SXSW and ICFJ: Eye-Catching Technologies Help Media Engage and Track Information

Apr 182012
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    Six Knight International Journalism Fellows and staff flew in from all over the world to attend the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX. Here, they describe the kinds of innovative projects they've come to see.

I attended this year’s South By Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi) to interact with industry leaders and explore interactive technologies we could use to help people in developing countries access and share information in new ways.

For the unfamiliar, SXSWi is a five-day extravaganza of panels, parties, free food, meetings planned and moments serendipitous, accelerators, keynotes and one massive tech trade show. Few events bring together such an amazing array of mobile and digital thinkers and innovators. It is extraordinary and overwhelming, and takes at least another week afterward to fully process.

During my four days in Austin, I met a number of other people who are at the forefront of innovation. I spoke with Nick Edouard, executive vice president of business development and marketing at BuzzData, about their new product “Hives” (see below). I was introduced to Miguel Paz, founder and CEO of the Knight News Challenge-funded Poderopedia (also below). At the WordPress party, I met Kurt Smith, one of Twitter’s data scientists. Talking to him only reinforced my feeling that Twitter is still a barely tapped data goldmine for journalists.

Here are technologies that caught my eye:

Highlight, Banjo and Whodini

Highlight and Banjo are “social discovery” location-based apps that connect you to nearby friends and people with similar interests. Unfortunately, they mostly clog one’s phone with people that are only marginally similar to you. However, if they could base this around topics of expertise, and one could choose which topics to express for a particular place, group or event, this could be a powerful tool for connecting journalists to new sources. Whodini is meant to do exactly this, but is designed for use within large companies only. With these technologies, though, I’d worry about the safety of journalists in countries where public exposure could be catastrophic.

Follow This and Trapit

FollowThis and Trapit track web stories that relate to an initial story. They could help automate the monitoring of follow-ups and the impact of a report, which is very difficult for media organizations to do. Unfortunately, these tools still need work to deliver the results they promise. FollowThis excels, compared to Trapit, at delivering related stories from other sites, but doesn’t track stories within the same site, as it claims. Trapit’s results are only loosely related, and end up being just a visually-appealing alternative to Google search at this stage. However, they could be game changers, if perfected.

Urthecast

Urthecast will make video of the Earth available through web streaming from cameras they’re installing in the International Space Station. Users can then layer content from sites like Facebook and Twitter over these images. This is exciting for projects like the online platform our Knight Fellow Gustavo Faleiros is launching to aggregate data on the Amazon basin.

BuzzData

BuzzData is a social network for sharing open data, visualizations and related stories with the world, or within an organization only (a product known as “Hives”), and can be used to communicate across teams and track updates to data. According to Edouard, they are upgrading their technology rapidly and positioning themselves to become a platform where individuals and organizations can do all of their data work in one place. With the new wave of data journalism in newsrooms, BuzzData could become a powerful management and knowledge-sharing resource.

Funf and Ginger.io

Winner of the news-related technologies accelerator, Funf automatically collects data that can be used to study the behavior of anyone with the app on an Android phone (assuming they’ve agreed to the study). It is still in its early development and limited in its study categories, but this technology could improve our understanding of how humans interact and information spreads, and potentially predict events like political crises or breakouts of disease. All of the privacy concerns aside, simple mobile apps like this could revolutionize the way journalists gather information and tell stories, as they design and analyze their own experiments. Ginger.io is similar, but focuses specifically on collecting and analyzing health data of patients. Funf and Ginger.io could be powerful in developing countries, where smartphones might soon outnumber access to top-notch doctors and researchers.

ThingLink

ThingLink enables users to add interactive links to Facebook photos to embed services like YouTube, SoundCloud and Google Maps that are clickable within the photos, with the goal of increasing engagement. I’m surprised I haven’t seen services like this across more web technologies that add interactive media without taking up more real estate on a page or making people leave altogether.

Just.me

Just.me is a mobile app aspiring to be a social network that only requires a smartphone. In many ways, this was among the most exciting technology concepts at SXSWi, as mobile phones are exponentially more prevalent than Internet access in the developing world. Of course, success there will hinge on developing the app in languages other than English, and dramatic increases in smartphone penetration.

Grandstand

Grandstand is a web platform that enhances in-person experience at events and places where people congregate, like stores and museums, by providing interactive web-based visualizations and games that can sync with Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and SMS. Their video explains it pretty well. News organizations could certainly use this for innovative storytelling and engagement, particularly with game mechanics still considerably unchartered territory in journalism.

AdGlue

For so long, web advertising has been a roll of the dice, in which advertisers have competed for impressions and no one has fully controlled what appeared with each page load. With AdGlue, advertisers can manually associate an ad with a particular story and keep it in place for 30 days. While machines still fall short of delivering ads that consistently attract clicks, perhaps humans can hit the mark at a higher rate. If so, this could be a serious boon for the business of online media.

Poderopedia

Although it has yet to launch, Poderopedia will show how people, companies and organizations are connected with one another to uncover conflicts of interest and who is influencing whom. This could, of course, have a profound impact on investigative journalism. Since it is still difficult to automate network visualization, a tool like Poderopedia could have countless other benefits, especially if it could track information flows and identify the influencers that drive information sharing and instigate the events being reported. This was also one of the few non-English technologies I found at SXSWi.

My favorite session, oddly enough, wasn’t even an official SXSWi event. It was the Data-Driven Unconference, hosted by the small, but innovative Texas Tribune. Instead of yet another panel where industry experts talked at a silent, 100-plus person audience, 20-some participants actually engaged one another as participant-selected members gave five-minute presentations and answered questions about their latest data journalism innovations. I met more fascinating people, such as Chris Groskopf of the data-archiving technology, PANDA Project, and data mining expert and Stanford Knight Fellow Teresa Bouza, and accomplished more critical thinking than at any other session.

My one piece of (ironic) advice to SXSWi organizers – make it more interactive. Unconferences and other smaller, engaging formats are recommended. Being able to interact with people at the event is what differentiates being there from just watching the panel videos the following week.

What struck me at SXSWi was how many of the technologies were only in English. Nearly all of the tech innovators I spoke with weren’t even thinking of languages other than English, or the developing world and emerging markets.

Certainly SXSWi is an event in the United States, and so much of the smartphone and tablet markets are still primarily concentrated in developed countries. However, interactive powerhouses like Facebook and Twitter achieved their status by pushing beyond the U.S. and Western Europe, and adding languages other than English. In addition, U.S. and European markets are already saturated, while developing countries are enjoying a mobile tech boom with plenty of room for innovation.

In fact, the killer app I wish I’d seen at SXSWi was one that accurately translates languages on interactive media. That app could make the world truly interactive.

With all of this in mind, I came away thinking there is space at SXSWi available for the taking – innovating for those on the verge of entering the market and internationalizing existing technology.

For innovators thinking this way, the Knight International Journalism Fellowships would be a great place to conceive and prove the concept. We know the tech challenges people face in developing countries, how to produce measureable results and have thought leaders on the ground to drive local innovation.