Weaving a Patchwork Map ... in Real Time

We did something a little creative and unique at WNYC this past election night: We mapped the vote by "community type."

This revealed the diversity of the vote across New York State -- from the cities to the suburbs, boom towns and "service worker" centers -- in real time, on the air and on the WNYC home page.

And the diversity is striking. Despite Democratic wins in every statewide race, the Republicans running for state attorney general and comptroller "won" every community type outside "Industrial Metropolis" and "Campus & Careers" counties.

Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni talked about this on air during WNYC's coverage election night, and has written more about it since.

The live map was a mashup of Patchwork Nation's unique take on the nation and the Associated Press's live vote totals. At the request of WNYC, Patchwork Nation programmers dove into the AP test results and quickly wove them into a new map based on PN's existing county maps -- customizing them for the event and adding real-time percentages by community type.

Bringing the Threads Together

In the months before the election, I had wondered how we might better understand the early returns -- those that come in typically between 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. -- which often don't match the final results. I wanted more clarity.

At a Hacks/Hackers Open-Source-a-Thon, I started playing with the election data with help from Al Shaw (then at TalkingPointsMemo, now at ProPublica) and Chrys Wu (of Hacks/Hackers and ONA fame).

That evolved into a little program I wrote in Sinatra that generated vote-total map at the left, shading counties darker as more of their precincts reported. It also helped me better understand how the data were structured, how to retrieve the numbers and what it might take to make a live map.

So when Chinni asked if WNYC had any county-level data sets we'd like to put through the Patchwork Nation treatment, I had the perfect candidate.

Open All Night: The Great Urban Hack NYC

For 26 hours this weekend, a bunch of journalists and coders got together to make lots of great things designed to help the citizens of New York City.

My blog post summarizing the event and all of the resulting projects is upon Hacks/Hackers.

I helped Jenny 8. Lee, Chrys Wu and Stephanie Pereira organize the event. Then I joined a team working with digital heaps of NYC taxi trip data to make data visualizations and start some other projects. My favorite one is here (with a detail below), which is a representation of taxi usage for 24 hours, set around a clock. Beautiful. It was built by Zoe Fraade-Blanar using Processing and data crunched by the other teammates.

Click image for full view

I came away from the event with many new connections, excitement about learning Processing, some more skills in Sinatra and a note to check out Bees with Machine Guns(!)

Open Ideas at the Open Source-athon

Wow: I learned a ton at the Hacks/Hackers Open(source).athon this weekend.

Check out the great writeup of the day for a summary of the event. Personally, I worked on recrafting some Associated Press Election data for a project we're working on at WNYC. I also had conversations that could lead to several collaborations, and even got some tips for programming in Ruby and Sinatra.

The day also gave me a great frame for my next hackathon, which is being run November 8 and 9 by Hacks/Hackers and Eyebeam, with support from WNYC and The Knight Foundation.

Hacking Journalism with Sidewalk Chalk

My presentation before a room full of talented programmers next week Thursday will include hair salons, semi-trailer trucks and sidewalk chalk.

It's TimesOpen 2.0, where digital tinkerers gather to talk about online data from the New York Times and the latest trends in information technology.

Next Thursday is Mobile/Geolocation night (which is free). Presenters will include Mano Marks from Google, John Britton from Twilio, Matt Kelly from Facebook and me. I'll be talking about The Takeaway's Sourcing Through Texting project.

My preso will likely be the lowest-tech of the bunch. Our aim was, and is, to connect journalists and citizen-sources using basic text messages, and our method was brainstorming, learning and prototyping in two neighborhoods -- Southwest Detroit and Miami's Little Haiti. We absorbed a ton. (And we sparked an investigative series on illegal truck traffic.)

There are certainly opportunities here to mash up APIs and build on some nifty platforms. I'll talk about that, too.  But as we continue working toward connecting with sources via texting, some of our best insights have come from coffee shop conversations, church bulletin announcements and short-codes scrawled on sidewalks.

An Experimental Honor

What's so exceptional about the journalism innovation award The Takeaway won yesterday is that it's not for a broadcast, a series or a blog post.

It's for an experiment.

"Sourcing Through Texting" has been a process of immersion, exploration and rapid prototyping. Journalists and community leaders spend time in a neighborhood focusing on a simple question: How might reporters and citizen-sources make better connections through texting?

The answers are still emerging. We're still making prototypes. Yet, yesterday the concept won a Knight-Batten Special Distinction Award for innovation in journalism.

Since the award application went in, we've gone to Miami to run another experiment in Little Haiti, and Detroit's WDET aired a week-long series that evolved from the project.

That the award effectively predates those happenings is a huge jolt of support for experimentation, design thinking in journalism and everyone who contributed to this unique collaboration.

That includes folks from The Takeaway, Public Radio International, WNYC Radio, WDET Detroit, WLRN Miami, The Miami Herald, American Public Media's Public Insight Network, Mobile Commons, the Institute of Design at Stanford and the residents of Southwest Detroit and Miami's Little Haiti.


Sourcing Through Texting is a project of The Takeaway, which is produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International. It was made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

Disclosure and disclaimer: I helped develop and produce this project. As always, the words here are my own and not those of my employer or any of the entities mentioned.

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.

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(!)

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]