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.


Goals

Prescription

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: knightlab@northwestern.edu.

Latest Posts

  • A Google Spreadsheets change affecting TimelineJS users

    Google recently changed something about their Sheets service which is causing many people to run into an error when they are making a new timeline. Note: there should be no impact on existing timelines! After this change, many of you click on the "preview" and get this message: An unexpected error occurred trying to read your spreadsheet data [SyntaxError] Timeline configuration has no events. There is a straightforward work-around, but it requires those of you who have...

    Continue Reading

  • How Americans think and feel about gun violence

    A man killed his wife, then himself. I want you to see his face and learn that he enjoyed fishing with his grandchildren. A small-time drug dealer is shot by two men in a parking lot. I find his Facebook profile and a photo shows him striking a playfully irreverent pose, giving the camera the middle finger. The photo’s comments take a mournful turn after a certain date. “Rest easy bro ???” Gun Memorial runs...

    Continue Reading

  • Software developers interested in journalism: Northwestern and The Washington Post want you!

    Northwestern University and The Washington Post are offering a unique opportunity for two talented software developers interested in applying their programming skills in media and journalism. Here’s the proposition: (1) a full-tuition scholarship to earn a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University, followed by (2) a six-month paid internship with The Post’s world-class engineering team, with the possibility of subsequent full-time employment. These opportunities are made possible by the John S. and James L....

    Continue Reading

  • What happened when Gun Memorial let anyone contribute directly to victim profiles

    If you’re reporting local or niche news, there’s a good chance that your audience collectively knows more about the story than you do. That’s especially true for us at Gun Memorial, a small publication with a nationwide mission of covering every American who is shot dead. In our latest, mostly successful, experiment, we let readers add to our stories without editor intervention. This article shares some lessons from that experience. Asking for reader contributions A...

    Continue Reading

  • How conversational interfaces make the internet more accessible for everyone

    This story is part of a series on bringing the journalism we produce to as many people as possible, regardless of language, access to technology, or physical capability. Find the series introduction, as well as a list of published stories here. In 2004, human-computer interaction professor Alan Dix published the third edition of Human-Computer Interaction along with his colleagues, Janet Finley, Gregory Abowd, and Russell Beale. In a chapter called “The Interaction,” the authors wrote...

    Continue Reading

  • Three tools to help you make colorblind-friendly graphics

    This story is part of a series on bringing the journalism we produce to as many people as possible, regardless of language, access to technology, or physical capability. Find the series introduction, as well as a list of published stories here. I am one of the 8% of men of Northern European descent who suffers from red-green colorblindness. Specifically, I have a mild case of protanopia (also called protanomaly), which means that my eyes lack...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

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

View More