Author Archives: Nick

How does newspaper circulation relate to Twitter following?

I was recently looking at circulation numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the top twenty-five newspapers in the U.S. and wondered: How does circulation relate to Twitter following? So for each newspaper I found the Twitter account and recorded the number of followers (link to data). The graph below shows the ratio of Twitter followers to total circulation; you could say it’s some kind of measure of how well the newspaper has converted its circulation into a social media following.

You can clearly see national papers like the NYT and Washington Post rise above the rest, but for others like USA Today it’s surprising that with a circulation of about 1.7M, they have comparatively few — only 514k — Twitter followers. This may say something about the audience of that paper and whether that audience is online and using social media. For instance, Pew has reported stats that suggest that people over the age of 50 use Twitter at a much lower than average rate. Another possible explanation is that a lot of the USA Today circulation is vapor; I can’t remember how many times I’ve stayed at a hotel where USA Today was left for me by default, only to be left behind unread. Finally, maybe USA Today is just not leading an effective social strategy and they need to get better about reaching, and appealing to, the social media audience.

There are some metro papers like NY Post and LA Times that also have decent ratios, indicating they’re addressing a fairly broad national or regional audience with respect to their circulation. But the real winners in the social world are NYT and WashPost, and maybe WSJ to some extent. And in this game of web scale audiences, the big will only get bigger as they figure out how to transcend their own limited geographies and expand into the social landscape.

newspaper graph

Neolithic Journalists? Influence Engines? Narrative Analytics? Some Thoughts on C+J

A few weeks ago now was the 2nd Computation + Journalism Symposium at Georgia Tech, which I helped organize and program. I wrote up a few reflections on things that jumped out at me from the meeting. Check them out on Nieman Lab.

Aha! Brainstorming App

In April 2012 I published a whitepaper on Cultivating Innovation in Computational Journalism with the CUNY Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. Jeff Jarvis wrote about it on the Tow-Knight blog, and the Nieman Lab even covered it.

Part of the paper developed a structured brainstorming activity called “Aha!” to help students and news industry professionals in thinking more about ways to combine ideas from technology, information science, user needs, and journalistic goals into useful new news products and services. We produced a printed deck of cards with different concepts that people could re-combine, and you can still get these cards from CUNY.

But really the Aha! Brainstorming activity was begging to be made into an app, which is now available on the Apple App Store. The app has the advantages that you can augment the re-combinable concepts, you can audio record your brainstorming sessions, take and store photos of any notes you scribble down about your ideas, and share the whole thing via email with your colleagues. If you have an iDevice be sure to check it out!

Understanding bias in computational news media

Just a quick pointer to an article I wrote for Nieman Lab exploring some of the ways in which algorithms serve to introduce bias into news media. Different kind of writing than my typical academic-ese, but fun.

Mobile Gaming Summit 2012

I have recently been getting more into mobile design and development and so was excited to attend the Mobile Gaming Summit in New York today. It was a well attended event, with what seemed like dozens of presenters from top mobile studios sharing tips on everything from user acquisition to design, mobile analytics, cross-platform development, finance, and social. What I wanted to share here quickly were some of the resources that were mentioned at the summit because I think they would be useful to any mobile studio / developer who’s just starting out (noobs like me!). So, by topic, here are some services to check out:

  • Ad Platforms for user acquisition
  • Analytics
    • Flurry (free analytics platform to help you understand how users are using your app)
    • Bees and Pollen (analytics to help optimize the user experience based on the user)
    • Apsalar
  • Cross-Platform Technologies
    • Corona (uses a language called Lua that I’ve never heard of)
    • Marmelade (program in c++, deploy to iOS, Android, xbox, etc.)
    • Phone Gap (program in javascript, HTML, CSS)
    • Unity (geared toward 3D games)

In general I was impressed with the amount of data driven design going on in the mobile apps / games space and how the big studios are really optimizing for attention, retention, and monetization by constantly tweaking things.

Other tips that were shared included things like: use Canada as a test market to work out kinks in your apps before you launch in the larger U.S. market; concentrate marketing efforts / budget in a short period of time to attain the highest rank in the app store as this drives more organic growth; the industry is heavily moving towards a free-to-play model with monetization done with in-app purchases or advertising.

In the next few weeks I’ll be excited to try out some of these services with my new app, Many Faces, which launched a couple weeks ago. I think it’s all about the user-acquisition / marketing at this point …

Comment Readers Want Relevance!

A couple years ago now I wrote a paper about the quality of comments on online news stories. For the paper I surveyed a number of commenters on about their commenting experience on that site. One of the aspects of the experience that users complained about was that comments were often off-topic: that comments weren’t germane, or relevant, to the conversation or to the article to which they were attached. This isn’t surprising, right? If you’ve ever read into an online comment thread you know there’s a lot of irrelevant things that people are posting.

It stands to reason then that if we can make news comments more relevant then people might come away more satisfied from the online commenting experience; that they might be more apt to read and find and learn new things if the signal to noise ratio was a bit higher. The point of my post here is to show you that there’s a straightforward and easy-to-implement way to provide this relevance that coincides with both users’ and editors notions of “quality comments”.

I collected data in July via the New York Times API, including 370 articles and 76,086 comments oriented around the topic of climate change. More specifically I searched for articles containing the phrase “climate change” and then collected all articles which had comments (since not all NYT articles have comments). For each comment I also had a number of pieces of metadata, including: (1) the number of times the comment was “recommended” by someone upvoting it, and (2) whether the comment was an “editor’s selection”. Both of these ratings indicate “quality”; one from the users’ point of view and the other from the editors’. And both of these ratings in fact correlate with a simple measure of relevance as I’ll describe next.

In the dataset I collected I also had the full text of both the comments and the articles. Using some basic IR ninjitsu I then normalized the text, stop-worded it (using NLTK), and stemmed the words using the Porter stemming algorithm. This leaves us with cleaner, less noisy text to work with. I then computed relevance between each comment and its parent article by taking the dot product (cosine distance) of unigram feature vectors of tf-idf scores. For the sake of the tf-idf scores, each comment was considered a document, and only unigrams that occurred at least 10 times in the dataset were considered in the feature vectors (again to reduce noise). The outcome of this process is that for each comment-article pair I now had a score (between 0 and 1) representing similarity in the words used in the comment and those used in the article. So a score of 1 would indicate that the comment and article were using identical vocabulary whereas a score of 0 would indicate that the comment and article used no words in common.

So, what’s interesting is that this simple-to-compute metric for relevance is highly correlated to the recommendation score and editor’s selection ratings mentioned above. The following graph shows the average comment to article similarity score over each recommendation score up to 50 (red dots), and a moving average trend line (blue).

As you get into the higher recommendation scores there’s more variance because it’s averaging less values. But you can see a clear trend that as the number of recommendation ratings increases so too does the average comment to article similarity. In statistical terms, Pearson’s correlation is r=0.58 (p < .001). There’s actually a fair amount of variance around each of those means though, and the next graph shows the distribution of similarity values for each recommendation score. If you turn your head side-ways each column is a histogram of the similarity values.

We can also look at the relationship between comment to article similarity in terms of editors’ selections, certain comments that have been elevated  in the user interface by editors. The average similarity for comments that are not editors’ selections is 0.091 (N=73,723) whereas for comments that are editors’ selections the average is 0.118 (N=2363). A t-test between these distributions indicates that the difference in means is statistically significant (p < .0001). So what we learn from this is that editors’ criteria for selecting comments also correlates to the similarity in language used between the comment and article.

The implications of these findings are relatively straightforward. A simple metric of similarity (or relevance) correlates well to notions of “recommendation” and editorial selection. This metric could be surfaced in a commenting system user interface to allow users to rank comments based on how similar they are to an article, without having to wait for recommendation scores or editorial selections. In the future I’d like to look into ways to assess how predicative such metrics are in terms of recommendation scores, as well as try out different metrics of similarity, like KL divergence.

Many Faces Photo Collages

I’ve been interested in photo collages for years. Those who know me well have likely seen my Many Faces from a few years ago (pictured above), which was inspired by some improv classes I was taking at the time. It was fun to put together, but also very time-consuming. A couple months ago I realized it would be fun to turn the concept into an app that could help quickly and easily make ManyFace-esque collages. I’m happy to say that the app has launched in the app store today. For a bit more info on the app you can also visit the website. Please check it out, and if you like it, share your ManyFaces on twitter or facebook.

Review: The Functional Art

I don’t often write reviews of books. But I can’t resist offering some thoughts on The Functional Art, a new book by Alberto Cairo aimed at teaching the basics of information graphics and visualization, mostly because I think it’s fantastic, but also because I think there are a few areas where I’d like to see a future edition expound.

Basically I see this as the new default book for teaching journalists how to do infographics and visualization. If you’re a student of journalism, or just interested in developing better visual communication skills I think this book has a ton to offer and is very accessible. But what’s really amazing is that the book also offers a lot to people already in the field (e.g. designers or computer scientists) who want to learn more about the journalistic perspective on visual storytelling. There are nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, informed by Cairo’s years of journalism experience. And the diagrams and models of thinking about things like the designer-user relationships or dimensions along which graphics vary adds some much needed structure that forms a framework for thinking about and characterizing information graphics.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the book for someone already doing or studying visualization is the last set of chapters which detail, through a series of interviews with practitioners, how “the sausage is made.” Exposing process in this way is extremely valuable for learning how these things get put together. This exposition continues on the included DVD in which additional production artifacts, sketchs, and mockups form a show-and-tell. And it’s not just about artifacts; the interviews also explore things like how teams are composed in order to facilitate collaborative production.

One of the things I appreciated most about the book is that, in light of its predominant focus on practice, Cairo fearlessly  reads into and then translates research results into practical advice, offering an evidence-based rationale for design decisions. We need more of that kind of thinking, for all sorts of practices.

I have only a few critiques of the book. The first is straightforward: I wish that the book was printed in a larger format because some of the examples shown in the book are screaming for more breathing space. I would have also liked to see the computer science perspective represented a bit more thoroughly in the book – this can for instance serve to enhance and add depth to the discussion about interactivity with visualizations. My only other critique of the book is about critique itself. What I mean is that the idea of critique is sprinkled throughout the book, but I’d almost like to see it elevated to the status of having its own chapter. Learning the skills of critique and the thought process involved is an essential aspect of learning to be a graphics communication intellectual and thoughtful practitioner. And it can and should be taught in a way that students learn a systematic way for thinking and analyzing benefits and tradeoffs. Cairo has the raw material to do this in the book, but I wish it were formalized in some way that lent it the attention it deserves. Such a method could even be illustrated using some of the interviewees’ many examples.


Does Local Journalism Need to Be Locally Sustainable?

The last couple of weeks have seen the rallying cries of journalists echo online as they call for support of the Homicide Watch Kickstarter campaign. The tweets “hit the fan” so to speak, Clay Shirky implored us to not let the project die, and David Carr may have finally tipped the campaign with his editorial questioning foundations’ support for Big News at the expense of funding more nimble start-ups like Homicide Watch.

It seems like a good idea too – providing more coverage of a civically important issue – and one that’s underserved to boot. But is it sustainable? As Jeff Sonderman at Poynter wrote about the successful Kickstarter campaign, “The $40,000 is not a sustainable endowment, just a stopgap to fund intern staffing for one year.”

For Homicide Watch to be successful at franchising to other cities (i.e. by selling a platform) each of those franchises itself needs to be sustained. This implies that, on a local level, either enough advertising buy-in, local media support, or crowdfunding (a la Kickstarter) would need to be generated to pay those pesky labor costs, the most expensive cost in most content businesses.

Here’s the thing. Even though Homicide Watch was funded, it struggled to get there, mostly surviving on the good-natured altruism of the media elite. I doubt that local franchises will be able to repeat that trick. Here’s why: most of the donors who gave to Homicide Watch were from elsewhere in the U.S. (68%) or from other countries (10%). Only  22% of donors where from DC, Virginia, or Maryland (see below for details on where the numbers come from). But this means that people local to Washington, DC, those who ostensibly would have the most to gain from a project like this, barely made up more than a fifth of the donors. Other local franchises probably couldn’t count on the kind of national attention that the media elite brought to the Homicide Watch funding campaign, nor could they count on the national interest afforded to the nation’s capital.

You might argue that for something like this to flourish it needs local support, from the people who would get the real utility of the innovation. At least Homicide Watch got a chance to prove itself out, but we’ll have to wait to see if it can make a sustainable business and provide real information utility at a local level. The numbers at this stage would seem to suggest it’s got an uphill battle ahead of it.

Here’s how I got the stats I quoted above. I made a Scraper wiki script to collect all of the donors on the Homicide Watch Kickstarter page (there were 1,102 as of about noon on 9/12). Of those 1102, 270 donors had geographic information (city, state, country). The stats quoted above are based on those 270 geotagged donors. Of course, that’s only about 25% of the total donors, so an assumption that I make above is that the 75%, the non-geotagged donors, follow a similar geographic distribution (and donation magnitude distribution) as the geotagged ones. I can’t think of a reason that assumption might not be true. For kicks I put the data up on Google Fusion Tables (it’s so awful, please, someone fix that!) so here’s a map of what states donors come from.

User Expectations, Prototypes, and Professionals

Back in the 1980s a Japanese professor by the name of Noriaki Kano developed a model of product development and what we today might call user experience. This model is now known as the Kano model after the eponymous professor. I’m not going to go into details on the model but one of the interesting aspects that it describes is the notion of “threshold attributes” which are basically the “must-have” features that a product needs to incorporate in order to meet customer needs. If a product hits the market and doesn’t have these features then users will not adopt the product because it provides a lousy or dissatisfying experience. Moreover, the model predicts that over time, more exciting and newer features become expected in subsequent generations of products.

I suspect that many of the high-profile usable products on the market (e.g. from the likes of Apple and Google) are raising the bar for what users expect in a new product. Can you imagine going from a retina display back to a low-res screen? And isn’t it annoying, just a little bit, when search suggestions don’t populate as you type? I was using Many Eyes earlier this week to do some visualization and was frustrated that the conventions and technologies with which that UI were built are now about 5 or 6 years old.

Essentially the bar is always going up in terms of what users expect. These features in turn put pressure on any prototype builder (including those at start-ups, or in academia) to meet those expectations. Basic usability (e.g. undo/redo, error handling, clear labeling), an aesthetic design, and solid information architecture and navigation seem to be givens. And Google has trained us all to expect low latency in a web-app, which can demand a lot of engineering and systems-building time. According to Kano, if a product doesn’t have these kinds of things we’re bound to notice and have a less awesome user experience.

If you assume that threshold attributes are indeed important (and a moving target), what does this mean in terms of getting prototypes and products built? I’ll address the academic space since that’s the realm I’m most familiar with. I think it’s particularly hard to provision threshold attributes in an academic setting because of (1) limited human resources (i.e. possibly just 1 graduate student for a year), (2) limited student expertise (i.e. in visual or interaction design or user research – they’re there to learn!), and (3) different incentives (i.e. novelty tends to get the emphasis which makes building new features more important than implementing threshold attributes to support a baseline user experience).

For a certain type of research I think it makes sense to organize the work such that a graduate student and faculty work more closely with professionals such as programmers or interaction designers and UX researchers. The extra polish and experience that professionals bring to the table would enable a prototype to reach those threshold attributes, while allowing researchers to focus on identifying / implementing new features to evaluate, or deciding on what data to gather and analyze during a deployment so that new knowledge is produced. You could imagine interaction designers or UX researchers being part-time on a number of projects, essentially becoming internal consultants on university projects. The types of prototypes produced might also have the added advantage of being further along the path to products and less “throw-away” thus helping the university-incubator. I think if universities really want to incubate prototypes and see those prototypes turning into products they need to reorganize work to include more professionals in the process. These professionals should not be paid for out of raw research budgets, but from university overhead.