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.

SXSW Notes: Why Is Professional Blogging Bloodsport For Women?

Why Is Professional Blogging Bloodsport For Women?

Discussion led by Rachel Sklar and Rebecca Fox

More links can be found on the Bloodsport For Women blog.

Sklar: Blogging is great for women, not suggesting that it isn’t, but want to ask why the slope to attacking is steeper and more slippery for the things that women do online as opposed to men.

Commenter: I thought that when blogging and Internet started to become popular that gender would not be an issue. But there are many examples of misogyny on the Internet. I had no idea some of this ugliness existed. Autoadmit(?) message board where a bunch of rowdy law school guys posted about how they wanted to rape and harass female law school students. Involved following the women around. When theyu were Googled would also appear. Result was those that allowed it to happened had tarnished reputations and were outed.

Sometimes on the web people feel free to expose ugliness and to be oppressive to others in a way that they don’t in “meat space”.

Sklar: Free speech balance is difficult in law and problem for a much wider web.

Low barriers to entry and giant megaphone = internet. Allows space for extreme and offensive point of views.

Commenter: Free speech applies in a public environment – in “my blog” it is my space and my rules. Happy to engage in conversation and debate, but offensive attacks will be deleted. People get confused about the context of free speech.

If someone posts anonymously and they say something nice i still delete because my rules are to not display anonymous posts.

Sklar pointed out the sexism inherent in blog comments and mainstream media in around the Hilary Clinton campaign. It seemed gender-based Hilary bashing was ok.
“she only got where she was because her husband was screwing around”

Sklar – “I was told I was alarmist”.

Commenter: Annoyed that owmen are so willing to attack other women online.

Caroline McCarthy CNET news – Is there not a problem of self-proclaimed feminists taking the issue too far? There seems to be an unwritten rule that you are succumbing to catfights if you criticise another woman.

Some people take it too seriously and feel they can’t disagree with other women.

Sklar: Everything is a continuum – some is bitchiness and some is legitimate criticism.. Problem is you see legitimate criticism as being dismissed as catfighting. Experienced that myself and been written off as a catfighter – doesn’t happen when you are engaging with a man, or man engaging with a man.

Caroline McCarthy – male tech bloggers chest thumping over breaking embargoes is seen as acceptable. Not the case for in-fighting between women.

Fox: What are the consequences for professional female bloggers?

Heather (Fray lady)- it probably won’t go away its par of the course. The Internet without snark would be strange. It seems to me is what women want more, more influence, income, visibility and engagement in topics that mean something to me.

Don’t wait for men to tell you it matter – not Michael Arrington or someone else.

Sklar – online space is a really safe space for intelligent discussions. But the language that can be used is sometimes the problem.

Commenter: When our bodies and sexuality is up for questions we need a spacer outside of the tit for tat and back and forth where you can talk about these topics so you can.

Lauren – wrote about being in college and family and friends read my blog. You have to own it. It’s naive to think you can write about your personal choices online where people can’t see how they hurt you and no one will comment badly? That’s not going to happen. You can’t backpeddle, you have to own what you say. That was a big step of self-actualisation. TO have my mum ring me and ask e why I would publish things. I get annoyed – you’re not shouting into a well and people are going to give you feedback.

Commnenter – Put up a blog and mentioned I was a feminist and received comments involving death threats. Was writing about gardening.

Fox – is there a tension between getting in there and engaging and empowering and the decision to make your blog personal.

Commenter -A lot of what happens online, is the same time-honoured techniques of shutting women up.

People want to engage me in the same arguments all the time and I am fed up with having my time wasted and as a women I think you have to pick and choose. If you don’t get down in the mud with these people and show not as important to engage with then you can move on. Don’t waste your energy.

There is a need to support other women when they are experiencing that sort of name-calling.
Male and female bloggers could all be very supportive of each other.

Sklar I have had professional repercussions for talking about Hilary Clinton but it does exist.

Sasha – Jezebel and Salon wrote articles about women writing intimate things would seriously increase page views. Women are the more courageous when writing about the “juicy” stuff. When you write a personal essay you have to reveal complexity and flaws and people online just don’t get that – if you admit you’re not perfect that will be a point of attack.

Commenter – Gawker – everyone on that network gets a lot of hate mail, Michael Arrington gets death threats. As many horrible threats come to men. Any women doing the same blogging job was getting more threats an depersonalised . But the way to deal is to be cooler than the people that try to wind you up. Someone who got sent a picture of a penis, sent back a picture of a cleaver.

Lisa- attorney and blogger. Personally I am a veteran of online community and I feel that it’s all valuable it’s up to us to be leaders and set up positive examples – if you want to respond to the negativity it can be a healthy outlet of debate, but there are legitimate unhealthy behaviours and times when you won’t want to feed that and reinforce the positivity.

Patricia – I feel the power in this room. There are a lot of entrepreneurs figuring how to make money out of women online. 53% US population is female. Appeal to this room – there are issues and there are issues. We should be worrying that there is only one female supreme court justice., instead of worrying about who called you a c***.

Every generation of girls have an underlying understanding that women will be better than their mother, women then realised the game is stacked. Continuum of shutting up a women because she is fat and not having these.

Commenter: How do people feel about people like ijustine?

It’s ok they do it, even though don’t like it – point of feminism.

Sklar – Summary
Pick your battles
It’s not ok and everyone knows it’s not ok – we need more people to highlight this.
Being more than a woman – more than just that category.
Massing voices is a way.

SXSW Notes: Designing the Future of the New York Times

More notes from yesterday’s SXSW panels, this time Designing the Future of the New York Times:

Tom Bodkin, Assistant Managing Editor, Design Director, NYT and Khoi Vinh, Design Director of

Tom Bodkin art director background, traditional print.
Joined NYT in 1980.
Works with Razorfish on the redesign of the website. Removed the underscores from hyperlinks.
The Times Reader, worked on the project.

What does the future looks like – no one knows for sure. Publishing in period of rapid change. Imperative to make newspapers webby is counterproductive. Print experience appealing in world that offer ubiquitous Internet access. Shouldn’t try and recreate the web in print. Have to focus on benefits. Disposable, easy to share, narrative flow, you know where you are, fully consumed and finished, durable, don’t run out of batteries, serendipity and manageable quality of content invites perusal ids more so than the internet I DON’T THINK SO!
Persistence a newspaper you can put aside and it won’t have changed. Regular schedule. Natural physical object is not ephemeral and has a place in time and history.
Attribute distinguish it from the web and make it a pleasurable experience. (ISN’T THE WEB PLEASURABLE?!)
Better to retain print qualities in print than mimic the web on print.

Khoi: Runs – basic design blog. Formed design company then left in 2006 to join NYT.

Had a career in print and had originally translated that into the web.

Paradox to digital design is that it’s easy to publish and communicate ideas worldwide but once publish it the obligation to continue to publish is greater than that in print.

Editorial layout of content and stories that we see on is very expensive and in terms of economics the reverse ordering of content is the most natural way to publish online.

Evolution thinking I could do things in print than online to moving towards text-based reverse chronological posts,.

Need for high quality journalism is there. Citizen journalism is not a high quality replacement. You will have thousands of micropublishers out there and a handful of global news platforms. In order to become on of the global news platforms have to reconsider the traditional approaches to journalism. Everyone at the Times is trying to figure this out. We are trying to look at us creating a platform to help us make the most of our content. At the same time we believe our content should be platform agnostic. We have a mobile site, iphone app,

Work with Amazon on the Kindle product. Tech group have enabled widgets and APIs to allow content to be pulled onto other pages. 10 APIs released in the past year.

There are a lot of groups at the times engaged in design activities and our group are not focused on designing the news and we’re trying to think about what’s the whole platform experience. So the interactive maps and immersive community experiences tied to news stories, we’re not working on thes on a daily basis we’re creating a tololbox so the infographics team working on a tight turnaorund trying to publish within minutes they have a toolbox for them to draw upon.

When there are events with a long enough lead time we try to get involved in it.

Pogueomatic = collaborative example.
Year in Ideas is another.

Enterprise reporting is extensive and investigative journalism we will help plan microsites, eg. environmental situation in China. Provide cohesive experience including audio, video, interactive graphics and Chinese translation.
Creating more interactive experiences, e.g. Best Picture Oscar ballot. March Madness “The Men’s Bracket” allowing you to create own groups and compete against friends.
Evergreen features of functionality is main focus.
Keepers of the style guide.
Focused on the navigation, on the shell of the site.
Blogs is a huge part of the design group a few dozen blogs on NYT. Work with journalists to brainstorm their blog and develop a brand Cityroom – one of the best performing blogs.
Worked on TimesMachine a visual archive of every page between 1851 and 1925 – every single page – rollover and abstract and then go see article itself.

Bodkin: Web is limited in the way that you can design with it. Very little conceptual thinking. 19th century newspaper thinking in some pages were as much material is put on that page as possible.

What I see on the web is an engineering model,. a business school model where I am used to a more creative process. Is the reliance on metrics and testing versus on dependence on personal vision which you see in the nature of print driving the nature of digital.

Vinh: web is very conversational in nature and requires engineering to provide an environment that is natural to them and are not in sync in the way an editor or art director would want to use the content.

Bodkin: behaviour on the web is different but I wonder whether it’s a function of where the web is now in its evolution and will the availability of handheld

Bodkin: Serendipity hasn’t been a priority, but could be achieved.
Vinh would like to increase the serendipity of NYT.
People get more serendipity today than you would ever get on a newspaper. Spending time on the blogs. Grander schemes of things probably narrower than it is in the newspapers.

All quiet of the SXSWestern front?

I’ve just landed in Austin for the SXSW Interactive Conference.*

I was here last year and the event was such a buzz I was determined by hook and by crook to come back this year.

But, if the taxi driver on the way to the hotel is right, there may not be so much buzz this time around.

It seems the conference is being hit by the credit crunch, with many potential delegates deciding to save the pennies and stay away.

Whereas this time last year the airport was awash with SXSWers, this year – the taxi driver said – they are arriving in “dribs and drabs”.

I wonder how true that is and whether it will effect the atmosphere of the event.

I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. 🙂

*For those of you uninterested in the event, let this be a warning that my Twitter and blog will (time permitting) be full of the subject for the next five to six days.

Looking for a host to call home

On September 23 2007 I started this lil’ol blog claiming that I would “tentatively” look to the future of local and regional newspapers.

How things can change in six months!

Now, and I hope this doesn’t sound too cocky, I feel like I’m pretty much immersed in looking at the future of regional newspapers in the UK.

It has been a rapid education. For example, things that I did for the first time at SXSW include:

  • Access Twitter over mobile internet.
  • Interview people on a camcorder.
  • Live stream video over a mobile phone.
  • Blog via live streaming.
  • Upload a video to Youtube.
  • Speak on a podcast.

I know, I know, these are things I should have been doing already. Well… you’re right. In my defence, it’s taken me a while to build up the right kit in order to do much of the above.

Anyway, now I’m getting to grips with new platforms, I thought it was about time to get a host for this blog. I’ve been doing on the cheap by having it hosted free by WordPress, but I would like to have more freedom to play with the blog and I’ve been told the best way to do that is get me a host and download the lastest version of WordPress. Plus, I kinda need to learn how to manage my own website.

If this is right, then I could really do with some advice on hosts. I’m looking for something that is relatively cheap and reliable. Any ideas?

Podcasting Ideas

One of many things that came out of SXSW was that I should consider exploring the world of the podcasting.

It’s not something I’ve done before, mainly because I’m not a big listener of podcasts. I had concluded, as has my colleague Tom Scotney, that there was limited value in listening to an entire podcast on the off-chance that some of the content was worthwhile. Better to have text and scan through it, I thought.

But, since then, I’ve changed my mind somewhat. One reason is because I had forgotten that I am an avid listener to BBC Radio 4. Now, when I switch on Radio 4 I have no idea what I am going to be listening to, but I enjoy it because I know it will be pretty good quality. Why could this not apply to podcasts?

Secondly, I don’t have an iPod (I seriously want one!) – so I don’t download podcasts to listen to later, I have to listen to them pretty much then and there, or play them on my computer when I’m working (and not paying attention).

Thirdly, most of the podcasts I’ve come across don’t provide a detailed summary that would allow me to judge whether I wanted to listen or not. But this may have been resolved by Stef Lewandowski who has suggested using Viddler to annotate different parts of the podcast, as Dave Seah has done with his SXSW video.  This, combined with some form of executive summary, could make it easier to see “at a glance” whether the podcast is for you.

And the final reason I want to podcast is… people have told me to! There was a general consensus at SXSW that it would be a good way to ease myself into other forms of communicating over the web and I’m enthusiastic to give it a go.

For my journo-type work I have me a little Olympus WS-300M and, I have been told, that it would do the job for recording podcasts.  But I think I would need a microphone. The thing is, if I’m interviewing people would I want to have them on a clip mic, or would it be better to have a multidirectional mic so that it’s easier to hear me asking the questions. If so, I’d want something that didn’t pick up too much background noise.

As for my first podcast, well I haven’t asked anyone yet but I think it might be nice to interview some of the journalists at The Birmingham Post about how the move to digital has changed their working practices in recent years and how they think it will develop in the future. This would give me practice at interviewing, would have relevance to the sort of thing I blog about and might work as a slice of mass observational history. Thoughts?

Home from Texas…

…and I feel a little… well… low, actually.

I think it was probably inevitable – no one can take such a sustained assault on their preconceptions or their liver without some comeback.

I am comforted, however, that I take back home with me some incredible new friendships with people that really inspire me.

There are also a lot of good ideas that the SXSWM team are taking back with them that, given the right reception here in Brum, could have a significant impact on raising the city’s profile in social media.

I have made myself a little list of things I want to write about. I am going to put them in this post so that I make myself follow them up. They are:

  • Trust and authenticity online and its application to mainstream media.
  • The power of conversation through video (and how Seesmic demonstrates that).
  • The benefits and problems of live streaming as part of the newsgathering process.
  • The application of gaming strategies to business networking.
  • How SXSW will change my behaviour in the newsroom.

I guess I have my work cut out!