"Is something going on?" he said. "You keep looking up at the TVs."

Election Night Design: Confounding Factors

There's a lot to consider when designing comprehensive, contextual coverage for the biggest news night of the year:

- Pinpointing the key stories
- Getting early warnings on those stories
- Scheduling hosts and producers all night
- Deciding where to send reporters and producers
- Engaging the audience
- Ensuring strong staffing the day after

As we prototype and plan for Election Night 2008, here are some of the issues that have come into play:

A Foregone Conclusion?

One of our crystal balls is FiveThirtyEight.com, a fantastic, transparent analysis of polling data. The most beautiful part? Nate Silver runs 10,000 simulations of the outcome based on the errors and fluctuations possible in every poll. Ten thousand prototypes daily. Wow. Below is today's chart of how many electoral votes Obama gets in each simulation:

... which is to say, in nearly 1400 simulations, Obama gets 375 electoral votes. The total possible is 538 (hence the name of the site); it takes 270 to win the election.

The other crystal ball is the Intrade prediction market, where real money is bet on each state's electoral vote. Intrade has been shockingly accurate, from predicting each state Bush won in 2000 to the super-secret selection of the Pope.

Both site show a solid Obama electoral win, and have for a month now. They could be wrong, and they will certainly adjust as we get closer to the election. But in September, a landslide was not a part of our equation; it is now.

The Voting Story

Voter turnout could break records, at a moment when voting machines are untested in many states -- such as, surprise, Florida. Any case of voting failure, no matter what your political leaning, is a story in a democracy and an echo to 2000.

But FiveThirtyEight's simulations suggest there's only a 2 percent chance a decisive state will have a vote close enough to trigger a recount. And the chance of that winner of the popular vote will be different from the winner of the electoral vote is between one-tenth of a percent and zero.

Live Election Companion

We had a smashing success running our live debate companion during the candidate face-offs. People were able to participate in real time and get insights from our public radio luminaries.

On election night, what's the right way to have people involved? Set aside a key hour for a similar chat? When would that be? Have it open all night? Would that be a valuable experience? Better to have a running blog of updates?

On this, we're open to input. Comment below if you have any thoughts.

[WNYC's election night coverage begins at 7 p.m. and runs through the following morning -- online at wnyc.org and in New York at 93.9FM and AM820.]

UPDATE ... Our digital election team met today and decided to run the Live Election Companion, with participation from our on-air hosts, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the WNYC and The Takeaway websites.

Design Bites: Time Sink

Confronted with this faucet, how do you turn it on?

If you said, "push the handle," you'd be right ... according to me. But, as you can see here, your hands would remain dry.

I was moments away from calling the front desk of the hotel where I was staying when I tried the shower, which worked fine. After another 3 minutes at the sink, I finally figured out how to turn on the faucet.

But I never got used to it, and incorrectly pushed and pulled the handle several times more during my stay.

Adjusting the flow and temperature was a whole other voyage into three-dimensional space ...