Until a few months ago, Yelp featured a modal pop-up when users tried to click-drag the slippy map provided to situate search results according to a local topography. The prompt was “Hey Map Mover?…blahblah ” and I used to think it was another annoying modal, but now I think it’s a rather magical metaphor for the kind of awesome power involved in building visual representations of complex information, aka maps.
I think about this moreso now that I work for a company that builds maps, and think progressively about the map as a super-class of data visualization, under which all other data visualizations cascade. Maps are unique because they provide link to data collected and clouded online, and the physical topography of our global world; they bridge physical (real) and digital (surreal?) in the same attractive fabrication; they also provide a sense of trajectory, travel, and movement. I’ve written about this special quality of maps in some map-love blogs in the past, but its recent relevance seemed to warrant another post. It’s in this context of map-making and movement that I think about my job in Open News and open source software, and it’ll take a bit of a preamble, but this blog post is going to address all of those things.
I’ll start with a small anecdote. Recently, and independent of my fellowship, I had the opportunity to collaborate on parallax projection installation at the Museum of Holography on Governor’s Island. Like most of my side projects it was weird and largely web-based (see my radio show, or bio art projects for further reference) and was a collab project with another friend. My “real” work, which I allude to loosely and often on this blog involves development and data viz via a fellowhsip with Knight-Mozilla Open News, coding for for two organizations that build curriculum and technology tools for citizen journalism in East Africa. I’m passionate about all of these things, professional and peripheral projects. And as their linked by a shared trend toward constant iteration and movement, they’re not completely divorced from the parallax concept that drove my holography art project, if only because the moveable and mutable qualities shared between these things seem to theme them quite neatly and help explain why they are compelling, at least from my perspective.
I think we see parallax most often in the context of jazzy-layered web techniques, where scrolling interaction reveals movement via a multiplicity of tiled images. Likewise, ‘parallax’ is pretty important for all kinds of optical assessments, depth perception and distance inference; it’s a good metaphor for describing alternative perspectives on a distant trajectory endpoint, which by extension is a good metaphor for describing career paths and their pref-the-path-less-traveled discontents. I’m of the mind that things I do and enjoy are pretty awesome; though I respect that alternative perspectives exist. I thought I’d write a post to cover some recent work and play projects with parallax, a little description of my day-to-day, and the pretty awesome (IMHO) projects I have the privilege to contribute to as an Open News Fellow, in echo of my fellow fellows
It helps that ‘parallax’ a pretty popular buzzword these days on the web and in journalism. It crops up in NYTimes visuals, in Joni Mitchell-inspired xkcds, in topojson Bostockian demos; sometimes it can look like this, or otherwise like this. Check the links or inline images to see what I mean.
My parallax projection project with Julian Burgess, a brilliant programmer at Bloomberg who’s CSS transition foo was so choice for this project, was not as intense or playful as others in the myriad definitions applied to parallax code-wizardry and projection art. It’s some solid hyperlocal-fun about fuzzy riverscapes and insular environments. The general objective of parallax visuals, ZUI interfaces, and anything that implies movement on a 2D screen is to immerse you in an environment or a static scene and draw you into the automagic of its motion. Constant motion, “agile” development, characterizes a lot of technology and journalism of late as well, and parallax has become a pretty popular and loosely applied concept in the realm of online interactives and visual data re:presentations.
Movement and the Making of Open Maps
But back to how this relates to my current condition and career path plan. I think about parallax and movement a lot when I describe the agility and adeptness that my job requires, and the kind slurry of opportunities the Open News Fellowship provides.
On the daily, I juggle lots of things working for two software and data-driven journalism programs (Ushahidi and Internews-Kenya). My coding projects range from contributing to open source citizen journalism and crowdsourcing platforms like Ushahidi Version 3.0, or 30 year retrospective interactives studying the semantics of socio-political perspective on East African health, or providing visualizations of violence report data as part of election monitoring initiatives in Yemen and Nigeria, or plotting environmental sensor data from collection stations across Tanzania in a web-based viz series. As asides, I develop courses and curriculum for a non-profit that I help run in NYC called Girl Develop It and mentoring budding coders at the Academy for Software Engineering in New York. Tacking on the weekly radio show, and occasional art projects; I accumulate an impressively deep collection of random. Point being, I learn constantly, work assiduously and have the opportunity to meet at conferences and in collab code sessions with some of the most impressive, genuine and amazing humans in the tech/journalism space.
In my short (now 6 month-ish) tenure as a fellow, I’ve traveled to five continents, lived on two, attended over 10 conferences, spoken at 8 of them, built open source projects with collaborators at 5 of them. You can check my commit history on github or my fellowship repo where I’ve been tracking projects and speaking engagements, including my now rather abortive attempt to convert github issues into a todo list manager for my all of my talks and tasks. For now, I’ve been logging my ongoing projects, conference notes, and both present and potential work thereabouts, and so the version-controlled storage model provides pretty fair understanding of the constant change, abrupt but amazing shifts, prolific blogposting, and pretty persistent parallaxes of my fellowship program.
And not to be too simultaneously overly-alliterative and Cindy-Lou-Who-twee with the parallax refs, but I think some of the most important developments of this experience haven’t been logged in a blog post or my tech-tonic shifts of my task documentation; some of the most important developments have been in a personal discipline I’ve mustered through these experiences, to manage ALL THE THINGS, prioritize my own workflows and organize my life to more maximal productivity. Part of the elegance of the parallax metaphor in this case is in it’s homonymous “pa-relax,” which can maybe best reflect in a portmanteau that some of the most sustainable lessons are those that allow you to partner the extreme opportunities and impressive responsibilities, with an ability to manage expectations methodically, and support your collaborators without stress or burnout.
This requires some flexibility, some skill, some patience with constant change, some humble understanding of your own personal limitations and a healthy refusal to be stunted by them; these are qualities I’ve developed more thoroughly in recent months, and recognized pretty profoundly in my fellow fellows. They’re qualities that everyone should seek independent of their embrace of a parallax life model or map moving philosophy. If you want to do great things, develop professionally, collaborate actively, progress personally, and contribute productively to a global or even niche-local community, these are qualities you’ll probably invest time in developing. Why not do so with some support along the way?
Progressive and Open (Source) News
To that end, you should probably apply for a fellowship like mine, though your experience won’t be identical. An Open News fellowship is simultaneously the most flattering, exhausting, and exhilarating honor, and jobs after it will be hard to reconcile with the epicness of their precedent. My goals prior to the fellowship were pretty basic: code more in the open, learn more about design patterns and backend development, develop sustainable architectural habits instead of one-off project drill behaviors. The scope of my current learning and side-project -> tech stack spread is pretty impressively expansive compared to my initial projections.
Some of the more tacit benefits are nearly impossible to articulate without being gushy. It’s the stranger famery you’ll experience in the news community that clashes with your impulse to imposter syndrome; the kind where you’ll get requests to collaborate on projects from strangers instead of just your friends. Pre-fellowship, I never really had comments on my Github projects and my public code persona was pretty weak; 5 months in, I get regular email about blog posts I’ve written and repos I’ve open-sourced. I speak at conferences where people preface their questions to me with “I read/looked at your…”, instead of just “hey so I disagree and can prove I’m smart by asking an un-question.” (We’ve all witnessed these people; I witness them less now).
As an added perk, I get to work with people who develop technology solutions for under-tech-privileged parts of the world, places where access to the internet might require cell network fail-over solutions like BRCK, or where tracking citizen opinion via social media streams aggregated and API-ified in CrisisNET is so epically important because these opinions are routinely throttled by oppressive or inegalitarian agendas. I beta-test and help build the budding work that will change how we process open information and how we crowdsource commentary. I work with people who train journalists on the ground in nations where objective journalism can be unwelcome, and the practice of building a data journalism program is as-yet nascent or continuously undercover. I’ve had the opportunity to fuse collaborations with the brilliant trainers and journalists at Internews and the smart and savvy technologists at Ushahidi; and in this capacity, I work with and support people who develop new ways to provide critical perspective on sustainable sociology and global health programs, on geopolitics in the absence of privacy and in the face of human rights violations.
I think about this more and more in the context of how journalists have adapted to suit these demands, becoming multi-tasking reporters/technologists/domain-specialists/data-“scientists”/activists. A recent BrainPickings article about Achebe’s approach to writing as a vocation seemed to fit here too, where “writer” adopts all of these newfound technical roles while maintaining the same ethical mandates, explaining what Maria Popova so awesomely cited as the “redemptive power of fiction and Chinua Achebe’s perspective on optimism in lieu of ‘clickbait’ journalism”:
[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.
My work is fulfilling, optimistic, open, and ever-(map)moving. Yours could/should/would be too.