News Apps Help Journalists and Audiences Collect and Verify Data

Jul 102012
  • The author, far left, along with Knight Fellows and ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan (second from right), got a chance to see new apps and projects at the MIT-Knight Center for Civic Media Conference.

One of the most exciting features of this year’s MIT-Knight Center for Civic Media Conference was a chance to check out several new apps and projects, many still in development. These new apps will enable people to collect data in new ways and check facts more easily. All of them can enhance journalism, and many can engage audiences in the process.

As deputy director of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships, here are some apps and projects that caught my eye:

Data Therapy

Data Therapy is an MIT project to build the data capacity of small community organizations. News media should take heed – there is nothing like building an audience for your products by showing them how to use it.


LazyTruth will be a Gmail widget that automatically fact-checks content received via email. It will notice phrases that are typical in email forwards, display a rebuttal for any false information and provide the original sources behind the story. With the constant torrent of email forwards, this widget alone could help spark a revolution in digital literacy and demand for truth.

Truth Goggles

Truth Goggles, similar to LazyTruth, will alert online readers to suspicious claims in posts that fact checkers like PolitiFact have examined. Users will even be able to see a link to the results of the fact checkers. Again, with apps like this and LazyTruth, the fact checking comes to you, which is much needed in a time when people are more likely to hit “forward” rather than fire up Google.

Meta Meta

Meta Meta will make it possible to extract meta data from websites. I like this for two reasons. First, it makes it a lot easier to ensure meta data are consistent. Second, I could imagine a function in which it could be used to clean up meta data across a site to improve consistency. Consistent meta data would boost the data analysis value of a website in a pool of aggregated websites, and help create linkages between information as we head toward the semantic web.

Wired WordPress Plugin for GitHub

Journalists at Wired magazine are trying to build a plugin that would essentially connect GitHub to WordPress for readers to be able to correct typos, check facts and translate articles. Such a tool certainly challenges the model of the journalist providing information sifted through journalistic filters, and could threaten the accuracy of the end product, as in the case of Wikipedia, where anyone can publish content without a guaranteed filter. That said, what excites me about this is that it engages people in the process of generating truth.


One of the Hack Day projects, NewsDiffs, enables readers to track how online articles are altered after they are published. An app like this could be particularly powerful in countries where governments and news media are more apt to try to alter the truth or hide facts, and it certainly engages audiences in holding media accountable.


Knight News Challenge winner Behavio turns mobile phones into data collectors for studying human behavior. News media could use this to turn every day people into data sources that they then analyze to understand how people connected with a story behave or how their networks promote information flows.

Knight News Challenge winner tracks which topics are getting the most engagement across sites – their own, their competitors’ and social networks. It’s yet another dashboard. I’m concerned that this could crowd-out stories that are important, but might not have as much traction among audiences. Still, any tool that helps news media understand how to engage audiences is vital to their future.


NewsQuest is a Hack Day app that, if developed, could create a “choose your own adventure” for news consumption. Basically, you would enter a URL for a story, and it would aggregate related stories, ask two questions, and based on the response, lead the reader down an adventure. I like this mainly when I think about how challenging it is to track the impact of a story on other reporting, and understand how these stories relate in the news ecosystem. That might not be the intent behind NewsQuest, but it could be an outgrowth.

The Unnamed Crowd Annotator App for Data

The idea for this app came up in the “Turning Data into Narrative” session, which the panelists said does not yet exist, but would be very beneficial. It would be a great way to engage audiences in the data by enabling them to annotate datasets with questions, concerns, suggestions for other datasets. If I took away one great idea from this conference for an app to add value to data journalism, it was this.