Archive for January, 2011

A pile of Lego blocks, of assorted colours and...

Image via Wikipedia

The week after next I’ll be at the BBC College of Journalism’s awayday to do a brief turn on future trends in an attempt to signpost some potential training needs for BBC staff.

Data journalism is looming large on my radar as demands grow for greater openness and accountability from government and businesses in all spheres of life.

Rufus Pollock, one of the founders of the Open Knowledge Foundation, has just built a new site called Get the Data which aims to help users get started on finding the information they want, in the format they want, and on ways to use it.

It’s a bit like Wikipedia meets Quora – it’s a Q&A site for data-related topics in which both questions and answers can be revised and improved according to moderation rights that individuals earn from the data community.

Scraperwiki is a Beta site also trying to help people make sense of data via an online tool to make the process simple and collaborative.

It likens data retrieval to “trying to build something from Lego when someone has hidden the bricks all over town and you have to find them before you can start building”.

Advertisements
Arkwright's mill at Cromford

Image via Wikipedia

“What was once a high paying craft and skill which could earn them a good income was almost overnight worthless.”

The quote comes from Michael Rosenblum’s blog and likens the lot of present-day journalists to the stocking-makers of the 18th Century whose skills became redundant when Richard Arkwright started building mechanised weaving looms.

Rosenblum’s post – Lessons from the Industrial Revolution – suggests that the future now, as then, lies in cheap mass production – high volume and low cost.

As bleak as that sounds, Rosenblum also thinks the changing global economy represents an opportunity as great as that of the Industrial Revolution. But, as with the weavers of Nottingham, it will be painful for some.

I recently picked up a copy of James Burke’s book Connections, spawned from the 10-part BBC TV series in the late 70s in which he threaded together a series of disparate events, dbook coveriscoveries and achievements to highlight the inter-connectedness of the world.

The kind of thing Burke would feature would be the improbable links between, say, a failing farm equipment business, a cyclist with a puncture, and the most coveted culinary prize for chefs.

The story would unfold through a series of rhetorical questions: If the inherited farm business of brothers Andre and Edouard had been a success would they have thought twice about the fate of the cyclist?

Would that, in turn, mean they would never have patented the detachable tyre, or gone on to found the Michelin Tyre Company?

And would the now famous guide that bears their name have ever launched given that its aim was to promote motoring tourism to help them sell more tyres?

Now a world without codified cuisine excellence and Michelin-starred chefs isn’t on a par with missing out on the discovery of X-rays but it’s the linkage that is important – of knowledge and ideas affecting each other in ways that aren’t obvious.

This is happening around us all the time and the process is being accelerated by the internet.

Occasionally it’s possible to see glimpses of where things are headed and I think that’s what’s happening with real-time data, especially in the area of individual health monitoring.

It was early last year when I first saw Eric Topol’s talk: The wireless future of medicine in which he envisaged people checking their vital signs – heart rhythm, blood pressure, oxygen, tem perature – on their mobile device as readily as they check their emails and relaying that information to carers, doctors and family.

Then I picked up on a US hospital that was using RFID data in pill bottles to track patients’ medication compliance.

Since then there have been many more examples including health and fitness apps like R unkeeper to log and share workout data and, in the last couple of weeks, an iPhone blood pressure monitoring kit

This stuff isn’t years in the future it’s now, albeit a long way from mass market, and the changes it will set in train are enormous. Managing a condition before it becomes critical, before it requires a hospital bed, makes good sense financially as well as good sense for an individual’s well-being.

Just as medical bodies are adapting to this new way of thinking, news organisations need to move their mindsets and start pondering the kind of products and services that will need to be be offered as part of an information-rich, real-time world.

The needs aren’t being annunciated by the audience yet, or at least not in specific or coherent ways. Why would they?  As Henry Ford said about the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

I recently picked up a copy of James Burke’s book Connections, spawned from the 10-part BBC TV series in the late 70s in which he threaded together a series of disparate events, discoveries and achievements to highlight the inter-connectedness of the world. 

The kind of thing Burke would feature would be the improbable links between, say, a failing farm equipment business, a cyclist with a puncture, and the most coveted culinary prize for chefs.

The story would unfold through a series of rhetorical questions: If the inherited farm business of brothers Andre and Edouard had been a success would they have thought twice about the fate of the cyclist?

Would that, in turn, mean they would never have patented the detachable tyre, or gone on to found the Michelin Tyre Company?

And would the now famous guide that bears their name have ever launched given that its aim was to promote motoring tourism to help them sell more tyres?

Now a world without codified cuisine excellence and Michelin-starred chefs isn’t on a par with missing out on the discovery of X-rays but it’s the linkage that is important – of knowledge and ideas affecting each other in ways that aren’t obvious.

This is happening around us all the time and the process is being accelerated by the internet.

Occasionally it’s possible to see glimpses of where things are headed and I think that’s what’s happening with real-time data, especially in the area of individual health monitoring.

It was early last year when I first saw Eric Topol’s talk: The wireless future of medicine in which he envisaged people checking their vital signs – heart rhythm, blood pressure, oxygen, temperature – on their mobile device as readily as they check their emails and relaying that information to carers, doctors and family.

Then I picked up on a US hospital that was using RFID data in pill bottles to track patients’ medication compliance.

Since then there have been many more examples including health and fitness apps like Runkeeper to log and share workout data and, in the last couple of weeks, an iPhone blood pressure monitoring kit

This stuff isn’t years in the future it’s now, albeit a long way from mass market, and the changes it will set in train are enormous. Managing a condition before it becomes critical, before it requires a hospital bed, makes good sense financially as well as good sense for an individual’s well-being.

Just as medical bodies are adapting to this new way of thinking, news organisations need to move their mindsets and start pondering the kind of products and services that will need to be be offered as part of an information-rich, real-time world.

The needs aren’t being annunciated by the audience yet, or at least not in specific or coherent ways. Why would they?  As Henry Ford said about the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

satarii Take two product design guys in California, add a garage and an idea and you have Satarii – a start-up operation behind a mobile accessory for solo video shoots.

With your smartphone lodged in its pocket-sized docking station, you don a small tracking device and as you move about the dock swivels on its base and follows you.

The motorized unit works over a range of eight metres and keeps you in the image frame across a 180-degree span.

The system is designed for the iPhone4 and the latest video-enabled iPod Touch, but an accessory is promised to provide a standard tripod mount so its potential is opened up to many more devices.

The product is a long-way short of production. As I write, they are seeking funding on the IndieGoGo site having raised $15,714 of a target $20,000 with 35 days remaining to fulfil their goal so it clearly needs some manufacturer muscle and investor buy-in to move it out of the hobby project area.

It could well find a niche and Peter Nowak’s “shameful trinity of desires” comes to mind – but I’ll leave you to figure out which of three it might best serve.

The wraps have come off the Guardian’s revamped iPhone app which is being offered on a subscription basis rather than the one-off download fee of the original model.

Live-ness is at the heart of the proposition with the app costing £2.99 for six months and £3.99 for 12 months, although the US version will continue to be ad-supported and free.

There’s increased emphasis on video, free goal alerts in a revamped football service, rolling live coverage such as the Wikileaks US embassy cables coverage, comments on stories and an at-a-glance guide to hot topics.

The Guardian is gambling on these elements converting users of the existing app to the new one before closing the old one down.

For people who have already bought in, that’s probably not too much of a leap – the price of a sandwich as one endorser puts it – but it does mean the new app will be competing for eyeballs against the Guardian’s free (ad-supported) mobile site.

And there’s the further risk that it might cannibalize the daily paper’s readership and revenues.

If the free variety proves to be the more popular of the two The Guardian can, of course, always adjust its advertising rates if the market will bear it.

But highlighting the benefits of the paid-for app means drawing attention to the weaknesses of the free model which, by implication, will be slower, less frequently updated and less feature-rich.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach; there’s always been a premium on getting information faster than other people. But it does create a headache for marketing departments and for linking when you have standard and premium services stabled in the same organisation.

As for the existing app, which launched in December 2009, it will remain live for six months, according to Guardian product manager Jonathon Moore.

In a blog post he writes: “While we remain committed to offering our content for free on guardian.co.uk and our recently upgraded mobile website, it’s clear that in order to deliver the highest quality product for a single platform, considerable investment is required.”

Free or paid for? As ever, for individuals it’s a case of you pay your money and you take your chances.

The bigger question for news organisations is whether enough people will pay – or whether advertising rates can be raised to sufficient levels – to meet ever-increasing expectations of instant information.

There’s been much reflection already on lessons from the breaking news coverage of the Arizona shooting tragedy.

I read Dan Gillmor’s thoughtful Salon piece about taking a slow news approach and both Craig Silverman and Scott Rosenberg did an excellent job of threading together the collected wisdom around correcting an error

I know from past experience how divisive breaking news alerts can be. For some they are not worth the candle, for others they miss the mark editorially, and still others like to be “in the loop” even if the relevance factor for them is off-beam.

Is the time now right for a different approach from news organisations to breaking news; a system where different flow rates of information are delivered to individuals depending on preference, via their mobiles?

I’m envisaging a news motorway where “slow lane” items are double-sourced, checked and verified independently by us; in effect, the standard we operate now (though not across all items and all news rooms, it has to be said).

The “fast lane” would be the equivalent of us exposing our inner workings, making visible the information that’s coming to us but is still “in check”; we’d be making people aware we’d heard about it and let them know “we’re working on it”.

This wouldn’t be a place for rumour, heard-on-the-top-deck-of-the-bus type items, but it would feature attributed, selected, single-sourced agency content. And it would have to be clearly signposted as “In Check”.

Gambling on accuracy for the sake of speed is never a comfortable judgement for news organisations. We want to be right every time.

Sacrificing brand reputation on the altar of being first is risky and potentially damaging – you only have to look at the sackcloth apology from NPR’s Executive Editor Dick Meyer to see that.

But we do live in a world where, as he acknowledges, information and misinformation move at light speed.

Gillmor, too, recognises the natural human instinct at play during big breaking news events: “We all want to know what’s going on and the bigger the calamity is, the more we want to know”.

Reflections from Tucson may act as a brake on the news cycle but it will be only temporary; I think we need to explore new tools, new ideas and let the audience decide whether they want life to come to them in the slow or the fast lane.

fish fight campaign

The politics of food is a story that will be revisited many times in the next decade as pressure on resources mounts. And it’s one where the growing impact of advocacy journalism is evident.

We’ve already seen riots in Algeria, Haiti, Senegal and Bangladesh over rising food commodity prices.

Climate change, growing populations, pollution, drought, migration and consumption habits in the developed world all contribute to imbalances in supply and demand, with a knock-on effect on the stability of prices.

Wyatt Investment Research has said it expects food riots in the US within the next 18 months, on the basis that food stamp participation has risen sharply and shows no sign of abating.

The researcher Kevin McElroy says that more than 42 million US citizens rely on stamps, which amounts to 14% of the population being already unable to afford to feed themselves.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Big Fish Fight, which began on Channel 4 on Tuesday night, taps into the politics of food, with the chef using his celebrity status to champion sustainable fishing practices and to seek changes to Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Whatever your views on discards (almost half of all fish caught in the North Sea are apparently thrown back dead), the campaign has been skilfully coordinated between TV, the web and external partners to tap into crowd-power in an attempt to effect change.

If you’d dived onto Google during the programme, as I did, you’d have seen hashtagged tweets barrelling through the search results page at a huge rate of knots.

The programme’s Facebook page (above) is active and the campaign has captured 276,000 signatories  to a letter that is going to EU Commissioner Maria Damanaki, MEPs and members of the Common Fisheries Policy Reform Group.

Harnessing signatures to apply political pressure sends a strong message to businesses, institutions and government. But on its own, it’s not enough.

At grassroots level, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants people to move away from eating overfished species such as cod and to try alternative varieties.

The message is being carried into the chip shops of Britain where owners are being urged to back the campaign by offering sustainable mackerel as an option and to display stickers in their windows declaring their support.

An online pin-sticker map will let consumers seek out the chippies that support the campaign and, presumably, avoid the ones that don’t.

Changing footfall patterns and consumer habits – hitting businesses at the till – is much more powerful.

Fearnley-Whittingstall has already notched up a couple of successes. Before the campaign went public, Tesco – which was in his sights over its “marine friendly” labelling – pledged that all of its own-label canned tuna would be caught using more sustainable pole-and-line fishing techniques by 2012.

Selfridges also committed itself to stocking only sustainably sourced fish products in its food halls and restaurants.

Now, at the BBC we’ve been reporting on this stuff, consistently, for ages. An article from 2006 by my colleague Richard Black, the news website’s environment correspondent, is headlined “Only 50 years left” for sea fish.

A more recent piece states: Over-fishing means UK trawlers have to work 17 times as hard for the same fish catch as 120 years ago.

It begs the question: why does it fall to a celebrity chef to carry the argument? For that matter, why is Jamie Oliver in the vanguard of trying to change a nation’s school meals and eating habits? When did he become the new-age John Pilger?

Celebrities, of course, have always lent their names to causes they believe in. The difference now is they’re doing far more than merely endorsing.

Fearnley-Whittingstall and Oliver are asking the questions and taking us on a journey as they front up to the people they think can supply the answers. These are chefs with a cause who are whipping up a controversy and doing a great job in focusing attention on the issue.

John Lloyd, writing in the FT, has highlighted the danger of surrendering journalistic neutrality for the polemical approach that is gaining ground on US cable networks. He describes it as:

“… a broadcast journalism deeply convinced of the rectitude of its own point of view, and skilled in using the medium to imprint that view on the mind, and the emotions, through image, interview and evocative music”.

The bedrock of trust in information comes from rigorous enquiry, honest reporting and non-partisan perspectives, delivered without fear or favour.

So we have to be careful not to compromise a hard-won reputation for enquiring journalism.

But it does beg the question: is our journalism compelling enough to galvanise people to act – even if we have to stop short of making the connections to activism?

Is that our role, anyway? Or should we continue to simply present evidence and leave the newly informed people to act on their own volition?

The Echo Smartpen is the latest addition to my gadget arsenal – small enough to carry routinely and genuinely useful as opposed to a gimmick.

If you haven’t seen one, it’s a pen with a built-in microphone and 8Gb of memory – that’s enough to store around 800 hours of recorded audio.

Scribble notes as you listen to a speech or during an interview and then, by clicking on the keywords or phrases you’ve jotted down, the audio jumps to that point in the recording. Notes and audio can be transferred to a computer using a USB connector.

It’s perfect if your shorthand’s a bit rusty or if you want to quickly refer back to something and there are even apps to download to extend its capabilities.

On the downside, the audio quality isn’t good enough for broadcast and the pen does require a special dot paper notebook, which is expensive as notebooks go, though it is possible to make dot paper copies using a laser printer.

A trot around BBC TV Centre in London to try out a new iPhone application.

google's-nexus-s

Imagine being able to enter your locked office by using a smartphone, or never having to queue to renew an Oystercard – or even having an Oystercard.

Imagine the billing being done through the device, and the payment being taken care of through the handset too. No need to fiddle with change, or feed meters, or carry cards, or cash.

We’ve moved a step nearer that world with the release of the flagship Android phone from Google, the Nexus S, which I laid hands on earlier this week.

While its credentials as an iPhone challenger are impressive it’s the inclusion of Near Field Communications technology that is especially interesting.

NFC opens the door to mobile ticketing, mobile payment, even mobile ID and the Nexus S is the first Android handset to support the technology.

It also opens the door to some significant security issues which have been exercising cryptographers and, until now, have delayed its introduction.

Having NFC in the device isn’t much use on its own and it’s anyone’s guess as to Google’s ultimate intentions, but it does show direction of travel for the technology.

One suggestion is that it ties in with Google’s roll-out of Hotpot – a local recommendation engine that works with Google Places. Window stickers in the Hotpot business kits come with built-in NFC for potential rating and recommendation feedback.

That on its own isn’t enough to justify its incorporation and it’s why the rumour mill is rife that it heralds a move by Google into “pay-by-wave” mobile commerce.

If true, it begs the question: How will competitors respond

Well, Nokia has said NFC will be built into all its high-end smartphones from this year. RIM is considering it for Blackberry, Orange is introducing it to Europe and three US operators have already banded together under the brand name of Isis.

Speed of adoption will depend partly on assurances about security and privacy but also on how NFC is carved up. Telcos and handset manufacturers are keen for a piece of the action and that could play into Apple’s hands with its walled garden approach.

This has a wider resonance for companies even if NFC transactions aren’t on their immediate horizon. It  matters because it’s an important milestone in the evolution of mobile – one that will cement its position as the primary technology – and as part of a wider revolution in the way we receive and act on information.

Google is already a “mobile first” company. It sees the future of computing as mobile. And for CEO Eric Schmidt it means putting his best people on mobile.

Google is already exploring the complexities of location and context in delivering filtered information. The goal is relevance.

It’s why, before you’ve finished entering a search term, Google will have anticipated what you might want.

Start typing the word museum and you’ll get a different outcome depending on where you are.

In news organisations we need to think a lot harder about relevance and move away from treating everyone as if their needs are identical. They’re not. And we need to start thinking about increasing the effort and commitment that goes into mobile services.