Slimformation: A prototype that helps you read smarter, improve your “information diet”

Slimformation: A prototype that tracks the kinds of content a user is viewing and provides advice on how to improve his or her “information diet.” Activities tab shown above.

How many of you have tried to diet before?

I know I have my fair share of attempts.

So we all know there are better and worse foods for you (say, vegetables over macarons). The same logic applies to information. We live in a world of information overload, and consuming more of this information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. In fact, it can do the opposite.

People need to be more conscious about the information they’re consuming. Because it’s really easy to go through life passively consuming information without really getting any smarter. In order to really hone and develop critical thinking skills, we all need to be aware of the kinds of information we’re putting into our body.

As it happens, we built an app for that.

This past quarter, I took a class titled “Collaborative Innovation and Journalism in Technology,” a practicum-type multidisciplinary class that puts programmers and journalists on projects for the duration of the quarter. It’s co-taught by two Knight Lab faculty members, Larry Birnbaum and Rich Gordon.

My team (Basil HuangGursimran Singh and Amelia Kaufman) was assigned a project based upon an idea originally sketched by a team that included the Lab's Joe Germuska and Larry Birnbaum at last year's MozFest election-hacking session, which was inspired on Clay Johnson’s book, “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.”

“The world of food consumption and the world of information consumption aren’t that far apart: Both the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience show us that information can have physiological effects on our bodies, as well as fairly severe and uncontrollable consequences on our decision-making capability.”

The problem of information intake is a really interesting one. There are many things to measure when it comes to reading online, and how to utilize these metrics to quantify engagement.

In brainstorming the interactions of our system, we kept circling back to some main thoughts.

First, diversity of news sources. Sure, you read entertainment and tech and business and politics, but are you always going to the same sources for your news in these categories?

Second, reading level. Hopefully it’s above that of a fifth-grader. Are you only reading short tweets? Two hundred-word blurbs from Buzzfeed?

Third, news categories. This one was pretty obvious, but providing a breakdown for users of the topical categories for the content they’re reading online.

We also wanted to provide Mint-like functionality to allow users to customize these measures and set goals for themselves. Let’s say I don’t really care about sports, but I don’t want that preference to negatively count against me.

Another important feature we decided on was prescription. Sure, we can display a bunch of pretty charts to help visually quantify a user’s information intake, and aggregate the top news sources per category. But in order to provide more utility for our users, we wanted to build some sort of recommendation system, one that takes into account both a user’s reading habits (based on what we’re tracking), as well as the user’s predefined goals.

We built a Chrome extension to help users read better and smarter.

It does three things, primarily:

  1. It automatically tracks a user’s reading activity, visually displaying this information and calculating the top site of news consumption per category.
  2. It allows users to set goals for their reading activity to help them change their habits.
  3. It recommends action items for users to change their reading habits based on their predefined goals and reading activity.



After installing the extension, it runs run in the background and monitors the user’s browsing activity.

So let’s say I navigate to a Buzzfeed article. Our system extracts the page content and URL, runs this through a categorizer and calculates the reading score of the article. We then store this page information and analysis in the browser’s local storage (meaning it’s all on the client – so it’s fast and private). I can then interact with this data in the extension’s popup, where we display a visual analysis of the numbers and provide direction and recommendations for how to improve.

The alpha version is available here. Try it out! We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, which you can send here:

About the author

Katie Zhu

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

  • Bringing Historical Data to Census Reporter

    A Visualization and Research Review

    An Introduction Since Census Reporter’s launch in 2014, one of our most requested features has been the option to see historic census data. Journalists of all backgrounds have asked for a simplified way to get the long-term values they need from Census Reporter, whether it’s through our data section or directly from individual profile pages. Over the past few months I’ve been working to make that a reality. With invaluable feedback from many of you,......

    Continue Reading

  • How We Brought A Chatbot To Life

    Best Practice Guide

    A chatbot creates a unique user experience with many benefits. It gives the audience an opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about your organization. It allows you to collect valuable information from the audience. It can increase interaction time on your site. Bot prototype In the spring of 2017, our Knight Lab team examined the conversational user interface of Public Good Software’s chatbot, which is a chat-widget embedded within media partner sites.......

    Continue Reading

  • Stitching 360° Video

    For the time-being, footage filmed on most 360° cameras cannot be directly edited and uploaded for viewing immediately after capture. Different cameras have different methods of outputting footage, but usually each camera lens corresponds to a separate video file. These video files must be combined using “video stitching” software on a computer or phone before the video becomes one connected, viewable video. Garmin and other companies have recently demonstrated interest in creating cameras that stitch......

    Continue Reading

  • Publishing your 360° content

    Publishing can be confusing for aspiring 360° video storytellers. The lack of public information on platform viewership makes it nearly impossible to know where you can best reach your intended viewers, or even how much time and effort to devote to the creation of VR content. Numbers are hard to come by, but were more available in the beginning of 2016. At the time, most viewers encountered 360° video on Facebook. In February 2016, Facebook......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More