Very belatedly, a note about some of the cool – and free – tools that were on display at the IRE conference in Orlando. There were plenty – highlighting both how powerful the journalist’s toolkit has become, as well as the huge amount of effort that’s needed to stay on top of the constant stream of new enhancements.
High on the list is NodeXL, a free Excel template that allows for what looks like pretty detailed social network analysis. To be honest, I haven’t tried it yet, despite it being on my to-do list for a month now, but the demo – and comments from people who have tried it – was pretty impressive.
Social network analysis has been a hard nut to crack for journalists, not least because software hasn’t been cheap or easily available – so this should be a real boon for anyone trying to make sense of complex networks of people and relationships. (WhoRunsHK and Muckety do try to do that, of course, but those are visualizations, not tools. Software like Xanalys can help show hidden relationships, but it’s not cheap.)
Also up there is TimeFlow, software that helps visualize and analyze temporal information – very useful if you’re trying to figure out who knew what when, or unpick a messy chronology or even looking for how disparate events are related in time. There are other ways to look at temporal information, of course, but what TimeFlow does well is allow for quick filters and visualizations, making it easy to explore the data you have.
Also on temporal data – the nice folks at ProPublica showed off timeline setter, a free tool that allows sites to quickly build and embed interactive timelines. I don’t pretend to know how to use it, but it looked great.
Finally, Gnosis – a free plugin from the people who brought you Open Calais (which, I’m pleased to say, is Thomson Reuters) – allows for extity extraction and other semantic engine tools to be used from your browser. Which means that running it on a story or a document on your screen will bring up all the people, companies, places and so on that are mentioned in that piece. That can be very helpful on deadline when confronted with huge files you have to scan through quickly.
I’ve barely tried to use any of these tools, but they look like nice advances over even a short while ago. And, of course, there were plenty more that were shown in Orlando that I never got around to looking at, such as Tableau Public (and Tableau itself, which looks like a very impressive – but not free – tool for data analysis, visualization and publication.)
It’s amazing how much power there is – or can be – in the hands of individual journalist, for free (or close to free.) The real constraint now, it seems to me, is time – how can you keep up with the flood of new tools, learn and master them, and still have time for journalism?