Tips on technical collaboration from the Globe Lab

It’s wall-to-wall technology at the Globe Lab. Click the photo for a gallery of more images of the lab. Photo/Meg Heckman

Modern journalism is both thrilling and terrifying, a mix of civic duty, technological experimentation and fierce hope that today’s innovation will somehow support meaningful storytelling for years to come.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent than inside the Globe Lab, where technologists work with Boston Globe  journalists to strike the right balance between experimentation and practical application. The lab –with its concerts, its startup incubator and its new drone — would be hard to replicate, but something that more news organizations should copy is its spirit of collaboration.

Few of the digital projects taking place at the Globe are solo endeavors. Each involves teams of developers, reporters, photographers and, in some cases, representatives from the advertising department. The working usually starts with a question or an idea and, when things go as planned, end with something like this – story that melds traditional reporting with photos culled from Instagram.

“It’s totally different way of thinking, it’s some magical hybrid of maintaining your critical mind at the same time you’re open to something that you may not fully understand,” said Chris Marstall, the creative technologist at the lab. “The best projects have both.”

Journalists looking for high-tech help have no shortage of options. In addition to the developers already working in the newsroom and the lab, the Globe has for the last two years hosted fellows from the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Project. According to its website, the project’s goal is to build “an ecosystem to help journalism thrive on the open web” and produce “next-generation web solutions that solve real problems in news.”

The first fellow, Dan Schultz, wrapped up his time at the Globe last month. While at the paper, he collaborated with several departments at the Globe, working on projects that solved immediate needs as well as more abstract experiments.

“There were frustrating experiences, and there were very exciting experiences,” he said. ”The best part was that, as a developer, you have a chance to make an impact and have an immediate audience.”

Over the winter, he worked with the Spotlight Team. Last month, his mapping work was published as part of an extensive investigation into Boston’s cab industry. The map illustrates an eight-hour cab shift in a matter of minutes, showing information about routes, fares and passengers. And, as Schultz explained on the OpenNews website, he wanted the map to convey a central narrative tension:

“My goal was to give the reader the experience of being down $120 and needing to earn that money back, not knowing exactly when or how that might happen.”

Schultz also tested Opened Caption, a tool that will allow programmers to create real-time television transcripts and help readers make sense of the information by providing contextual information, fact checking and compare what’s being said on TV with the conversation on Twitter. (A fuller explanation and technical specs for Opened Captions is available on Schultz’s blog.)

The Globe’s second fellow, Sonya Song, arrived a few months ago. Song worked as a computer programmer, designer and tech journalist in China before moving to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D in the communications department at Michigan State University.

During her year in Boston, she’ll work on many projects, but she’s currently focused on making web traffic data more useful to journalists and news organization managers. Two others fellows, who are posted at the New York Times and ProPublica, are working on the same project using Web traffic from those two websites.

Song is also fascinated by how journalists might make sense of the information shared through social media. One German study, for instance, found a correlation between the number of times a political candidate was mentioned on Twitter and that candidates chances of winning. Could lifestyle reporters, Song wonders, use a similar technique to identify a hot new eatery?

“We need to validate the data, further our research and find out if this is real, if this is meaningful,” she said. “We want to try out different things before we say if it works or not.”

Journalists needn’t become computer whizzes to work with developers, but Song and Schultz say a little preparation can help make a project successful. Learn the basic terminology of digital publishing. Find examples of similar projects and be ready to articulate what you like (and don’t like) about them. Communicate your deadlines from the beginning — that information will be important as developers determine how to proceed. And come to the table with a specific question to answer or problem to solve

“The juicier the better,” Schultz said. “Developers tend to like to be developers because they like solving problems.”

Collaborations like these take time, something that’s precious in an age of endless news holes and limited resources, but Marstell says it’s well worth the effort.

“Journalist are busy,” he said. “But they’re more and more aware that this is something that could help them tell a story, and their editors are more willing to make them do it.”



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