Hack day computers hands
Credit: Image by mozillaeu on Flickr. Creative commons licence. Some rights reserved
It is exactly a year since the winners of the first Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellowships were announced.

Five people were funded to spend 10 months embedded in the newsrooms of Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, BBC News, Zeit Online and the Boston Globe. They were funded to generate ideas, train colleagues and bridge the gap between technology and the news.

This week eight more fellowship winners will be announced. They will spend 10 months at participating outlets: BBC News, the New York Times, the Guardian, Zeit Online, Argentina's La Nacion, Spiegel Online, the Boston Globe and ProPublica.

This year's OpenNews fellows have been attending conferences around the world, introducing ideas to the host organisations, sharing knowledge and pushing boundaries. Journalism.co.uk takes a look at what the five fellows have been doing.

Nicola Hughes, the Guardian

Nicola Hughes is the only female out of the five and the only journalism-trained fellow; the others are what Hughes describes as "full-stack developers".

Hughes said she was "looking to use this year to become a full-stack journalist, in terms of gathering information, cleaning it up, analysing it, visualising it as maybe an outcome or visualising it as maybe an interrogation technique, and producing stories from it, stories that have possibly a written side and an interactive side".

She has been working with the Guardian's interactive team.

"The Guardian is known for its digital agenda," Hughes said, "it's known for being very forward in its platform, very open in its programming and on the cutting edge of experimentation. And on the edge of that edge – nearly falling off the cliff – is the interactive team with a huge mix of skills and backgrounds.

"The team was set up by Alastair Dant who made it his mission to get a mish-mash of journalists, designers, developers, people with games backgrounds, people with interactive backgrounds, and produce a wide variety of interactives and different ways of telling stories."

Hughes explained that the Guardian was able to make use of Hughes as she was "someone who could take on stories that did not yet have a headline".

"Before they can set aside people time to develop an interactive, they want to find out what the story is, and maybe have the data cleaned up."

And that became her role. Hughes worked closely with the global development desk, particularly with journalist Claire Provost.

Most people think you are learning programming as you are building digital-native interactives, completely different ways of telling stories that you can't do in print, and what I liked about this story is that it was given print first because it wasn't about the medium it was about the messageNicola Hughes
"I worked with her to produce stories that might not have been produced if I weren't there to communicate with her, to do some of the data cleaning, the data scraping and the data interrogation so that the developers' time would be put to making the end product rather than investigating to see whether the product was there."

Nicola Hughes's profile page on the Guardian
provides links to stories she has worked on, including a story on US food aid.

Hughes started with raw, "messy" data. "It was very, very difficult to piece together what was actually on there," she said, "It was split across two different websites and it was split across two different types of document."

Hughes was faced with port documents that detailed when US food aid had arrived at a destination port. It had been collected in the port as the shipment was "ticked off" a list.

"We needed to know what quantity of food went where but also wanted to know which company supplied the food. That was another document, a purchasing documentation. Those didn't match exactly because they would purchase in bulk but maybe ship that bulk in two different shipments or across two different days."

Hughes was faced with a task of connecting the shipments to trace them back to the original purchases. And the data was in various formats, including CSV files and PDFs.

You can see how the team tackled the investigation by reading 'The business of US food aid: how we analysed the data'.

The resulting story, headlined 'US food aid programme criticised as 'corporate welfare' for grain giants', was lead in the international section of the Guardian's print edition and was then published online and as an interactive.

"Most people think you are learning programming as you are building digital-native interactives, completely different ways of telling stories that you can't do in print, and what I liked about this story is that it was given print first because it wasn't about the medium it was about the message."

And opening the data helped the global development team's audience, which includes people working with NGOs, think tanks and activist groups who "want more data as they have difficulty accessing it", Hughes explained.

"They want an interactive, they want the top lines from the story, so that they can go to their bosses to put pressure to get some understanding and push to get reviews done so aid works better for the people."

Laurian Gridinoc, BBC News

Laurian Gridinoc has been embedded in the BBC News specials team. Originally from Romania and a trained medical doctor, he has run is own business and worked for various companies. You can see more on his background and projects here.

Gridinoc started by prototyping what is "doable" on Internet Explorer 6 and 7, old web browsers which are still used by a significant number of people. He then worked on "testing what kind of vector maps can be used on the range of browsers from IE 6 and 7 to iPad".

I was hacking in the BBC setting and having the colleagues there doing the actual polishing and implementation by BBC standardsLaurian Gridinoc
His task was "mostly trying to replace Flash with HTML5 and Javascript", so that interactives could be viewed on iPads and other devices which do not support Flash.

One such project was the UK election map, released in May. He also worked on 'Ian Tomlinson death: PC cleared map' and, 'Census 2011: 1.5m have second addresses', which was based on the work done for the election map.

Asked why he was different from any other developer working for BBC News, he said that he was "working on prototyping how something should work and how it should be done but not actually implementing it in the actual tools".

"I was hacking in the BBC setting and having the colleagues there doing the actual polishing and implementation by BBC standards."

Mark Boas, Al Jazeera English

Mark Boas has been working with Al Jazeera remotely. He has been focussing on something that he terms "hyperaudio", that is "something that allows you to break down the transcripts of audio and video right down to the word and then give yourself an accurate way of searching for that and manipulating that media".

He did a piece of work based on a video called 'The fight for Amazonia', which pulled text content from a Google Doc and linked words to the exact points in the films creating "contextual video".

... I have created something that they can now use day-to-day without needing meMark Boas
He has recently "taken that a lot further" and introduced interactive transcripts for the US election debates. Each word in the videos of the debates is linked to that word in the transcript, enabling the audience to search by keywords and find the exact point in the video where that word is spoken. Users can then choose to share that point in the footage via social media.

Boas is particularly interested in audio as well as video and therefore created a "very small framework that allows you to play photo stills to a YouTube audio soundtrack".

"I didn't really get much further than the experimental stage, but the great thing was that I found out later that without needing me at all Al Jazeera then took this and started using it for other audio slideshows they had.

"I thought that was an interesting success as it means I have created something that they can now use day-to-day without needing me."

Cole Gillespie, Zeit Online

Cole Gillespie was a farmer and musician before becoming a programmer. He moved from North Carolina to Berlin for his fellowship at Zeit Online.

One of the things Zeit Online wanted him to explore was how to visualise how stories are shared through social media. "I had worked with this a little bit in the past," Gillespie told me, "visualising tweets and sentiment analysis of tweets".

He has been working on the project throughout his fellowship. "What came out of that was a simple library that I called Amo," he said. "It lets you send a URL and it sends you back all the Google+ shares, all the Twitter shares and Facebook shares" for that story.

I was really stoked that this stuff that we were working on was being shared and being used by other peopleCole Gillespie
"It was really interesting building Amo," he said. "It was based on different APIs but for Google+ there was no API so I had to do this really crazy hack to make it work. It took me a while but once I got it I was really proud of it.

Gillespie and colleagues used Amo to track all the stories at Zeit Online "to see how they are being shared in the social world". That is yet to be published and will be released at this weekend's MozFest festival in London.

But despite the Zeit Online project not yet being public, the code was open source and it has been used by Nathan Matius, a researcher at MIT, for this Guardian story headlined 'Women's representation in media: readers preferences for online news revealed'.

Matius used Amo to track 261,290 Guardian articles to see how they had been shared on social media.

Gillespie said: "I was really stoked that this stuff that we were working on was being shared and being used by other people."

Dan Schultz, Boston Globe

Dan Schultz is the only US-based fellow. He has recently graduated from the MIT media lab and started his fellowship later than the other four due to his studies. He is now half-way through his fellowship.

Schultz has produced various code, including "a couple of hacks that came out of hackdays".

One is called News Quest, which Schultz worked on with Gridinoc, and is "kind of a choose your own adventure for the news".

"It uses the Google News API to get related articles but you seed it with a single article, so you would activate it while reading a single article. What the tool does is it finds related articles, splits those articles into paragraphs, runs each paragraph through a tool that will generate questions that will get answered by the paragraph.

"It's a natural language tool that finds incidences of claims or statements and rewords them to be in the phrase of the question but removes the piece of information."

He has also worked on something called Opened Captions which works with the live transcripts from C-SPAN, an American cable television network that offers political coverage.

Opened Captions is "a pretty awesome API from a programmer's perspective", Schultz said, and allows other developers to "create interactives and experiences that reflect what is happening on live television based on the transcript".

I've quickly learned that my role has been to create cool hacks and code but to also cause troubleDan Schultz
They "rushed the code out" in time for the presidential debates (and even created a drinking game out based on the presidential debate live transcripts. One example of how Opened Captions can be used is Card Text, which can provide contextual information such as pictures and bios of people mentioned on live television.

"I think Opened Captions is exactly the kind of experience or type of project that is supposed to be coming out of these fellowships," Schultz said.

But he has another role at the Boston Globe too. "I've quickly learned that my role has been to create cool hacks and code but to also cause trouble.

"I'm not in a position where I'm being paid by the Boston Globe so I can feel a little bit more comfortable pointing out things that don't make sense and also I'm a 'newbie' so I am able to ask those pesky questions without feeling my job is at risk or people will be aggravated by those questions."

He is also pushing for cultural change. "The news industry is something I've been looking at since about 2007 and back then it was all doom and gloom. This [fellowship] for me was a way to understand what has changed since then, what needs to change from a technologist's perspective, what are the challenges that are being faced in terms of implementation in the newsroom.

"I've been trying to do things like get support for different technologies that weren't being used there before or convince management that it would be really great to have a 5 per cent time policy where we have an internal hackathon once a month.

Schultz believes this change in culture is good for both the news outlet and for the people working there.

"A less tangible thing to talk about but a really important component of these fellowships is coming in as a creative technologist and saying 'alright, what is good about being a creative technologist in a traditional news organisation and what is bad right now? And what can we do differently?'"

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).

blog comments powered by Disqus