Untapped Technologies

I began this essay saying that I would not predict the future, but rather suggest a few. There are so many futures I cannot yet imagine. At CUNY, we get people to imagine new opportunities by having them play a game created by Dr. Nick Diakopoulos, now a professor at the University of Maryland. He conducted research for us cataloguing new technologies that have not yet been explored deeply for news. The game has small groups of players take one card with a need that news consumers share, one card with a journalistic goal, and two cards with different technologies to brainstorm new journalistic services. Just as journalists need to find opportunity in problems, so do they need to find opportunities in technologies: the geeks’ gifts of the title. Every time we see something new, we should ask whether it could serve journalism. The answer, most times, will properly be no. But sometimes opportunity, need, and innovation will conspire.

Take Rap Genius. It is a platform built to allow the annotation of hip hop lyrics (and surprisingly, it did not bring cries of copyright violation from artists, many of whom were wise enough to see that Rap Genius gave them a new way to engage with their fans and explain their art). Who’d think that this platform could have application for news? Its offshoot, News Genius, has been used to annotate presidential speeches and government statistical reports and interview transcripts. Authors have put up chapters of books to supply a back story.

Medium, a new content platform created by Blogger and Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, similarly allows readers and authors to comment not at the end of articles but next to any phrase or any idea, making commenting more civil and writing more collaborative. At the same time, Reddit — an open platform that inevitably fosters the best along with the worst of online commenting — created a new Live Thread stream to allow a limited group of editors to curate the best of the web and add information to conversations around news. Who could have imagined that silly little Twitter would become a tool for gathering and disseminating news in revolutions and natural disasters? Its own creators did not. These platforms were not created for news but have application for it if we are open-minded enough to imagine the possibilities. This way, innovation lies.

I don’t want to see us use technology for its own sake. I have long-since overdosed on cool. This is why I like Diakopoulos’ approach of using technology to answer a need. He identifies four news consumers needs:

  1. staying informed;
  2. gaining personal identity (through, for example, reinforcing one’s values);
  3. integrating and interacting socially (finding the basis for conversation); and
  4. being entertained.

He next defines 10 key journalistic functions:

  1. truth
  2. independence
  3. impartiality
  4. public interest
  5. watchdogging
  6. organizing forums
  7. informing
  8. storytelling
  9. aggregating
  10. sensemaking

Players in his game receive one each from those two lists and then receive cards explaining two of 27 dimensions of computing. A few examples:

  • social computing (e.g., online communities and social networks);
  • natural user interfaces (e.g., gesture, touch, speech);
  • mobile and ubiquitous computing;
  • wearable computing;
  • information visualization;
  • virtual reality (for example, goggles that allow the user to believe she is walking in another environment);
  • augmented reality (e.g., adding information to the scene a user sees through Google Glass or a phone’s camera);
  • games;
  • robotics;
  • machine learning (that is, “algorithms that allow for the recognition of generalizable patterns or categories from data which may facilitate intelligent decisions based on such data”);
  • natural language processing (“algorithms that allow for the parsing and understanding of human language”)
  • speech recognition;
  • activity recognition (for example, using sensors in a user’s phone to determine where she is and how she is moving);
  • data mining.

Try it yourself. Pick one news consumer need, one journalistic goal, and two random technologies. Invent, say, a social game to explain and gather solutions to a community issue. Or a network of sensors on users’ phones to identify where crowds gather and to contact witnesses to whatever is happening there. Rinse and repeat.

You can buy the book or the Kindle at Amazon or buy it directly from OR Books.

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