Friday, January 19, 2007

Mobile News Gathering

Last week we had two guests from CNN (Paul Ferguson and Terence Burke) come in to talk about their experiences in international news gathering. Paul talked a lot about the technology that CNN has developed over the past 3-4 years to facilitate better mobile news gathering including a system they put together that allows a one-man band or a pair of journalists in the field to gather, edit, and upload news video with equipment that fits in a backpack. They can even go straight to air over a mobile-sat connection with this setup! Now they're experimenting with the Nokia N93, which is a sleek and flexible mobile phone that does mp4 video at 30 fps.

One of the interesting effects of having a mobile and (unobtrusive in the case of cell phone video) capturing rig is the access to new situations that it allows for. No need to lug around big and heavy equipment. Not only that but the reactivity associated with people seeing larger video equipment and satellite uplinks is no longer affecting their behavior: the result is a more true to life depiction. So instead of people stopping to gawk at a gaggle of reporters, news video can be gathered more surreptitiously and thus show the raw reality. Citizen journalism is peppered with stories of people catching newsworthy events on cell phones and this is only bound to increase with more and more sensors in the field.

Another interesting point that came up in talking to the seasoned journalists was how important social networks are to their news gathering efforts. A professional news organization like CNN has spent years and years cultivating sources and developing databases of contacts for various pieces of information. Who's got the information? If they don't know the guy, they might know the guy that knows the guy. It's all about leveraging the network and the trust that's built into that network. This is paramount especially when the motivation of sources might be in question and serves to increase the quality of information that a large news organization can bring to light. There are a few questions here. In the transition to participatory journalism, how can citizens who don't have a trusted network of sources collect information about difficult topics? Also, can social networking technology enhance the news gathering efficacy of either traditional or citizen journalists?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What is Computational Journalism?

What do we mean when we talk of "Computational Journalism"?

Firstly we might try to define what we mean by invoking current examples from the online zeitgeist such as Google News, Yahoo News, or MSN Newsbot - aggregation sites using computation to provide a different interface to a range of news online. Other examples revolve around the numerous blogs, collaborative news sites (such as open source reporting, or "citizen journalism" (for instance community driven news site Bluffton Today). These types of behavior are all enabled and facilitated by the networked computing environment and increasing pervasiveness of digital cameras and phones. Another take on Computational Journalism involves the use of New Media (i.e. interactivity) to tell more contextualized and relevant stories about news events. Interactive infographics, videos, maps, panoramas, and slideshows are being used more and more by news outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post (among others).

Looking at and citing examples of what the convergence of computing and journalism are doing to online media is fun, but I think there could be a lot more to it than that. Perhaps we should try to understand Journalism and Computing in their own rights first and then defocus and cross our eyes (for a moment!) to see where that might bring us.

So, what's Journalism then? Journalism consists of collecting news information and disseminating that information with a layer of contextualization and understanding provided by the journalist. Traditionally, journalism has also entailed an ethos of working on the side of the citizenry to provide them with the information they need to make informed civic decisions in the process of self-governance.

And what's Computation? Computation is what you do with computers! No really, computation can be thought of as algorithms designed to run on computers in order to solve any number of different problems. Computation here is defined broadly, but fundamentally, we're talking about media computation: the ability of the computer to process things like text, video, audio, pictures, or any combination of those. This involves computational areas such as information retrieval/science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data mining, mobile computing, natural language processing, computer vision and image processing, multimedia analysis and synthesis, information visualization, computer supported cooperative work, and computer interfaces.

Taking our conception of Computing with that of Journalism, what again is "Computational Journalism"? The application of computational algorithms to the goals of journalism: to collect, contextualize, and make sense of news information. At heart it is an Information Science, guided by the practices and processes of the Journalist and facilitated by forward looking technologies meant to empower journalists (both traditional and citizen) and news information consumers in their goals.