Quote investigator wrote a cute quip about the origins of this blog’s title quote (“…there must be a pony somewhere…”), and lately, it has me thinking about a job I share with many techy-journalists: digging through data (evidence) for a story (pony). I’ve commented on that a bit exhaustively in this blog, but the metaphor carries through to building a data journalism team, composed of a ragtag herd of unicorns, racehorses, and predominantly, ponies. Online Journalism Blog did a short piece about the taxonomy of journo-developers too, bulleting a few typical types (racehorses, unicorns, mules), to which I’d like to add ponies before diving a little deeper into what this means in terms of characterizing a professional population by its equine analog.
At this week’s MIT Civic Media Conference, Joi Ito kicked off an introductory talk with a nod to his coder fellow, a “unicorn” journalism-coder-analyst that had just joined the team, so the metaphor has stuck with some steady citation and I think it’s worth discussing here. In the next few sections, I’ll cover a few adventures in geo-journalism, talks and projects I’ve done around mapping in the past months. Moreover, this will be a blog about our equine habits and heros in data journalism, and some musings on what media hackery earns in terms of recognition and reward.
There’s an understandable spectrum of personality types and professional competencies in Data Journalism. There are the fantastic anomalies: unicorns; the hardy worker hybrids: mules; the strange and rare portmanteaux whose skills define along a folksonomic schema: looking at you zorse, zebroids, donkras. I gave a talk on Data Journalism a few months ago (check vimeo below), and the thesis of my presentation echoed the essentially hybrid aspects of the job.
Those born under the sign of the Horse are a flexible group of people. They tend to be stubborn when it comes their ideas, but they are also incredibly patient when it comes to hearing out what other people have to say. They favor straight-forward conversation, but avoid trouble where possible; a paradoxical combo, but one that makes the horse persistently fascinating as a sub-population in the animal kingdom.
So in the data space, why fixate on ponies as representative of some substantial sample population in the greater software engineering venn? Because ponies are slightly different than horses; capable of the same intelligence and empathy but perpetually twee-er and often assumed to be less mature. Some of the brilliance I’ve witness from millenials in the data journalism space has made me think that another branch from the taxonomic tree should recognize those whose aptitude is impressive in code but whose journalism background, and experience in general perhaps seems premature.
When social media steps down from the free speech party, and while governments and institutions of modern social exchange continue to use networks as a way of monitoring and managing society, it’s often the critics and the activists who have to pick up the slack to produce objective publications and in this space the post-modern (and often, outsider/premature) workhorses of the data journalism space have something to contribute.
As a class, proto-journalists and data mungershave developed some tools to analyze trends and provide objective and uncensored criticism of the information they represent. Zeynep Tufekci’s talk at this year’s MIT Civic Conference on citizen investigative journalism in Turkey gave a nod to the use of social media (and twitter feeds in particular) as infrastructure for collecting public opinion and fact-checking specious claims. Many tools for crowdsourcing, Ushahidi included, can be deployed to provide for citizen journos-ponies, smaller breeds of self-taught but domain-proficient reporters, with tools for reporting. And while much of this citizen-driven practice is perhaps under-promoted in the contemporary news space, some of the most renegade journalism efforts are sustained by citizens running depolarization operations on social media platforms in their home countries, as Zeynep’s talk suggested.
Part of the persistent argument in discussions that blend net neutrality, privacy and surveillance censorship revolves around how important crowdsourced and social content has become for developing honest and unbiased alternative reporting models globally. Though not to be confused with incident data directly, social media reports like CrisisNET’s Syrian Youtube Map and Conflict Map’s tweet and social media tracking plan provide these kind of windows into the world of social streaming to study crises. In analysing, contributing, and disecting social media content, pony-journalism has become a more dominant approach to assessing conflict and geo-journalism at a global scale.
In fact, arguments around how to classify the oft-hyphenated and obscure titles applied to data-journalists are more about the hybridity of their job descriptions and the range of skills they deploy than about the elegance of the metaphor. As an equine-hybrid class, we’re often trying to find new ways of developing and pushing content, a nod to the aggressivness and tirelessness of the horse behavioral type. But part of that race, maybe the most important part, is about designing content and news to appeal to people, to visualize data in new and yet intuitive ways. Our objective is to find ways to relate to populations, and in a sea of bar charts and statistical models, sometimes maps are the more affective way of relating complex digital data to a simple physical topography. That’s where the map making (mentioned above) comes in.
Two of the most relatable and persistently referenced data types in post-modern visualization are geo-data and time-series. Why? Because we relate to them, we can consider our perpective relative to time and space; they have become our touchstones for syncing digital and physical worlds. Overwhelmingly, the projects at this year’s Civic Media Conference demo sessions fell into some kind of mapping context, and I think that trend is telling for the direction of visualization schema and citizen journalism: What We Watch, a map of youtube trends; Terra Incognita, a Chrome extension for mapping exploration; Media Cloud, a collection of tools for monitoring and mapping media globally; or Cliff, a project to automate media geo-parsing, being a few among many featured projects. Tools like We Feel and CrisisNET are aimed at facilitating this kind of study, enabling study of social media and reporting strategies. In each case, it will be interesting to watch how they compete in the investigative reporting space; the race seems primed to recognize their utility.
To address another interesting aspect of the data-journo ecosystem, I’ll now pivot to another curious theme in the MIT Civic Conference and others like it: the concept of work- “family.” In keeping with the metaphor of this post, and I would argue that family in the case of a company or sponsor, is more analogous to genus hierarchies than to social kinship models. People who share a company share a type and a goal, they’re a team but one built on affinity, not consanguinity.
This is a family:
This is a team:
A company/funder/sponsor/laboratory/media-outlet/workplace is a herd of ponies. As individual members, we are unique in our methods and backgrounds and generally attracted to the same trajectory, but probably more powerful in that dispassionate diversity which a team or herd-mentality affords, less complicated by emotional entanglements internally and therefore more competent at empathy externally (that is, with our users/subjects/sources for stories). In a recent HBR article, “Your Company is Not Your Family,” the author uses the analogy of sports teams and the mentions of the spurs made me think that the pony metaphor might be as ridiculously apt.
The Spurs stand out for the stability and longevity of their player relationships, yet even their current 13-man roster only includes one player from their first championship in 1999: power forward Tim Duncan.
To consider your company analogous to your family, is to cripple it by a lack of adventure. Families, while wonderful, are a default, they usher you to growth, but if all goes well, you flourish on your own. You want to build a company of people who are flourishing, and will continue to do so under guidance and not parentage.
Joi Ito concluded the MIT Civic Conf with a series of “guiding principles” at the media lab, and those statements reinforce all-the-more why a lab/company isn’t a family. A team can be built on shared principles, but they’re not the same as those on which a family is founded.
Your family pushes you, educates you, and prefers (often) your safety over risk taking, whereas your work, and your class (genus/type/subgroups) often push you to independent and outlier achievements unsanctioned by precedent and rarely “safe” in practice. A total aside in this blogpost, to be sure, but I think often data journalism professionals (and by extension, other political/social-professionals who put position before the public they serve) seems to allow confused allegiance to cleave them from simple human and social empathies.
This is a point I treated in a recent interview with Danish news about the relationship between developers and journalists. Nothing revolutionary, but at the time I compared the ideal scenario to one of mutual respect in difference, and not to a familial metaphor. My collaborators aren’t my siblings, they’re my colleagues, and the relationship is pretty different in my mind.
We sometimes risk an allegiance to an editor or organization over an allegiance to the public, and it’s important to remember that the protection and privacy of your subjects and sources is just as precious as that of your employer-parents, regardless of who is paying our salaries. Too often, I’ve seen people at conferences too proprietarily motivated to share ideas, too proud to admit that many share the same ones and have started similar projects. There was a lot of overlap at this year’s Knight News Challenge award announcement, and I think it’s fair to ask overlapping orgs to collaborate and share their plans and programs of research as the year progresses, though I doubt they’ll be held to this. Sometimes, considering your company like your family can confuse your objective to do good in the world and supplant it with one to do good for your own.
This brings up another aspect of social good work, and journalism worth mentioning here. Often, the competition in the data journalism space is built on a capitolistic motivation to secure funding and support and resist the superior publication of another outfit that prematurely scoops your content. In this fear, we privilege our company over our vocation, which is to spread solid news, to share it with the world. There’s no shortage of conflict and controversy worth commenting on, so the competition seems sad and contrived especially in the social good and open source space. But recently, I’ve been reading economic coverage of the pay-gap issue and have come to appreciate that this competition has deep roots, founded in our cultural resistance to recognizing social-good as grant-worthy.
The most prize-worthy ponies deserve reward, and I think it’s interesting to consider how we approach compensation when the goal of your work is social good. The resounding answer seems to be: we don’t.
Econ-Theorist David Graeber’s recent interview on the trends in our financial sector indicates that we rarely value work performed with altruistic motives, and that we waste most of our workforce on “bullshit jobs.” While our intentions might be genuine, study of our current workforce specialization schema indicates that we dole out few directly productive (as in “product-building”) positions, and most work is “administrative” or “managerial”: “…[l]ots of people [in Graeber’s interview pool] said their basic function was to create tasks for other people.” One quote that struck me as particularly insightful:
Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it… ~David Graeber
You can read more about his provocative, and well-argued perspective, here, and while he applies his study to translations jobs, I think the scope can widen to anyone doing fulfilling, socially-conscience, and context-driven journalism, globally; we’re all in the information translation/transformation/communication business at root.
You know, you’re describing what’s happened to journalism. Because people want to do it, it now pays very little. Same with college teaching. ~ Thomas Frank
Upshot: not compensating people doing good, critical, and socially beneficial things in the world is crippling our perspective on geopolitics and progress.
Problems with Ponies Abroad
Other than economic obstacles to pursuing social good, there’s other hiccups to the hierarchies of investigative journalism that relate to how we privilege unicorns over the content they cover, and here we return to our discussion of mapping. When I was at a hackathon last month in Aarhus, Denmark, my team won the Guardian API award at the event not for building something incredibly revolutionary, but something quick that simplified news content into a digest for mobile journos.
Our app was called GeoNewsies, and its objective was to allow travelers to search by country and pull down a digest of the news in that nation prior to, or during travel. A two-paneled webpage and android app, it pulled in the top 10 articles from the Guardian relative to a particular place (panel left), next to the top trending tweet topics in that place (panel right); a bit like thenews.im or other rss aggregate sites.
The interface was unstellar, simple, and arguably flattened the geo-political happenings in a place to a top 10 trends list, but our objective illustrated something tragic and important about how we process news media today, and maybe it’s not what you would expect. Our point wasn’t that people only can afford to read short blurbs and dramatic reductions of the richness available in pre-travel research, but moreso: often, travelers fail to self-educate about the context they are about to enter, and this unfortunately extends to even traveling journalists working investigative beats abroad.
Sometimes, the best witness to activity in a particular place is someone on the ground an local; this is why so much social media analysis and source relations with citizen journalists remain important to our global understanding of news. Displacing a data journo-“unicorn” to code in a foreign environment is rarely as productive as sourcing information and accounts from the local population, and then enlisting the unicorns or racehorses to usher an idea to production; or better, training the local ponies and mules to race.
Burak Arikan’s MonoVacation tourism visualizations speak to this touristic approach to documentation of place that has become our practice in journalism. Arikan built a projected mashup of the tourism video/commercials of many nation, exploring typical symbols and their geo-contextual meanings relative to the nation of video production. Horses were a trend, repeatedly used in travel commercials to express freedom and tourist wimsy, perhaps. Abstracted a bit further from the original project focus, and you might consider the horse comparison to data journalism as a sometimes apt description of investigative practice: short sprint production and reporting with often unfortunately abbreviated context: a tourists’ view of geo-politics. Often a foreign media outlet’s assessment of the on-the-ground occurrence in one place lacks the depth of historical and hyperlocal understanding that social media reporting/analysis can provide if controlled, curated, and harnessed to meaningful ends. Our attention span for international news is something that perhaps can’t be corrected but our approach to economizing a broader range of opinion and local perspective is something that might be best achieved with social analysis and local data journalism training.
As someone who came rather late to code; I’m pretty comfortable advocating the premise that code can be trained, and not limited to the hierarchies of mythical creatures. I’d argue that researching for a story involves a healthy amount of logic that is more intuition and contextual/location knowledge than technical skill. Compelling news applications about a particular time and space are ones that root in a thorough knowledge of the geo-politics of a place, and often those come through most clearly from content generated by local mules, rather than unicorns.
Post-HorseRace: Project Persistance
It’s safe to say, however, that team assembly and the logic of our production pipeline aren’t the only concerns in developing sustainable news applications. With news apps, we deal in a particularly friable media; one whose impact often limits to the extent that it’s API/library/dependency components have yet to deprecate. When we think about endurance and the persistence of applications, we sometimes think about the ephemerality of our work.
What happens when the horserace is over; how will we remember our efforts?
This worry is not new of course, and its one that’s been persistently suffered by media producers and providers globally. Born digital projects are so vulnerable to almost immediate atrophy, and while you may make history with a web-based piece; the probability of it outlasting even newsprint articles from 30 years ago is pretty pathetically weak.
We’re tackling that next month (July 23rd) at the 2014 Digital Preservation Conference in DC, if your’e interested, so check it out. Our objective in presenting is both to survey the state of media production today and discuss preservation options, but also acknowledge some technological trends we should avoid. Contemporary product development is replete with light-bulb conspiracies of ‘planned obsolescence’ and at the opposite spectral pole, stories of technology built for eternity. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a place for news apps in our geo-political history; a few pony programmers might just figure-out how. 🙂
To sum up this (rather-too-longform) piece about pony personalities in the geo-newsroom, I’d say that a lot of our professional expectations as journalists and developers presume a few narrow ideas: firstly, that a simple taxonomy can define competence in global news coverage, secondly that companies can operate like parents, and thirdly that the integrity and sustainability of your work are secondary considerations to the general scheme and scope of a path defined by paternity.
I’ll close with a link to my MIT Civic Media Ignite slides (presentation, references); it’s a talk about teleportation and mapping, but no less fantastical than the expectations of data journos globally (that we tell the future, that we perform our pony tricks on demand, that we manage to t[rans/ele]port). An area of growing interest in the data journo world is how we manage to create compelling narratives about remote happenings, and often these are through our modern tools of teleportation (things like Ushahidi’s BRCK or OpenNews’ Keyblur for deploying networks without Internet, or applications like Crowdmap, CrisisNET, and Media Cloud Focus, helping us to understand global coverage and crowdsourcing context from operatives on the ground. These applications are among the suite of devices at our current disposal for feats of science fiction fantasy, bringing our ambitions of teleporting and unicorn reporting all the more close to our realities of remote monitoring and pony-journo practice.