Brainstorming ideas for social network analysis in investigations and journalism

Some of the "How might we…" questions at the NICAR14 designing new tools for social network analysis journalism session in Baltimore Sunday morning.

This year's CAR conference has had many discussions about organizing data and surfacing stories, whether it’s through crowdsourcing personal stories in Al Jazeera’s “Uganda Speaks” project or by analyzing 80,000 censored Weibo posts in ProPublica’s “China’s Memory Hole.” Social network analysis, which is the analysis of the connections linking people, businesses and organizations, provides opportunities to uncover critical, and otherwise unknown, connections among such entities.

For a while now, the  Lab has been working through a series of research projects under a larger effort called Untangled, ideas for social network analysis investigation and journalism. As we’ve previously reported, Untangled aims to provide journalists with a way of systematic research and documentation of noteworthy connections when reporting on a complex topic. Sunday morning, Rich Gordon, Miranda Mulligan and Joe Germuska facilitated a workshop to design new tools and technological approaches for social network analysis investigation.

“The stories of our time are network stories,” Gordan said at the start of the workshop, citing “Bridgegate” as an example. “But we’ve hardly seen any network analysis.” Network analysis allows journalists to understand influences and relationships from network datasets, helping them to “discover things they never could have found otherwise.”

Over the remaining two hours, Mulligan and Germuska led participants through a brainstorm-a-thon at a very quick clip, first by crafting personas and use-cases for network analysis tools, then by brainstorming design problems in the form of “How might we …” statements that solved specific problems for specific user groups.

The groups primarily focused on potential tools that would help reporters gather, understand and visualize patterns and data. Teams pursued design questions that sought to visualize internal and external relationships in networks, gameify data input and processing and define patterns of activity in datasets.

The following are three technology ideas for making it easier to practice social network analysis in our investigations and journalism:

1. A relationship ecosystem monitor for journalists

IMG_2523Team: Rich GordonMomi Peralta RamosMar CabraGabriela BouretRicardo Brom and Jacqui Maher

Although social network analysis can play an important role in uncovering potential stories, capturing information about those relationships can be cumbersome and may not be part of a typical workflow. The group emphasized that in order to prompt journalists to use the tool, the system must be easy to import bulk data, view that data once in the system, search the data and add to the data. On the technical side, they reported that quantifying strengths of relationships within social networks and storing metadata for relationships would help further analyze and collect the data for future investigations. To encourage and incentivize newsroom participation, the tool would also have to track data contributions and produce metrics.

2. A tool that creates visualizations of important connections in a network

IMG_2523Team: Zach Wise, Kurt Jansson, Magnus Bjerg and Liv Håker

Network visualizations are hard to make and difficult to understand. The group’s solution was to create a tool that makes it easy for journalists to create visualizations that communicate clearly, important connections in a network. The tool would have users import different types of data (JSON, CSV, Excel) and allow them to identify which entity’s (individuals, companies, organizations) perspective to observe. The goal was enabling data exploration and discovery in the authoring process by looking at networks from different angles. A fully featured system would create public facing visualizations based on the relations while demonstrating a clear hierarchy in the data. Additional features could guide journalists through the network analysis and contextualize elements and their relevance.

3. Better understanding and recognizing patterns in datasets

Team: Miranda MulliganAlexander Cohen and Alex Byrnes

The group began designing a system to better understand and recognize patterns in datasets. They felt the system would need to have robust search features, alerts or notifications via email, suggestions for further exploration and visualizations of those patterns discovered in the data. They envisioned it as an open source tool that would be designed to work with known sources. The search feature would allow users to create or save a job, automate a job on a timeline and learn from previous search jobs. They felt it would be useful to include versioning in the search.

Every year New York Times' Chrys Wu curates 'Slides, Links & Tutorials' from the annual CAR conference: 2014, 20132012 and 2011. They are a fantastic resource for all journalists and investigators of all skill levels.

About the author

Nicole Zhu

Undergraduate Fellow

Interested in visual storytelling and building products for news. Studying computer science and English at Northwestern.

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