Firuzeh Shokooh Valle on Digital Reporting

Reinventing the News alumna Firuzeh Shokooh Valle spoke to the class on Tuesday about the impact the class and the lessons she took from it changed her career. Valle, now spanish-language editor at the Cambridge-based project Global Voices, was stuck in the print mindset, she said. Dan Kennedy’s class, Reinventing the News (for which this blog is an ongoing assignment), changed that attitude.

Valle has now completely abandoned the print mindset, instead participating in a project that exploits the power of the internet to redefine the term “world news.” Global Voices is challenging the large newspaper mindset in which the media’s gatekeepers tell us what is happening overseas and bringing forward the “voices” of bloggers and citizen journalists all over the world.

At Global Voices, Valle first got involved covering her home, Puerto Rico. She followed the island’s “blogosphere” and kept track of goings-on that way. Aggregating information that was already available and giving it to english-speaking followers on a centralized site gives news consumers an alternative to the mainstream media.

To Valle, the online newsgathering skills acquired in Reinventing the News provided a new viewpoint in how computers can be used in news production. Weaving together a narrative from hundreds of foreign bloggers and journalists covering an event can give a perspective of it that would be otherwise impossible to have.

Jeff Howe on Crowdsourcing

Jeff Howe started his career as an art reviewer at the Village voice before moving to Wired and most recently started teaching at Northeastern University. Howe literally wrote the book on crowdsourcing, coining the word and explaining in-depth what crowdsourcing is and what it means for the way we operate in the world.

Howe said the crowdsourcing is essentially the fading of the line between producer and consumer, “enabling the audience to create the media itself.”

Technology is a vital part of crowdsourcing. Particularly, the internet.

“With the internet, we were able to create a virtual crowd,” Howe explains in a promotional video for his book Crowdsourcing. The internet allowed “people to get together through intent, through shared interest” and not just location, Howe explained. This technological advance laid the groundwork for crowdsourcing as we know it today.

On a journalistic level, crowdsourcing is immensely powerful and at the same time slightly threatening, Howe said. The threat is that as the crowd begins to do the work of journalists, there are fewer jobs available for journalists.

Howe said, though, that the benefit outweighs the threats. Using the example of TalkingPointsMemo’s exposure of corruption in the Department of Justice, Howe talked about how crowdsourcing allowed a small blog to beat The New York Times, Washington Post, and all other major media outlets on one of the biggest stories of the year. How’d they do it? Crowdsoucing.

TPM began receiving emails about district attorneys being fired on what seemed like political grounds, posted about these few cases, and then heard from even more readers who saw the same thing happening near them. Eventually, the story blew up and ended up on the front page of all the big papers in the county.

Without crowdsourcing, TalkingPointsMemo would not have known to look for instances of politically-based firings in the Justice Department. While TPM’s writers may have written up the story, its readers created it. After that, when the Department of Justice released all emails related to the district attorneys in question, TPM’s staff was overwhelmed. Thousands of pages of data needed to be checked for foul play, and TPM simply didn’t have the resources to do it. But they had the readers. They released the data publicly to their readers, who pored over it searching for a story. They found it, and TPM beat the mainstream media on a huge story.

This value, Howe said, brings more benefit to the table – both for readers of the news and for journalists – than journalists stand to lose in a world where crowdsourcing allows small outlets like TPM to beat The New York Times to a story.

Government Modifying Network Security, WikiLeaks Winning

Information Week reports that the U.S. government is working on re-vamping their network security efforts “to prevent another WikiLeaks.”

According to the story, Corin Stone, the information sharing executive for the national intelligence community, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee do discuss the upgrades.

Stone said the community is trying to find a “sweet spot” between allowing its members to share intelligence information while preventing unauthorized access to that data by people who might misuse it.

This is another case (after U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual resigned over a WikiLeaks-related issue) in which the U.S. government is playing into Assange’s hands.

Assange’s hopes for WikiLeaks were best defined in essays he published on November 10 and December 3, 2006. From the first, State and Terrorist Conspiracies:

We will use connected graphs as way to harness the spatial reasoning ability of the brain to think in a new way about political relationships. These graphs are easy to visualize. First take some nails (“conspirators”) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (“communication”) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link. Unbroken twine means it is possible to travel from any nail to any other nail via twine andintermediary nails. Mathematicians say the this type of graph is connected.

Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be abridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy.

He suggests in a later essay, Conspiracy as Governance (on the same page linked to above), how a conspiracy may be hindered.

A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influencethe actions of the state is near its end. To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with.We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it.We can reduce total conspiratorial power via unstructured attacks on linksor through throttling and separating.A conspiracy sufficiently engaged in this manner is no longer able to comprehend its environment and plan robust action.

These passages are somewhat difficult to connect and put into context without reading the original essays in their entirety, which I recommend.

To put it simply, though, Assange is winning. The state is slowing down its flow of information and reducing the number of connections in its “conspiracy” as a result of WikiLeaks. I’m not suggesting here that the state will now fall apart and we will live in anarchy, but Assange is one step closer to dethroning the most powerful nation in the world.

Moby Dick: A wallet-friendly taste of another culture

Finding cheap eats – or cheap anything, for that matter – in Boston is no easy task. Four-dollar coffees and fifteen-dollar movies don’t make Beantown easy on the wallet, but Moby Dick House of Kabobs at 269 Huntington Ave. is the perfect place to get a good meal for a good price.

The walls are lined with collages of foreign currency, adding to the international feel.

Once they work their way through the frustratingly awkward set of front doors (handicap accessible, despite the hassle), diners find themselves in a simple, comfortable space. At the back of the seating area is a counter, and on it a menu with refreshingly small numbers; dishes range from $5.95 to $22.95 (swordfish isn’t cheap).

Anything from simple rice or garden salad to Gheimeh Bademjan – which I might order if I had the slightest clue how to pronounce – can be cooked up to order in around 10 minutes.

I kept it simple (and cheap) and got the lamb kabob sandwich (tender pieces of lamb marinated in saffron and our homemade spices wrapped in pita with hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and house dressing) and a root beer. For $10.70 (cash only – they don’t take cards), I had a refreshingly tasty meal. I advise against any sandwiches there if you happen to be dining and a nice suit as the house dressing can end up shooting out of the pita wrap in just about any direction. But my T-shirt took the blow and I enjoyed my sandwich too much to worry about it.

Information

Address:

269 Huntington Ave.

Boston, Ma 02115

Phone: (617)-236-5511

Hours:

  • Monday – Wednesday: 11:00 am – 10:30 pm
  • Thursday – Saturday: 11:00 am – 12:00 am
  • Sunday: 11:00 am – 9:30 pm

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Resigns; Point: WikiLeaks

Carlos Pascual, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, has resigned after a political fallout that occurred when WikiLeaks published a cable in December 2010 in which the U.S. Embassy to Mexico was critical of the Mexican government’s efforts in the ongoing war on drugs. The cable said Mexican President Filipe Calderon “has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed.

According to Reuters, Calderon was critical of the ambassador in an interview published February 22 in Mexican newspaper El Universal. Diplomatic tensions rose and Pascual resigned.

Julian Assange would see this as a victory; removing “conspirators” in control helps to dismantle the “conspiracy” of government. In many ways, he is right to see it that way. Instead of taking a cooperative approach (“Hey, we clearly aren’t doing this as well as you think, so lets work on solutions.”), President Calderon was standoffish, and the honesty of the embassy ended up hurting the relationship between the two nations.

Where honest dialogue is unwelcome, progress is impossible; as he sits on house arrest in the U.K., Assange is grinning to himself.

Maps as Journalism

Online journalism gives journalists and news consumers an unprecedented opportunity to see the news develop in ways far beyond static text or video. While much of digital journalism is yet to be discovered, one extremely valuable capability it has is the use of maps to give context to stories.

There are many ways of doing this. I will explore three.

Click for map page (at guardian.co.uk)

First, The Guardian offers what I think is the best single presentation of WikiLeaks’ massive dump of diplomatic cables. Users can explore a world map and read cables based on the location of origin or locations mentioned in the cable (i.e. American and French diplomats discussing Iran). This can help users find cables, say, about middle eastern countries or those between Russia and the United States, a view into how the fragile relationship is maintained.

Click for map page (at boston.com)

Another great use of mapping (with nothing to do with WikiLeaks) is a boston.com feature about the war in Afghanistan, The Long War. The map is marked with interactive numbers, marking a reporter’s progression through the region. As users click on the numbers, multimedia presentations emerge and allow the reader to see what was happening in that location. The map does a great job of providing context to the stories that are coming out of the region as well as helping them to understand the situation that American troops are in.

Click for map page (at usgs.gov)

Finally, a map with disappointing execution but amazing potential is the USGS map of earthquakes near Japan. The site allows users to see squares on a map, their size denoting their magnitude) where earthquakes have occurred and when. The map illustrates a fact that I certainly didn’t know and I feel many people have failed to see: there have been 482 earthquakes near Japan in that last seven days (users can click on the squares to get detailed information about the earthquake). Obviously most didn’t even come close to the power of the one that devastated northeast Japan, killing into the tens of thousands (along with the tsunami that followed it), but the map paints a picture. Instead of an isolated incident, the earthquake was part of a massive amount of seismic activity. I would really love to see a major news organization pick this information up and make a better-designed map with all of the information available. Better execution could make this into a wonderful presentation.

WikiLeaks Expands its List of Partners

WikiLeaks today expanded its list of partner news outlets today to include the Turkish newspaper Taraf, which will begin publishing U.S. diplomatic cables relating to Turkey. The country was the origin of more cables than any other foreign nation.

WikiLeaks already has similar contracts with The Guardian of England, Der Speigel of Germany, Le Monde of France, El Pais of Spain, and The New York Times. Spreading WikiLeaks content all over the world helps prevent any one country from being able to silence the leaks.