Movies & Demographics

What a great visualization of Netflix movie-rental data from the New York Times! Love how you can see how different movies play across the city.

It's even more interesting when you know something about the demographic makeup of the zip codes. Look how the Harlem River between upper Manhattan and the South Bronx is a bright dividing line for almost every movie.

How about a mashup that would reflect this info and demographic data simultaneously?


(tip via Nate Westheimer @innonate)

Connecting Journalists and Technologists

Tuesday night I'll have the fantastic privilege of making a quick presentation at the NY Tech Meetup about our news-technology efforts at WNYC. I'll also invite folks to connect with us in the interest of, well, the public good.

Huge thanks to Nate Westheimer for his interest in our work and the opportunity to say a few words.

Acknowledgment where due: WNYC's public radio news-tech projects, including the Super Simple Mapping tool, are supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Super Simple Mapping Tool

Making collaborative maps is easier than ever. But maybe not quite easy enough.

One of the projects I'm working on at the moment is a super-duper-simple tool to help public radio and television stations (and pretty much anyone else) collect and map local information from their audience.

We're in the design phase right now, and we've mocked it up for feedback. The video is below.

Whaddya think? Let us know!

Presenter's Notes

The person crafting the overall sound and content of your local public radio station usually is the program director, and I have the honor of speaking at an annual gathering of PD's from across the nation this week.

Uncommon Indicators

My first talk is about a WNYC community crowdsourcing project called Your Uncommon Economic Indicators, which began just about a year ago when the economy collapsed. It focuses on getting people to contribute insights about the economy from their neighborhoods.

It has grown to include some special side projects. One is Halted Development, a look at unfinished or vacant housing in New York City (link to big map is here). Another is a video contest, in which this video took first place.

The slides I used in my presentation are available as zipped PowerPoint and Keynote files (both about 30MB) and as a pdf (3.5MB).

Collaboration as Dating

The second presentation is with Tom Detzel of ProPublica about the great partnership WNYC has had with ProPublica, including how it came to be and how we've make some great journalism together.

Part of my discussion is stolen from my earlier blog post using dating as a guide to successful collaborations. The handout I'm giving to people in the room is here as a pdf.

I'll update this post if/when audio or video of the talks are made available.

Paint Sticky Data (Please)

I'm into info. I want it accurate, relevant and clear.

On the radio, we try to paint clear, understandable, and journalistically-sound images of the mind -- the vivid mental pictures you see while listening to good storytelling.

Actual images can tell rich stories, too. The best photojournalism certainly does. Some pictures hit you in the chest.

But images drawn from data -- infographics, or visualizations -- rarely tell a story so well.

And they almost never hit me in the chest.

Why not? With all of the technology available, why can't we create really good visualizations that project understanding, timeliness, utility and ... dare I say ... stories?

I'm on the lookout. And I'm defining what I want to see.

For that definition, I've made a checklist based on one of my all-time favorite books, Made to Stick, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath (Random House, 2007). The initial words come from their Six Principles of Sticky Ideas; the rest is my application of their concepts.

For me, the best information images are ...
Simple: Non-geeks can absorb it within a few seconds
Unexpected: It fills a gap in our knowledge
Concrete: It takes advantage of our senses and understandings
Credible: It is journalistically sound, from a trusted source, without bias
Emotional: It hits you in the chest, you feel the data
Story: It tells one
And I'll add one more:
Relevant: It is timely, current and useful
Got examples that ring all seven bells? Maybe even four? Share them in the comments here or email me: john (at) designAgitator.com.

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The map detail above is from my favorite example at the moment, which is on Slate. Jump over there, take a look, and then run it through the checklist:

Simple? Once you know that blue is jobs gained and red is jobs lost, you're set. Just press play.
Unexpected? Seriously so. The speed of change is amazing.
Concrete? The familiar map orients me at a glance; I respond quickly to the circle sizes, colors and densities.
Credible? Bureau of Labor Statistics, Slate.
Emotional? Oh yeah. I saw someone actually shiver while watching it.
Story? Definitely.
Relevant? Yup.
Rings my bell.

The Man Behind The Zipper

I've joined an exclusive club of New York City microbloggers.

Twitter? Ha. Facebook? Kidstuff. We're talking bricks and mortar, baby.

Quite literally.

My missives scroll across the facade of WNYC's building in west SoHo, zipping into your field of view as a parade of little red lights. It's the WNYC News Zipper.

As you walk to work or sit in traffic on Varick Street, I've got your eyeballs.
NY terror-plot suspects indicted
None of this 140-character stuff. Better to use just five words; seven max. (I used a nonessential adjective clause once. Lost everyone by the second comma.)
Media banned from covering Iran protests
And I know where you are, no fancy GPS required.
Building collapse on Reade Street, up ahead
Even if it's partly cloudy in the Bronx, I am absolutely certain you're in a downpour.
This rain ends by evening
User customization? Easy. I can sense you're in line for the Holland Tunnel on your evening commute home. So how about a little news about your governor and his chief rival?
Corzine, Christie speak to biz group tonite
It's tempting to simply repurpose our tweets or web headlines, feeding them automatically to the sign. But it's also clear that wouldn't be as special. Or impactful. Or memorable. So I've been recrafting our material specifically for my particular version of a hyperlocal, mobile user.

I've been doing this for a few weeks as a prototype, and soon WNYC's editors, producers and hosts will feed lines to the sign. What I've learned by writing -- and watching -- those little red words will help our staff craft the phrases that catch your eye as you zip by.

Rapid News Visualizations: Prototype 1

In my quest for timely, interesting, understandable info-graphics, I've set up a prototyping challenge for myself: Upon finding news data, turn it into something visual, compelling and useful ... as fast as possible.

I'm prepared to fail quickly and often.

In this case, "as fast as possible" was three days to make, another two to find time to post it. The result is not wholly useful. And you can't absorb it quickly. And it's a little misleading.

But it's a start.

Here is what I made. It's a visual representation of the attendance rates for every public school in New York City on Thursday, May 21, 2009. The New York City Department of Education started posting this data the previous day as the Swine Flu/H1N1 outbreak was causing kids to stay home.

It tells me two things off the bat:
1) Queens and Brooklyn schools had much lower attendance rates than Manhattan and Staten Island schools.

2) Teens skip school on nice May days.
No. 2 is apparent because almost every red square is a high school, which have notoriously low rates this time of year. For a better indication of potentially flu-related absences, I'd chart the difference between these absentee rates and a typical May day at each school ... which is info I don't have. Yet.

Initially I published this in Google Maps, which was interactive and allowed you to click on schools for specific info. But Google Maps only plotted about 100 or so schools, and there are more than 1,000 here. Instead, I did it in Google Earth on my own computer and took a snapshot. Here's another.

Kinda cool. Was fun to do.

Next!

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Anatomy of the process:

Daily absentee data from the school system is here.
An Excel spreadsheet with general data on each school is here.
I crossed these two data sets in Access to match school numbers with addresses.
I got the latitude and longitude for each address, in 500-line batches, here.
I spent a lot of time learning about KML files, writing them, failing, trying again.
I made colored icons in Photoshop, and used Excel to assign each school the correct icon.
I put all of the relevant data into one spreadsheet and fed it to this little helper ...
Which gave me this KML file ...
Which I fed to Google Earth, running on my Mac.

Feeling Information

Information and raw data are piling up faster than our ability to absorb it. And the tools available to access, understand, visualize and feel that information are woefully inadequate.

I believe journalism, design thinking and information technology can be wielded to express these stories in ways never before considered. And I'm part of a small posse poised to do just that.

If this interests you, or if you'd like to join our rag-tag group, write me: john (at) designAgitator.com.

In the meantime, assume some of the gaps in designAgitator postings mean we're hard at work helping to explain the world(!)

Rethinking Internships and Enchancing a Staff (In Turn)

The newsroom intern. Bright, eager, ambitious. Ready to learn. Ready to help.

And, all too often, working for free. An intern's compensation, the story goes, is experience, a resume entry, nearness to greatness ... and maybe, just maybe, a byline.

That's all wonderful except for two things:

1) You can't buy groceries with a byline.
2) It's bad for journalism.

Let me grab a sticky. Okaaay ... a quick tally reveals that roughly half of our newsroom and talk show staff started out as interns, fill-ins or temporary workers.

That means that if we are working to cover one of the most diverse, complex, and interesting cities in the world, we would be remiss in our hiring -- and our journalism -- if we drew interns only from the pool of people with enough cash to work full time for free.

Instead, we have a robust and successful internship program and a staff with a variety of backgrounds and skills.

(And, um, we don't pay our interns.)

Crafting a Successful Internship Program

So here are some key concepts I've collected from different programs at different companies in different cities.* They're based mainly on newsroom and media work, but could apply to pretty much any workplace. Mix and match as you see fit; adjust for altitude as necessary.
Pay your interns.

If you can't pay your interns, design the internship so they can earn money elsewhere. This may mean having two or three interns working two or three days a week, and being open to nontraditional start and end times. This is what we do in our newsroom. Covering basic transportation and meal costs helps, too, even if just $10 per day.

Build a process. Write a notice that welcomes applications and explains your intern program. Set application deadlines, selection dates, start dates and end dates. Pull this together into something schools and institutions can post, either online or on a wall.

Seek outside the box. Not enough Spanish speakers in your organization? Post in communities were people are fluent. Lacking in general math talent? Contact the university math department for prospects. Need more local expertise? Try a community college instead of the world-renowned graduate program. If your intern program becomes a good feeder for your staff (even years later), expose it to people with skills you lack.

Prototype prototype prototype. Ever wonder whether an epidemiologist would be a good reporter? I do!

Be clear on the responsibilities. Have an established list of intern duties. If they can change during the term, set out a schedule. Be sure to leave room for individual skills and talent.

Be clear on the future. In most cases, an internship does not a job become. Don't assume interns know this. Actually tell them there is no guarantee of a job afterward. Oh, and don't use the chance of a job to inspire good work. If you need that carrot, you've picked the wrong intern.

Be clear on the term. Confirm the start and end dates at the outset. When the end date arrives, thank them for their work and help and say goodbye. Thirteen weeks is a good length, and often corresponds with academic work.

Set limits. There are some things you probably don't want your interns doing, including representing your operation as staff when they are not. Be clear about those situations. At our shop, interns are not used on air and don't interview major newsmakers.

Don't use interns as substitutes. Or, rather, do use them if they're qualified, but only if you actually hire them for the gig. If they're doing the work of a fill-in, pay them as a fill-in.

Have interns write a letter to the next intern. Keep these in a folder, real or virtual, and let interns read them when they first arrive. It'll give them another sense of your place, and their place in it.

Keep in touch. This is super important. When an intern finishes their term, be sure you have a current email address and phone number, and implore them to keep you posted on their whereabouts. Put their information in a file or database with details on their performance, strengths and interests. Check in with them occasionally. And when a job opens or project develops, call them up. I've hired interns years later, even after they've landed other jobs.
I welcome input, thoughts and experiences you've had as an intern or as an intern manager. Just post a comment below.

[Photo by FredArmitage (cc)]

*As with everything on this site, these are my thoughts alone. They may or may not reflect the opinions or practices of my employers, except where explicitly noted.

Break Glass Now

Consider, for a moment, the location of your nearest fire extinguisher.

And just how well did you use it last time?

Right. Chances are you're not prepared to skillfully put out a fire where you are sitting. At least you're not practiced.

But what if you had a non-emergency reason to use a fire extinguisher every once in a while? Maybe to clean your desk. Or a spill. (Nearest paper towel, anyone?) Using it occasionally would help insure that in case of a fire, you would both a) actually use it and b) use it well.

To better prepare our on-air and online operations for major breaking news, I've been promoting a point of view that says we shouldn't put our emergency tools, systems and skills "behind glass." Instead, we should incorporate those efforts into our everyday work. (I even believe we shouldn't put our energy into efforts that can't be used on a regular basis because in a crisis, we won't use them anyway.)

The best example of this is the daily production of our national morning program, The Takeaway with John Hockenberry and Adaora Udoji. The show's staff may just be the best breaking-news response team in public radio -- because they make the show in real-time every day, incorporating fresh news as they go. When the news happens to be really big, they're not just prepared ... they're already there.

A few other examples:
Map maker, map maker
In case of a civil emergency in New York, we'd want to quickly map shelters, closed roads, danger zones, escape routes. Even locate our staff. But we weren't prepared to whip together those kinds of maps in mere minutes. Now we're honing those skills by incorporating such work into everyday projects.

Information integration
When news hits the fan, information flies everywhere. Consolidating that data is key ... and also happens to be handy in everyday work. In the course of discussing a Mumbai-like terror attack in NYC, we discovered that our news-editing software can also check a listener email box. That's one less window to watch.

Nobody move
We designed our newsroom so that in a crisis nobody needs to change seats, which would move them away from familiar surroundings. As a byproduct, when something doesn't flow quite right during daily work, I try to make sure we address it now so we don't get caught off guard later.

Expected events as prototypes
In planning for election night, and now for the inauguration, we developed tools and techniques that will serve us again in a major unexpected event. We now know how to quickly rip up our station's home page to focus on a single topic. And in order to provide real-time election-night returns, we found new ways to clear the information path between the editors and the home page.

Share and share again
We share a statehouse reporter with stations across our region. So when former governor Eliot Spitzer imploded in a prostitution scandal, we didn't have to think twice about how to move information and audio between stations. We just used the FTP site and email list we use every day.
I've long been a fan of drills, and there are many more of those in our future. But by incorporating a little drill into our regular routine, we're better prepared for situations that are anything but.

[Photo by IamSAM. Some rights reserved.]