Noticias del futuro Knight Lab: My talk at #hhba #mediaparty

Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires #MediaParty group photo by Ramiro Chanes

Last week, my partner-in-crime and the chief nerd around the Lab, Joe Germuska, and I had the privilege to join what just might be the largest Hacks/Hackers gathering in the history of the grassroots journalism organization at the Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires Media Party. The group is reporting over 900 people participated in its three-day gathering, with participants coming from all over North and South America, plus Africa!

Ciudad Cultural Konex, Buenos Aires

This year's event was its second and was organized by International Center for Journalists fellow, Mariano Blejman, at Ciudad Cultural Konex, Buenos Aires, on August 29-31. It included an ambitious agenda with two long days of presentations and hands-on workshops, plus a full hackathon day. There were many international guests — aside from myself and Joe — among them were the near-entire Mozilla OpenNews team, a number of Knight News Challenge winners, New York Times' Jacqui Maher , Chicago Tribune's Ryan Mark and NPR's Brian Boyer (both Medill graduates), as well as four of ICFJ's Knight fellows and their VP of programs, Patrick Butler.

Read a recap from Mariano here (in English).

Joe and I were both asked to prepare talks and speak to the group, as well as run a workshop on the first day. While I am writing up a recap of our workshop in another post, some folks have requested the transcript from the talk I prepared about the Lab, which you'll find below.


Noticias del futuro Knight Lab

Developing technology that helps make information meaningful, promoting quality journalism, storytelling and content on the internet.


Hello. I run a project out of Northwestern University with my partner-in-crime, who is also participating in this great event event, Joe Germuska. Last year, I left The Boston Globe's newsroom and in December Joe left The Chicago Tribune's because we wanted to contribute to the larger journalism-tech community, beyond our specific newsrooms.

Before I go too deeply into what I mean by "community," I want to tell you an anecdote about how I learned an important life-lesson: Contributing back to relationships, community and family are essential for their survival. You can't just take from them.

My mother's antique Singer

When I was young, my mother had an interesting way of teaching my brothers and I about giving back to the household. You see, my mom makes clothing for a living. I have told many anecdotes about her profession in other journalism and design presentations, but this one is new. I promise.

For as long as I can remember, she's always had a workroom-like space in every one of our homes and each would contain tons of the materials she'd potentially need — fabric, patterns, thread, needles, scissors, work tables, mannequins and many, many sewing machines.

Yes! You heard that correctly. Multiple sewing machines. She had all sorts of them in her workroom and this beauty right here is one of her favorites.

If I were more interested in clothing production, if I thought you all were interested, then I would tell you more about this particular Singer … But the important thing is to understand that she loved it and wanted her children to love it too. Now, we do not love the machine they way she does, but she keeps trying.

At some point in our childhood, she began to motivate her children with giving us the rights to inherit one of the sewing machines if we contributed to the household in a meaningful way. For example, if I happened to be the child who completed my Saturday chores first, she would hug me and say something like: "Now YOU get to inherit the sewing machine when I die!" If my brother mowed the lawn without being asked, he would then be the keeper of the rights to inherit the sewing machine.

Now, ignoring the fact that my mother bequeathing beloved artifacts to her children decades before her death is quite morbid — and she is still very much alive (and I will likely get into trouble for telling this story) — I tell this anecdote because of how this act developed over time. At first, this created a small and quite silly competition between my brothers and myself. It was, strangely, an effective motivator.

The sewing machine was an arbitrary item to us, to be completely honest … However, we thought of the sewing-machine-rights as synonymous with being the favorite child. I wanted to be the favorite child, as did my brothers, so we would be well-behaved children, completing our chores, helping out around the house. We worked hard to earn our mother’s love and praise.

It wasn't until I was much older that I realized that the lesson that she was actually teaching had more to do with the importance of contributing to the household, ensuring the success of the household, rather than encouraging competitive behavior between her children. She wanted to instill a work ethic in her children that instilled an understanding of a proper balance in a household, a family, a community. We could earn the sewing machine through acts of contribution and helping out our family … or even our neighborhood. If we volunteered our time, and gave back to our community and neighborhood, she would praise us. She believed in positive reinforcement.

Recently, I have been thinking about this family story as an important life lesson. I have been thinking about it in the context of the community — or communities — to which I like to consider myself a contributing member. The many journalism communities.

What if we thought of our community as a very large family? What if we thought about how we could help each other succeed, because individual successes would move forward the success of the overall community? What if the family members contributing code found methods for the not-as-tech-inclined to contribute equally as meaningfully. What if the non-code-writing family members found ways to grow their technical skills and to make meaningful contributions journalism's open-source initiatives?

[sc:pull-right pulltext="I have also been thinking about the intersection of journalism and open-source software, that many of the most successful projects leave out huge swaths of potential users …" ]As Dan Sinker has been recruiting for the Knight-Mozilla Fellowships, he has talked at length — and quite articulately — about the idea of community in journalism and open-source software projects, that both are dependent on a strong sense of "community" and network for their survival. In fact, many have argued that there are scenarios in which the point of earning a journalism degree has more to do with gaining access to the network of professionals than learning applicable skills or specific positioning for a professional promotion. And open-source software projects can have huge impact, but their success is intricately dependent on a significant community of contributors and curators.

I have also been thinking about the intersection of journalism and open-source software, that many of the most successful projects leave out huge swaths of potential users — potential participants who would like to use the technology and contribute, but don’t have the technical knowledge to contribute to a code base. The sub-sect of open-source technology projects made for journalists, the ones who create a ton of content but don’t always have necessary technical skill, potentially could more meaningfully contribute to the design and development of those projects. We can do better at inclusion.

This is where Northwestern University Knight Lab can help. So, now you are probably thinking and wanting to ask: What is Knight Lab? No worries. Everyone asks that question.

In short, we are a group of people … We are a small team working toward innovation in news media by way of publishing tools — like TimelineJSSoundciteJS and the coming StoryMap — by way of reporting and information gathering tools — like the Untangled project — and by way of social media analysis tools — like TweetCast, Neighborhood Buzz and the coming Twxplorer.

Located just outside Chicago, Northwestern University Knight Lab is a joint initiative of Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The Lab was launched and is sustained by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

We are a staff of seven professionals, about 15-20 student fellows and about 7 faculty members. The project was launched in the end of 2010, with four founding faculty members – Owen Youngman, Rich Gordon, Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum.

[sc:pull-left pulltext="Journalism matters. The free press is important to a functioning democracy. Journalism has the power to change the world. " ]We are a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance news media innovation. While there are times of heated debate, we all agree that there has never been a more exciting time to be working at the intersection of media and technology. Every bit of what it means to be a journalist is being reassessed, redefined. As an industry, we are witnessing a rebirth. As the Knight Lab, we are participating in an important community.

Our team develops software — in the form of prototypes, projects, products and services — that helps make information meaningful, promoting quality journalism, storytelling and content on the Internet. Ideas can come from any source: from news consumers, students, and faculty as well as in collaboration with news publishers of all sizes. A good idea is a good idea. As our technology becomes more realized, we work with publishers to install prototypes, gather feedback and iterate on the ideas that have momentum. We strive to make a difference no matter the project’s scale.

In the past 18 months, the Lab team has released two stable products, 9 deployed systems and 38 prototypes. I wrote recently that we are positioned quite well to invent, design, build and support services like TimelineJSSoundciteJS and the soon-to-be-launched StoryMapJS. StoryMap is the next content publishing tool from Timeline's creator, Zach Wise. It will be a step-by-step mapping tool that allows publishers to create an interactive experience with a story that takes place in multiple locations. Here is a rough sketch of the idea. It should be ready in about a month.

Also, in the past few weeks Rich Gordon wrote a fantastic update on the Lab's Untangled project, in which he wrote:

When Joe Germuska wrote about Untangled in April, we were imagining a multipurpose “browser-based knowledge management” tool that would help journalists keep track of information they found online. Since then, we have explored this idea through a variety of approaches: by evaluating different technologies, by writing some code, by interviewing journalists about their needs, and by observing how journalists use the Web and online databases to do research for their reporting projects.


Over time, as we designed and prototyped, we realized we needed to tighten the scope of the idea because “Browser-based knowledge management” was too broad.

… We have narrowed the project scope to a particular kind of information that journalists want to gather and document: connections that link people, businesses, organizations and government agencies. We think this makes sense because documenting connections among “entities” (the computer-science term for people, businesses, etc.) is a frequent reporting tactic. Stories resulting from this kind of research cover topics such as campaign contributionspolitical influence and insider trading.


We are looking forward to talking with a number of folks this weekend at this event about our Untangled project.

Finally, the Lab’s model is designed to maximize ideas and prototypes generated by the schools’ collaborative “Innovation in Journalism and Technology” class. In this class, journalism and computer science student collaborate on a project over a ten-week quarter to build a prototype as directed by Lab faculty. The average class produces five to eight prototypes in a variety of states of completion. The most recent one produced Slimformation, which was originally sketched by a team that included Joe and Larry at last year’s MozFest election-hacking session. It draws inspiration from Clay Johnson’s book, and this first prototype also came from a spring class team that included student fellow Katie Zhu. She wrote up a great piece on its alpha.

These are just a few things that the Lab is working on right now. There are quite a few more. But we could use your input.

We ask for you, the members of our community, to contribute back to us by talking to us, giving us feedback on our ideas, telling us what you need, trying out our ideas and telling us whether or not they are good or bad. We want you to help us develop tools and technology that are useful and what you need. We give you free technology and services. If you have an open-source project and if you need some help, we are here to help.

Joe and I will be hosting a workshop later today, this afternoon, in which we will be brainstorming additional ideas that we at the Lab could work on prototype for journalists. Come join us. If you have an idea, contact us at knightlab@northwestern.edu.

Our community, our household, our family will rise and fall … We are here to help, so please, help us help you.

Thank you so much for including us in this event. Thank you Mariano. Thank you Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires.

About the author

Miranda Mulligan

Executive Director, 2012-2014

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