If you build building blocks, will they come and build buildings?
Perhaps it’s my personality, but when I think about reasons for trying out the ideas embedded in structured journalism, I tend to focus on the practical: We can build new products that will serve people better, and maybe throw up additional revenue streams.
But there are other, less concrete, reasons as well: To build the building blocks of information that could lead to things we can’t yet see; to power and allow more serendipity and discovery in information.
Meaning what, exactly?
Imagine phone books didn’t exist. Imagine that instead we had long articles/files with peoples’ names, addresses and phone numbers. We can do keyword searches and find pretty much anyone we want, so the main purpose of a phone book – to find someone’s phone number and address – is achieved. We can even search for and find all the people with the last name of say “smith,” something else you can do with phone book. But there would be things we couldn’t do easily. For example, we would be much more hard-pressed to discover a cluster of smiths on main street without this being organized in a data structure that allowed for quick queries and integration with a map.
Lucky for us, then that phone books, by virtue of how they’re organized – with data fields for names, addresses, etc – allow for that kind of new application. After all, Google Maps is essentially a mashup of phone books with maps. If phone books weren’t set up that way – if they were simply long strings of text – it would be much harder to create Google Maps.
Or take stock markets. If we had daily stories about the stock market that mentioned every companies’ closing share price, we’d have all the information we could find in stock tables. But it would be very hard to build a stock chart from that – let alone try to correlate its ups and downs with, say, hemlines.
The point is, it’s not simply the information that allows the chart to be built; it’s the structure of the information.
And it’s that structure that gives us the building blocks of potential new applications – things that in many cases we can’t foresee.
So how can we rethink what we do so that we can get more structure in what we do, and hence build new building blocks of information? And what are these possible new applications that we can’t foresee? It’s tempting to say we can’t foresee them – which would be true by definition – but that’s probably a tad too glib.
But if you think back to the time before Google Maps, you might remember how amazing it seemed when it came into existence. It seems obvious now, but it’s not like there was a long line of people creating it before Google did. Ditto EveryBlock and Adrian Holovarty.
Geocoding, of course, does allow us to build maps of events and news, and sites like outside.in are busy trying to extract location information from stories and blog posts. Silobreaker not only looks for information, but also relationship information.
But we journalists don’t do all that much. At least, not yet. We routinely collect reams of information, and generally the best we do with it is throw it up online or into a document cloud of some kind; but without structuring it, it’s like posting a long text string of stock prices and hoping someone can find some value in it.
If instead we captured more relationship information in a useful format, we could be creating sites like WhoRunsHK everywhere; if we followed a format like Politifact on political fact-checking, we could start to see more patterns on what politicians say and do. (And, to be fair, the franchising of the Politifact model around the US is helping that process along.)
The trick, of course, is deciding what kind of information to capture to build our building blocks. I suspect one reason that geocodes have been so popular is that they’re relatively easy to extract from stories – they don’t involve a lot of extra work for reporters or editors, and they don’t make us change our ways very much. They can be helpful – location does matter in many stories, and mapping incidents or events can bring up new insights.
But doing anything else will require work. If we want reporters to file relationship information, that will be a new task. If we want them to evaluate and rate politician’s truthfulness, that’s different from writing a story. If we want death tolls at set times during a natural disaster, that takes an effort.
And it’s important, of course, not to create work for the sake of getting new data. Some of it will be valuable; some of it will not. We probably want to know who someone’s spouse is; but it’s unlikely the knowing his great-grand uncle is going to be helpful. Or what color his hair is.
The point is, we have to make some choices about what we want to collect – and in the process make some leaps of faith about what may be valuable to others, and to the process of more creation.
Like it or not, journalism is moving into an age of data – we will increasingly create value by aggregating, linking, analyzing and understanding it. And we can help ourselves move strongly into that age by not only doing all that, but also create the new building blocks of this new era.