Hacking media: Al Jazeera hackathon imagines the future of news

The Qatar-based news operation Al Jazeera is notable for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is one of the first new TV ventures to become a significant force on the media landscape since CNN first arrived 30 years ago. And since one of the things that being new allows you to do is experiment more than most of your long-established competitors, that’s exactly what Al Jazeera did with its recent Canvas hackathon, which brought media types and developers together in the Qatari capital of Doha for a weekend of news wonkery.

Hackathons have gotten a bad rap in some circles because they are often exercises in futility: although everyone has fun drinking coffee or Red Bull for 48 hours straight and eating bad pizza, what comes out of them tends to be goofy little apps or widgets that don’t accomplish a whole lot. But the Al Jazeera hackathon produced — or built on — a number of projects that actually sound like they could add something to the practice of online news.

Christopher Wink, who founded the Technical.ly network of local technology sites in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and other cities, was one of the mentors that Al Jazeera brought in for the event — which pulled together 90 participants from 37 countries, out of more than 1,600 applications. He has a blog post in which he lists some of his favorite projects, and almost all of them seem like they could help make the job of a journalist easier, or in some way expand the practice of news (there’s another good list here). Here are a few I found interesting:

Lasertag: This WordPress plugin suggests relevant links for highlighted terms in a blog post, which Wink says would help encourage “contextual linking, and alleviate any loss of institutional memory.” Both of those are necessary, in my view, but the need for links is number one — especially since so many journalists seem to be in such a hurry they rarely add links at all, despite the fact that it has never been easier, and that hyperlinking is the lifeblood of the web.

NewsClip.se: This tool is somewhat similar to Lasertag, in the sense that it runs a broad search on the topics in a blogger or reporter’s article, “like a powerful, automated Lexis Nexis search” according to Wink, and then suggests additional relevant information or resources on the topic. There are other tools that attempt to do this, some of which are plugins for WordPress or other platforms, but they could be so much better and more useful than just a random Wikipedia search, which is all that many seem to provide.

Perspectives: This Chrome extension is one of the most interesting for me, but also one of the more problematic. As Wink describes it, the extension would “suggest news articles about the same topic or subject but with an opposing or otherwise alternate viewpoint to broaden awareness.” There’s no question that this kind of broadening of awareness is necessary, but it might also encourage a simplistic “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of approach that Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere.” Still, an interesting idea.

Another of the 19 projects that were chosen for the hackathon is somewhat similar to Perspectives: called ReFrame, it would pull in related information about a major news topic but focus specifically on local perspectives on a national or international story — to try and correct some of the misunderstandings that often surface during the reporting of stories like the Ebola crisis, where journalists are often writing about places they have never been. Another valuable effort, although perhaps a difficult one to automate.

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Interestingly enough, several of the 19 projects were focused on trying to improve the state of comments or reader discussion of news stories, something I feel fairly strongly about. Soapbox is a tool that tries to Twitterize the comment section by limiting responses to 140 characters, to prevent readers from posting lengthy diatribes about their favorite points of view — although you could argue that abbreviating comments too much might actually encourage more flame-wars rather than less, as is often the case when a complex argument gets boiled down to a tweet.

The other experiment that sounded promising is called Safety In Numbers, which has two interesting elements: one is that it encourages websites to become part of a network in which they collaborate to identify and share data about good and bad commenters. The second element is an algorithmic backend that tries to quantify who is behaving well and who is behaving badly — by looking at a variety of factors — and then weights their actions based on those metric. So a “thumbs up” from a bad commenter would be weighted differently than one from a good commenter.

There were a number of other entrants that were doing interesting things to take advantage of the increasingly mobile nature of news, including one called Context that was designed to push hyper-local news to a user’s device based on their location and previous behavior (the news app from NBC-owned Breaking News recently added a similar location-based feature). All in all, it sounded like a fascinating event — if only other established media entities were experimenting as much.