Archive for December, 2010

A dummy’s introduction to linked data (me being the dummy)

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This is an edited version of a talk I gave on a panel about linked data and the semantic web at News: Rewired, on Thursday 16th December. The presentation slides can be seen here on slideshare.

Disclaimer: I’m not a technologist. I’m not a programmer. If you’re a geek then this piece isn’t meant for you. It’s for those of us trying to get to grips with the potential of technology and the web for news, politics, business and society, but without too much technical know-how.

What is linked data?

In the 18th century Voltaire wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. You could say something similar about ‘linked data’. Linked data is neither ‘linked’ – in the way we think of hyper-linking on the web; nor is it ‘data’ – in the sense of numbers or databases. So what is it?

Data as ‘things’

The data part of linked data is really discrete ‘things’. Identifiable things like people, places, organisations, events. You are a discrete thing. I am a discrete thing. In real life there is one you, one me, one capital city called London. On the web there are likely to be many you’s – your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn profile, your flickr pages, pictures of you on other people’s pages, your blog, other blogs about you – you get the picture.

Trouble is, if you’re spread in different places over the web, how does it know it’s you? I’m certainly not the only Martin Moore. There is Daniel Martin Moore, the singer songwriter from Kentucky (who has a new album out). There is Martin Moore the under-20 Ireland front-row rugby player (whose career I’m now following with interest). There is Martin Moore the cellar master from South Africa (I’m jealous of his job). There is Martin Moore QC. There is Martin Moore kitchens

I’m not any of these Martin Moores. I am me. I like to think I am, in the words of Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club – like all of us – ‘a sacred, unique snowflake’.

But how does the web know this? How does the web (and therefore people searching for me, or trying to recommend things to me) know who I am?

Well, if stuff about me is put on the web as linked data then I am given a unique identifier. A sort of human ISBN. A web snowflake. So that, whenever I publish something, or someone publishes something about me, then the web knows it’s me and not one of the many other Martin Moores out there.

Linking as grammar

Now we move onto the ‘linked’ bit of linked data. A hyperlink is a dumb link – in the sense that it just says ‘click on me and I’ll take you to another web page’. It doesn’t know why these pages are linked together, or what the relationship between them is, you have to work that out from the context.

If you publish it as linked data then you explain the relationship between the two things you’re linking. This person wrote this article. This organisation launched this product. This event happened at this time. It’s a bit like grammar, where you have subject – verb – object, i.e. John kissed Mary. (In linked data language this is called a ‘triple’ though being non-techie I prefer to think of it in grammatical terms.)

Suddenly, instead of having an indistinguishable soup of stuff on the web, you have lots and lots of distinct entities with clearly defined relationships.

Good reasons for publishing in linked data

So what? I hear you say. Why should I care about this in my day job? Well, there are a bunch of reasons why this could be a big deal. Here are just a few:

Publish in linked data and you can make your site much richer – both in terms of links and, potentially, in terms of automatically generated content. The BBC’s natural history pages are filled with interesting stuff about animals – including video clips, information about distribution, habitats, behaviours (e.g. see this one on the lion – complete with great sound clip of a lion growling and snarling). But only some of this content is produced by the BBC (mostly the video). Lots of the other information is automatically sourced from elsewhere – sites like WWF and Wikipedia. By combining it all together the BBC has pages that are far deeper and more threaded into the web.

This can have a great knock-on effect on where your page/site comes in search engine results. The BBC’s natural history pages, for example, which used to come somewhere way down the rankings, now appear in the top 10 results on Google (when I typed ‘lion’ into to google.co.uk earlier this week, the BBC page came fourth, while aardvark came third).

Linked data can also help with sourcing. Now that lots of primary data sources are being published as linked data (e.g. on data.gov.uk) you can link directly back to the raw figures that you’re writing about. So if you write a piece about the rise in cars thefts in south Wales, people can follow a line straight from your piece to the Home Office data on which it was based.

It can improve accreditation. By providing clear, consistent and unambiguous information about who wrote something, who published it, when it was published, where it was written etc. then the producer gets better credit, and the person reading has the tools to judge its credibility.

It can make searching really smart. Let’s say you wanted to search for all the composers who worked in Vienna  between 1800 and 1875. Right now that’s pretty tricky – or at least it might take a bit of digging to work out. But if the information was published in linked data format you could just search for all composers who worked in Vienna between 1800 and 1875. Because the web itself becomes a sort of distributed database.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, linked data can create an environment that enables innovation and the creation of new services. Suddenly it becomes possible to build really smart stuff based on the way in which things are linked together. The BBC’s World Cup site did just this in the summer of 2010. Publishing huge amounts of information – more than any team of journalists could put together themselves – sourced from lots of different places. The New York Times has now publishes in linked data and encourages people to build new stuff to leverage it. There is a tutorial for building a web app to show NYT coverage of a school’s alumni, for example – see a finished app here.

Other companies are starting to use linked data and other semantic information to build recommendation engines (like GetGlue). People can start adding value to data that you would never have thought of.

A final warning

The basic premise of linked data is wonderfully simple. You link discrete things together in such a way that we know the relationship between them (subject-verb-object). Once linked, the web then starts to have an artificial intelligence of its own.

But putting this basic premise into action is more complicated. Publishing in linked data for the first time is not for the faint hearted (we now publish journalisted.com in linked data so learnt for ourselves how complex it can be). You can find yourself quite quickly mired in the intricacies of linked data formats, vocabularies and many acronyms.

Though there are ways to move towards linked data without plunging in head first. Just publishing structured metadata is a very good start (for which there are various plugins for open source CMSs like WordPress). Microformats are also a much easier entry point for those wanting to introduce some metadata to what they publish (e.g. hNews for news).

Linked data is remarkable. It’s also a little scary. But the sooner people understand its potential and start making their information more ‘semantic’, the healthier and more navigable the web will be.

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Oxford study points the way ahead for foreign correspondence

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This post was first published at mediastandardstrust.org on 10th December 2010

Richard Sambrook’s report – ‘Are foreign correspondents redundant?’, published this week by the Reuters Institute in Oxford, is a road map for news organisations and journalists who want to navigate the future of foreign news

The news popped into my twitter feed between 8 and 9pm on Wednesday evening. ‘#wikileaks hackers have brought down visa.com’. Wow! was my first reaction, that sounds important. Is it true? – was my second thought. A quick attempt to log into visa.com suggested it might be. If it is, what does it mean? – was my third response. Visa’s corporate website was down but did that mean I couldn’t make visa transactions? If I tried to make a visa transaction – say to pay for that basket of Amazon Christmas presents I’d just filled – was there a danger my card details would be lost, or stolen?

I relate this experience not to give a glimpse of how I spend Wednesday evenings and my various neuroses, but because it captures – in microcosm – the challenges facing journalism today, especially international journalism.

News travels fast. Very fast. Normally now in headlines of fewer than 140 characters. The race to be first – which used to be won by journalists and news organisations – is now won by whoever is closest to the action and has the fastest opposable thumbs. That may be a journalist but chances are, especially with international news, it might not be.

News can come from anyone, anywhere. The first tweet I saw about visa.com was not from someone I knew (it had been re-tweeted). Hence why I wasn’t sure about its veracity. Here the journalist can help (though they first have to overcome the urge to re-tweet without verifying).

And news initially tends to come unencumbered by context or explanation. It comes as a bald statement of fact. Visa.com has shut down. North Korea has just fired rockets at South Korea. The first Chilean miner is out. The journalist then has to work out what this means and explain its importance to his/her audience.

Speed. Verification. Context.

But if news organisations are losing the race to be first, in international news they also risk losing their lead doing the second and third.

This struck me reading Richard Sambrook’s excellent study, published this week, on the future of foreign correspondence.

To be able to verify something quickly you have to have some background knowledge. If possible you should have been on the ground (wherever the ground is) for a decent length of time so you can not only verify something but establish its importance and set it in context. This is hard to do from a standing start.

As Sambrook writes: ‘There are no substitutes for a prolonged process of first hand engagement to understand and report what is being witnessed. This may be the most valuable element of foreign reporting at risk from the changes underway.’

It is at risk because there are fewer staff foreign correspondents on the ground. Many news organisations have scaled back or removed their foreign desks. And most have closed or reduced their foreign bureaux.

This is not to say this is the only way to do foreign news coverage. There are alternatives to having your own staff on the ground, as Sambrook indicates. Technology now provides enormous potential for new methods of news gathering, and provides access to a much greater number of news sources.

The report cites a number of people and organisations who have taken up this potential, for example Global Voices, which ‘surfaces opinion and reporting in blogs around the world’; Demotix, a sort of 21st century international picture agency; and Ushahidi, a distributed mapping platform started from Kenya. Even the Foreign Office, not necessarily known for online innovation, has experimented with news aggregation and discussion. For the G20 meeting in London the FCO ‘built a website offering information in 40 languages but also decided to make it a digital hub to aggregate content and discussion about the summit’s themes’.

Yet ‘[i]t is notable’, Sambrook writes, ‘that most of this innovation comes from new start-ups rather than from within established media organisations’. Philip Balboni, CEO of Global Post, puts it more brutally: ‘The innovation in journalism is pathetic’.

Indeed, despite the opportunity to provide more international news, more cheaply than ever, before many mainstream UK and US news organisations are reducing their international coverage. The Media Standards Trust report published last month – Shrinking World – showed how coverage of international news in the UK print press (4 newspapers) has dropped by 40% since 1979. This is in the context of newspaper pagination exploding over the same period.

This is a shame because these organisations have the experience, the people, and the motivation to innovate, as we suggest in our report.

Still, Sambrook’s report not only provides a perspective on where international news has come from, it also points the way to where it could go. The question is, will news organisations read it and take action?

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Editors exposed – shedding a little light on UK national newspaper editors

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This post was first published on mediastandardstrust.org on 6th December 2010

It is a curious thing. British national newspaper editors have the power to choose what should be read by over 10 million people in Britain everyday (in print, many more eyeballs online), have the ability to influence public policy, and are regularly invited to meetings at Downing Street and Chequers.

Yet we know very little about them. If you Google the names of the editors of the Daily Telegraph (Tony Gallagher), the Daily Mirror (Richard Wallace), the Daily Star (Dawn Neesom) and the Sunday Times (John Witherow), you will find hardly any information online. Tony Gallagher is remarkably invisible on the net given that over 600,000 people rely on his editorial judgment every weekday morning.

This relative invisibility seems inconsistent with the power these editors wield. So journalisted.com thought it would have a go at making them a little less invisible.

From today www.journalisted.com (run by the Media Standards Trust) is publishing profiles of each of the national newspaper editors. These profiles contain basic biographical details like education and employment (where they are available), articles and books written by the editor, awards won, and professional contact details. The profiles also link to other sites that have biographical information, interviews or speeches given by the editor.

These are works-in-progress, and as you’ll see from some of the profiles, the information in the public domain is very sparse. So we’ll keep adding to them, and appealing to people to send us more information to fill in the many gaps (if you know of any please email us). Equally, if you are a national newspaper editor and you’re reading this, you’re welcome to claim your profile and add further information to it.

A few interesting things we’ve uncovered to date:

  • Dominic Mohan (The Sun), Gareth Morgan (Daily Star Sunday), Martin Townsend (Sunday Express), and Richard Wallace (Daily Mirror) were all showbiz/celeb gossip editors at one stage in their careers before becoming editors
  • Tina Weaver, Ian MacGregor, Dominic Mohan, and John Witherow have no publicly available email address where their readers can contact them, not even ‘editor@sunday-times.co.uk’ or equivalent
  • Gareth Morgan (Daily Star Sunday) studied physics and used to be a rocket scientist for British Aerospace
  • Colin Myler (News of the World) changed career in 1996-8 by becoming Chief Executive of the Super League Europe
  • Lionel Barber is fluent in French, German and Russian
  • Alan Rusbridger is, in addition to being editor of The Guardian, chairman of the National Youth Orchestra, visiting Professor of history at Queen Mary (despite having studied English at university) and writes children’s books
  • James Harding (The Times) has lived in Japan as a speechwriter for politician Koichi Kato (Democratic Party of Japan), and also in China as a correspondent

There is still lots more to add. We plan to put up a list of the awards won by each newspaper under the editor, and the formal complaints made about each newspaper while under the current editor (i.e. via the PCC).

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 12:56 pm

The journalist of the future – 7 (or 8) archetypes

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This post was first published on mediastandardstrust.org on 22nd November 2010, and is based on a talk I gave at City University journalism department

Conversations about journalists tend to be very media-based. Are you a print or a broadcast journalist? Do you write for newspapers or magazines? Do you blog? But given that journalists now write, take pictures, record audio and video, and most jump between platforms on a regular basis then it doesn’t seem very useful to define people by media. So how should journalists be defined?

Here are 7 journalist archetypes (and an eighth that I can’t quite square) to better capture the journalist of tomorrow. This isn’t a scientific exercise. The archetypes are based on personal observation and on looking at some of the thousands of journalist profiles on journalisted.com (which we run).

Some of the categories overlap. There are probably some categories missing. In other words you shouldn’t take this as gospel. It’s more of a conversation opener. So jump in and suggest your own, there’s plenty of room at the bottom of this post.

7 journalist archetypes

The Uber-Brand

This is the journalist whose name outshines, eclipses even, the journal(s) s/he writes for. That means people like Jeremy Clarkson who, according to a report in 2009, accounted for 25% of the Times website online traffic (pre-paywall). Other ‘uber brands’ might include Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Charlie Brooker, and Robert Peston.

(Ivor Gaber has pointed out that there is probably a mezzanine level of ‘uber brands’ – i.e. columnists who earn a good income but aren’t quite well known enough to go it alone.)

The hamster

This is the ever shrinking number of professional generalist journalists working for mainstream media. ‘Hamster’ because more and more is now expected of these journalists such that they are becoming like hamsters on a wheel, desperately running just to say in the same place. Producing multiple reports for multiple platforms on a constant basis

The campaigner

This is the person who uses journalism as a means to an end: to raise awareness about human rights abuses, to free government data, to campaign for a greener world, to end child detention, etc. Clare Sambrook has been so successful at the last (campaigning to end child detention) that she has – to date – won two awards for investigative journalism. Yet she has written mostly for non-mainstream outlets (presumably for little or no pay).

This type of journalism – particularly at NGOs – is on the rise. If you read a job ad for many campaigning non-profits you could be forgiven for thinking it was an ad for a journalist. A recent ad on the Human Rights Watch website wanted someone who would be ‘collecting and analyzing information from a wide variety of sources … writing reports, briefing memos, statements, advocacy documents, op-eds, articles, and press releases’. Sounds pretty similar to what many journalists do.

The portfolio-ista

For this person journalism is one of a portfolio of jobs that together provide a living wage. It may be that journalism is a sort of ‘shop-window’ for some of the other stuff they do – in professional communications, training, or academe. John Foster writes for the Evening Standard, The Times, the Yorkshire Post, the BBC, CSP Today, Cash & Trade, Upward Curve, Ideas, Funds Europe and others. He is also managing director of Ad Hoc Media and Financial Consultancy. Alf Alderson freelances for The Guardian, Independent, Times, Daily Telegraph, Ski & Board magazine, Fall Line, Surfer’s Path, and others. He is also writes guidebooks and offers guided surf tours.

The communitarian

The communitarian cares about their local community. A lot. They care enough that they are willing to devote considerable amounts of time – for very little or no money – to running a local forum where people can discuss issues, providing information on local events and, in many cases, reporting on what is happening in the local area. Mike Rawlins and Tony Walley do this with their vibrant site Pits n Pots in Stoke on Trent. Nicky Getgood does the same in Digbeth. See Talk About Local for many more.

The specialist

The specialist knows oodles about a specfic subject. People like Larry Elliott, Alex Brummer, and Martin Wolf know lots about economics, for example. Paul Tomkins, who runs the The Tomkins Times, knows lots about Liverpool Football Club. Knowing a lot more than most people means that many specialists have knowledge and skills that people will pay for. The TomkinsTimes charges £3.50 a month subscription and, I understand, has a growing subscriber base in the thousands.

The geek

The geek is becoming increasingly important to the future of journalism. Yet there is a good chance that s/he (though more often a he than a she) does not even think of himself as a journalist. More likely the public spirited geek simply wants to do things that make information more accessible (e.g. theyworkforyou.com), enable people to tell the council about a pothole in their street (e.g. fixmystreet.com), tell people about planning applications in their area (e.g. planningalerts.com), or allow people to audio record and publish from a mobile phone in 3 clicks (e.g. audioboo).

A few things stand out from this list of seven:

  • Only two out of seven are fully employed by a professional news organisations (the hamster and the specialist)
  • Two more get a proportion of their income from news organisations (the uber brand and the portfolio-ista), though wouldn’t starve if the organisations disappeared / went under.
  • Two more are not doing journalism for the money (the campaigner and the communitarian), and the final one could be employed by any number of people, including the State (the geek)

All of the journalists on this list, even if they earn little or no money from journalism, have a baseline of journalism skills. The communitarian will know how to use open source software to build and help fill a website. The campaigner will probably be adept at tweeting, blogging, and crowdsourcing support for a cause, and so on.

The list also raises ethical questions. How open should the portfolio-ista be about the jobs they do outside journalism? What happens if they have to write about one of their current or former employers?

There is an eighth archetype that I didn’t include but could have done. That is ‘the editor’. Some people consider the journalist and the editor to be synonymous, and it is certainly true that today’s increasingly autonomous journalist has to have many of the skills of an editor. Most journalists now ‘curate’ – i.e. make recommendations via twitter and elsewhere. Many edit and publish their own work. Yet, at the same time there is a strong argument to say that the importance, and distinctiveness, of the editor ought to make it a separate category. What do you think?

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Future of news

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