Guardian SXSW Hack Day – the hacks I was involved with

I spent this weekend at the Guardian offices for the Guardian/Rewired State SXSW Hack Day.

The theme was to look at 21st century tools for journalism, and used covering the SXSW conference as a starting point.

Sorely lacking in any useful coding skills, I think my best input came at the beginning of the weekend when a few developers sought me out to talk through some of the barriers and frustrations journalists face when trying to cover events.

The most interesting of these conversations was with Sym Roe, who came to the event wanting to create something that would have a wider use for journalists beyond reporting SXSW.

We talked over a number of issues journalists face.

One notable one that didn’t make it past the discussion stage was how to filter out noise on Twitter to get to the really interesting stories. This is really needed when you report on an event that has hundreds of social media-savvy people present and (as with SXSW) many sycophants willing to furiously retweet certain folk in the hope they might mention their startup, app or idea.

We decided there might be a very simple tool that could count retweeted links, but then allow you to inspect the results in quartiles. That way you could check for stories below some of the more frenetic retweeting. A hack for another time, perhaps.

However, the idea that got us both really interested was what became known as Fluffbox.

Fluffbox, which was developed by Sym and Premasagar Rose, is designed to let journalists curate from a variety of social sites and file all the interesting stuff they find into one, searchable “box”.

This box then lets you drag and drop the pictures, tweets, links, audio, etc, into a document that renders them all in lovely, clean html.

This is fantastic in two ways: one, it allows us journalists to have one place to store all the little bits and bobs we might want to use for a story. And, two, the clean html also makes the finished document something that can be copied and pasted into pretty much any editorial content management system.

Fluffbox was highly commended, but I personally think Sym and Prem’s work is probably the most practical journalist tool that came out of the Hack Day… but then again, I may be biased!

As if he wasn’t busy enough, Sym also helped me realise a second hack that I’d been wanting to do for ages.  This one, however, had absolutely no practical use.

The Romp-o-meter pulls in all the stories that contain the word “romp” that are published in the UK tabloid press. They are aggregated together, the sport-related “romps” are removed, and then the UK is given a “romp” score, based on the amount of naughty nookie appearing that day. In my unwittingly double entendre-filled presentation, I noted that “romps can go up and down” and that this might indicate then general moral (or morale!) levels of our nation.

Sym had less than 40 minutes to pull this hack together, so I was impressed he even had something to demo! There are plans, however, to make the fully-fledged version. I’m really hoping it will involve a romp-o-meter swing-o-meter.

You can also browse some of the hacks on Rewired State’s project page.

SXSW Notes: “The Gatekeepers” – Jeffrey Rosen interviews Nicole Wong from Google about free speech

Nicole Wong – deputy general counsel at Google
Jeffrey Rosen – American academic and commentator on legal affairs.
Talk part of the Platinum Track event

Nicole decides whether links stay up on Google and makes content decision on Youtube.

The issue of Internet censorship is so complex it’s never about a single person, company, website. It involves government backroom providers, services like google and users. There are many ways that govs seek to control this a different levels.
At a company level we may get court orders, police show up at the door, I have had some of my employees detained.
In some of the countries we see Governments actively intimidating people in their country.
When we talk about what type data ends up on the Internet it’s much more difficult to talk about that as a single company, it’s a more difficult decision.,

Tell us about Turkey – a judge was blocking Youtube because f a video insulting Kemal Ataturk.

Youtube is a globally available service for video sharing. We’re not trying to target specifically Turkish users. But in 2007 started to see it periodically block because it is illegal in Turkey to insult Ataturk.

We had been dealing with various prosecutors and the Turkish telecom authority becuase they would wholesale block Youtube. But we could IP block from Turkey the videos that would violate law, but couldn’t censor the entire Internet for Turkish law.
Worked for a while but at 2am in the morning 67 different videos came through form the judges – went through all of them deciding which ones violated the law. Some were Kurdish Nationalism videos which are also illegal in Turkey. We agreed to block ones that advocated violence and we took them down because they violated our terms of service.
May last year on of the prosecutors decided IP blocking was insufficient. Felt insulting Turks all over the world and demanded we blocked the videos worldwide.

Youtube is blocked for a year in Turkey now. We are playing all of our legal and policy cards. This is no longer in my hands. It’s some sort of argeement we have to get to to deal with content on the Internet. Only so many tools in the toolbox.
We have lots of people reacting to complaints and flags we get from users and to review those.
Certain complaints will get escalated, e.g. requests for blocks from government – a whole company blocking us. We involve the legal department, the public policy department and the head of office and a lawyer in that country to understand if the video is violating that law.

My job is to cull all of that and decide how to deal with this.

Hard judgement calls for me. When you have assets or people on the ground that may be at risk all the principles we talk about to do are important but hard to aim.

Orchid platform popular in India and Brazil. There were a couple of groups on Orchid in India critical of the dominant party in Mumbai. It has a very violent arm. Criticised the party and the party’s deity. They were calling to look for an alternative party. There were profane and inappropriate things said about the religion. We were asked to remove all of those communities not just because it was insulting but because violence was about to erupt and people were rioting infront of the Google office in Mumbai. As much as you want to defend free speech when things get violent you have to make a decision and I err towards protecting people on the ground.
I made the decision to remove the comments against the deity, but I did not remove the criticism of the political part because it was advocating peace and it made no sense for me to remove statements on peace to quell rioting.
These were really hard decisions to make.

A lot of young people working as moderators shouldn’t be discounted. Pretty smart and they have been trained. But of course mistakes still happen. Youtube there are 15 hours of video uploaded every minute, millions of views every day so the likely hood of a mistake is going to be there. We’re lucky that are users are usually quick to let us know.

We follow the digital millennium copyright act. We do not accept liability for copyright infringement, but when we get a notification that someones copyright has been infiringed we take it down and notify the user so that they can counter argue.
There can be a great deal of abuse of what copyright holders demand to be taken down.

There was a good study down by Chilling effects .org. It’s makes transparent all demands for removal. Gives a sense of transparent – YouTube sends these removal request for that.
Assessing that there was high amount of people cliaming copyright to take down something they don’t like.

I think I’m increasingly seeing censorship at the ISP level. Google in the US, you have to serve us in the US. But the ISP is usually within country and some countries a joint partnership with Government so a good deal of Gov control so filtering at that level is easy for governments.

Its an issue we see in a number of countries. Australia was first country by law to institute filtering at the ISP level. They are a Western Democracy with a democratic mandate to filter.
There are now 6 ISPs in Australia doing a trial run on how to filter content that could be harmful to minors. We have to pay attention to these types of laws.
At one level degrading quality of bandwidth if it is uses filtering. How do we make decision which countries is it ok to filter in? Australia? China? Pakistan?
What we need to do is engage in the conversation trying to get to the purpose that the government is trying to achieve and if there is a better way to so.

Don’t want to single out Australia – trying to protect minors. It’s something Germany is doing too but with a blacklist.

We need to stop thinking that just filtering is wrong. We need to think about what are the processes that Gov can validly censor and what are situations where it is not acceptable.

I think it is better for governments to have the decision rather than to have these issues bubble up through me or someone on Youtube or Facebook

But I do think there needs to be a push to make Governments transparent about what they are doing.

My problem is scale – I don’t want to be at 2am looking at Kurdish National Videos and if you go by country by country it starts to feel very arbitrary. the next big company might be coming out of China, or Argentina. I would like to see us reach some form of International standards. We need to have a bunch of descriptions where agree to freedom of expression, access to information. If we accepted these for the internet.

Global Network Initiative. 2 years ago started conversation with companies that within Yahoo Microsoft Human Rights Watch and other NGOs and socially responsible investors and academics. to ask can we get a global set of principles. We did get to a set of principles which yahoo google and Microsoft signed up to. Processes to think about managing gov demands for censorship and user information and all audited by a 3rd party.
Huge self regulation
That gives us a group that can tell a government to say something is inconsistent with freedom of expression.
Announced 4 months ago and its still experimental
When you’re a company that has run out of all your cards in Turkey you need some other tools to deal with it.

We need to step up and do the action. When you’re operating in a certain country you’ll get a take down demand. “Others guys down the st. are doing it, you should to”
With a single organisation we can better hold the line, they can’t pick us off one by one.
We will be able to demand legal processes rather than having some companies being intimidated by a call.

You have to have something more institutional than a single person. I think we should be worried that companies may not stay good. That’s why we need them to sign up to a set of principles. Figure out as a global community still working that out.
Go back to my days as a first amendment lawyer.

First printing press then radio, then TV, then cable in the interim spaces you had time for social norms to develop and for laws to develop around these.
Ever since the internet comes out we’ve been running because every month there is another Twitter or Facebook coming out that we need to negotiate.
What we’re trying to doing with the Global Network Initiative is set some norms that will endure.

Right now in the US I think there’s a line of cases that AOL had in the 1990s a huge Zeron(sp?) v. AOL based on provision of the communications decency act section 230 – interactive computer services are immune from liability from the speech of 3rd parties.
In 1998 congress was saying the Internet needs room to grow and develop norms. If you hold the platforms responsible you will kill that ability form those platforms to exist. Immunise the platform. That has been the most important driver for growth of the Internet in the US.

Zeron shortly after Oklahoma city bombings postings started going up on AOL that were t-shirts and stickers going up that were offensive. So poor guy starts receiving death threats. Sued them anyway even though Section 230.

No other country gives that sort of immunity. That will inhibit the growth of the Internet in those countries.

I don’t think there’s a global body at this point that could enforce such immunity worldwide. Our Government should be making free expression as part of their trade talks. That might be one way to move the ball forward.

GNI has put up website to see the principles but companies are committed to ensuring not putting products or services on the ground that could harm users. Valid legal process is required before demanding information.

Never underestimate the power the Internet has just by its mere presence. Google and its various properties have been blocked in 24 different countries in the last 7 years and it’s something we have to engage on. 2004 9 mill blogs now 210million blogs. The growth of content is happening in really important ways. I think it’s persuading Governments that they can’t put a halt on everything, they have to put up with some things.

China might be a case study of that. Blogging critical of the gov is happening in China and not getting censored. Perhaps China still deciding what to do about it, but what has happened is an incredible.


Does the India case not prove you can get Google to change things if you threaten violence?

It’s a fair point are will people just never stop? At the end of the day having consulted with the police and lawyers we felt where we struck the balance. Candidly would we do it again? I don’t know. Take it on each case.

Any propaganda use on Youtube?

One of the really good things about the Youtube is that when you have propaganda is put up someone can call bullshit on it.

Can be a safe harbour we all agree on?

I don’t see that in the near future. How will we solve this problem? Will there be country IP-blocked safe zone. Virtually create the geographic physical jurisdiction. I dislike that. I think we’re benefiting hugely form cross-cultural communication. But we will continue to run into conflicts. Things will be said in India about Pakistanis that they don’t like and vice versa. We’re going to disagree and we are on a long road.

I think speech will be freer than it is now. That is the nature of this medium and the culture of all these sessions. I think that is going to move the trend towards more speech even in countries that don’t think they are ready for it.

“Everyone just Googles”

This is a quote taken from a conversation I had with a lawyer about her consumption of news:

“The problem is you people in the media are stuck in your own little world and forget that we’re also quite busy in our own little world and we don’t have time to keep up with what you’re doing.
“We don’t want to have to understand your RSS feeds, we just want to get the information that we need as quickly and easily as possible.
“Handing over 50p and getting that information printed on paper is an easy transaction. It makes sense.
“Fiddling around trying to understand and set up an RSS reader doesn’t.
“When it comes to information online the quickest way is to Google for it. Everyone just Googles.
“Then, if you find a useful easy-to-use site in the Google search results, that’s the site you’ll go back to.”

Beyond the parasitic news model (and why Kindle won’t save us either)

So it’s 2009 and the search for a sustainable online newspaper business continues.

Even Google hasn’t quite worked out how traditional newspapers safely navigate past the Rusbridger Cross to emerge as businesses that generates most of their revenue from online operations.

The problem: print commands much higher premiums for advertising then the web does.

In order to compensate for that, web businesses either need to significantly scale up output, or significantly cut back on costs.

Currently one common solution espoused by those immersed in online business is to find someone else to worry about most of the costs for you.

The thinking is thus: the web is already awash with stories produced by other news orgainsations and these can be used as a free resource.

With a bit of repurposing and organising by a small team of copy editors, stories can be presented as an entirely new, high-volume, comprehensive news service.

It’s a smart model – one that could also disrupt the many news aggregation subscription services that exist.

You could also argue that, by combining stories from many sources, better organising them or by integrating social media, these news businesses are occupying a space that could/should have been filled by newspapers a long time ago.

But I still can’t see how their businesses can be sustainable in the long term. By relying on the mainstream media to produce their information in the first place,  they are tying themselves into the very business model they claim to be replacing.

If the mainstream media fails, these new businesses fail with it.

Mainstream media provides a volume of news online that is yet to have an equivalent.

I know it’s not a popular argument to make, but I’m afraid no other online content (as it currently stands) will cut it as a replacement. (If you don’t believe me, ask Eric Schmidt.)

Think about it: how many websites would you have to trawl through a day to find as many celebrity gossip stories as you would get from the combined feeds of The Sun, The Daily Star and The Mirror?

More scarily, how many websites would you have to trawl through a day to find an equivalent volume of quality business news that you get from The Financial Times feed?

An alternative theory is that the news industry needs to learn from the music industry and to replicate  iTunes or create some other form of paid-for model.

I’m not so sure that works either.

I agree that there is much we can learn from the music industry (that lawsuits and protectionist attitudes won’t save you – for example),  but I think there are also very distinct differences.

For example, when consumers download music off the internet for free, they pretty much know they are doing it illegally. The large record companies are not putting out their content for free on their own websites and there is no official Google Music.

We also do not have a market where consumers understand they have to invest in electronic devices for the purpose of accessing print content. This, in my opinion, is why the Amazon Kindle is unlikely to be the answer to the newspaper industry’s woes.

Perhaps a more fruitful investigation would be into developing paid-for products and services that reuse content or closely ally to the media brand.

Location aware, voice recognition search? That’s Googlewang!

I was impressed with Locly when shown it by a friend, but Google has really blown that out the water with this.

[via Buzzmachine]

I always nodded when people said to me that mobile was the next step for the web. I understood what they meant in theory, but I have now shifted up a gear after seeing this. It is, in many ways, a completely different dimension for data to exist in.

It has got me thinking about how news might fit into this new environment. My instant thought – although perhaps not useful as a product to make money – is that stories can now exist not just in a moment of time, but also in a defined space.

One way (or indeed my madcap way) to get to grips with the concept is to visualise stories as hanging from threads that touch you as you walk by them. Why that might be useful – apart for getting some background research on the local area you’re walking through – I’m not sure. It’s an interesting thought though that stories could now be ranked on “proximity to current location”, as well as by most recent.