Some conflicting thoughts on Facebook

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Facebook has been on my mind this week.
 First of all it published some advice to the Meeja on how journalists can get the most out of using the social network which, while a little heavy on the exclaimation marks, seems useful and has some good pointers. It’s a best practice guide for reporters who want to know more about using Facebook in a professional capacity, to promote their work, seek feedback, guage public opinion, crowdsource ideas and more. Plus it allows them keep their personal/professional networking somewhat separate (we’ve all seen examples of what happens when Facebook Status Goes Bad).

Then, via Paul Bradshaw’s OJB, I came across a blog post on the BBC College of Journalism site that made me reconsider all of the above.

First up, the new Facebook media guide.


I like this idea because it offers good, entry-level engagement opportunity. Editorial types who perhaps aren’t wholly signed up to the idea of using platforms other than print to share news probably do use Facebook, for communicating with friends, sharing information, playing games, lurking and generally displaying their interests and intents. This means it’s a familiar, easy environment to try out audience interaction and engagement. I think some journalists could find having their own professional Facebook page very useful, although early adopters in the newsroom will already be using it, and Twitter, Foursquare, forums and blogs, plus their own title’s website, to engage anyway.

Meanwhile, over on the Collegeof Journalism site, there’s some fascinating Facebook research. Drawing on the views and useage of 20 19-39-year-olds, who were asked how they consumed news via social media, it reveals that Facebook is their main network, used on mobile (on-the-go contact) and desktop/laptop (deeper interaction, engagement and consumption of news).

I found the survey fascinating and it’s well worth a read; the bullet points for me were:

  • Comment and discussion are a key component of enjoying news on Facebook…but most restricted that discussion to their own group of friends 
  • News interest is very much personal; people know what information they want to consume 
  • No real concensus on the type of news Facebook pages should host 
  • Media organisations pimping links are unlikely to find a large audience 
  • Facebook was not seen as a credible new site – users would visit a mainstream site to verify information 

 Looking at the Liverpool Echo’s Facebook site to see what was being sparking people’s interest, we currently have a platform that is more about consuming than conversing.


This is the ‘official’ Echo site, although by no means the only one.A few years ago, when regional papers went all Web 2.0, everyone started a Facebook page for their title. Then several other everyones at the same title went and did the same thing. And then a lot of them left, without telling a single colleague that those pages even existed, let alone passing on a login.
So you can have a number of Facebook pages/groups/fan pages that revolve around the same thing. If you search Liverpool Echo on Facebook you’ll find, among other things, a home delivery page, some non-associated Echo sites, and marketing pages for specific events or campaigns.

This particular Facebook page was established as the main Echo one in February 2009; it has nearly 1,400 friends. The online chat is always on, and I frequently get IM-ed by the Echo’s ‘friends’ who see the paper is online for chat and want to know the latest news – it happened twice as I was writing this post.
Some reporters use it for crowdsourcing, and some of the more outrageous gangster stories can lead to interesting comments but we could do so much more with it, given more time and more people. We get comments our links, which are links mostly auto-posted via Twitter to the site, or video/photos, but people tend to use the Like button a lot more than they leave comments – a LOT of links get liked, or shared. So I can see why Facebook’s media guide would say the Like button can be a valuable tool for gauging reader opinion.


Monitoring Facebook is important. It’s also somewhat time-consuming  (among other things, I accepted 45 friend requests to the Echo when I logged on). Looking after your social media presence is just as important as making sure your newspaper ncompanion website is maintained properly; if a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on, then a critical tweet can become a meme before a title has even noticed someone’s sent an angry @ reply, and a a conversation thread can develop on your Facebook page that is entirely independent (and way more colourfully worded) of anything you’d allow on your brand’s homepage.

Most of the national titles seem to have at least one dedicated editorial staff member who is the public face of community interaction. I don’t know anyone in the regional press with that specirfic remit but I may be wrong, although I’d imagine most titles rely on the digital editorial team to do a bit of everything – create multimedia content, manage the editorial look and content of the web pages, and interact across in-house and external digital platforms with audiences.
I’d also imagine that if you asked most senior media executives about online relationship strageties, they’d think you meant their CRM.
Which one of these two items – the BBC research or the How-to guide for Facebook – is more useful? For me, it’s the research. The guide is content; the research is context.

So, as I said, I have some conflicting thoughts on Facebook. On the one hand, I can see the merit of more interaction but what I actually believe in is better interaction; if we don’t manage what we have well enough now, where is the merit in doing more?
Of course, we should be improving and growing simultaneously.And yet, as the BBC research showed, Facebook users don’t necessarily want more or better – they just want what they want. The Like button can point us at that, but it can’t be all we rely on. But the research further shows – I think – that Facebook has a fundamental part to play in building a brand’s reach and social currency with an audience, but it only stretches so far – such as users still opting to check the veracity of a linked Facebook story on the title’s original homepage.
So should we really trust a Like button? And if our audience doesn’t particularly trust news on a Facebook site, why think too deeply about pushing content at them, when they will visit the source to verify it anyway? I’m sending myself round in circles with this. I’m sure the answer is out there, somewhere.

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Learning story-telling from developers and designers

An article in Poynters Online about the communications gap that exists between journalists and programmers struck a chord with me today.
It’s a liveblog debate on the issue, with contributions from academics, journalists and developers, and the full discussion is here but to give a flavour of the issue, here’s the paragraph that initially caught my eye:

It’s oversimplified to call it a right-brain, left-brain difference, but it’s clear that while programmers and journalists need each other, they don’t always find it easy to work together. Differences in project needs and personal styles can add to the disconnect.

I guess journalists and developers don’t always work well together but perhaps that’s because they so really get the chance to.
I’ve been lucky enough (and it really was a bit of luck – sometimes I think companies believe departments should be kept separate in case of cross-contamination of ideas) to work with designers and programmers twice in recent months; both times were hugely illuminating, in terms of what is technically do-able and – more interestingly, for me – the considering different ways of storytelling or sharing information someone who hasn’t come through the traditional media route can see. 

First lesson came when a developer sat down with me, listened to my ideas, suggested ways of doing things more effectively or attractively, and then wrapped it up with a throwaway remark: “Practically anything is possible if we just know what you’re trying to achieve”.
It made me realise that if I can’t explain a concept it’s much harder for someone to put flesh on those bones, or come up with a faster or better option. 
Drawings, screengrabs, websites and a concise written brief are a good starting point to have shared before you sit down to actually discuss the project.

The other recent example of how journalism isn’t the preserve of someone who is, so to speak, classically trained, was the Hacks Meet Hackers hack day event organised by ScraperWiki in partnership with LJMU Open Labs and Trinity Mirror Merseyside. 

There’s a round-up of the day on my work blog which describes the projects in a bit more detail. 

I was there as part of a number of mainstream journalists (TM or freelancers) teamed in groups with Those Who Can Code to see what we could create in a day.
And I loved it. It ws the most fun I’ve had learning things since long-distant days of the Journalism Leaders Course when we spent time discovering Twitter and video editing at UCLan. It brought home important lessons about how play is a huge part of learning, no matter how old you are, and why collaboration between disparate groups can bring about important culture changes.

The team I was in comprised some journalists, a coder, and a designer. Our project was going to be some sort of datamining-on-steroids extravaganza, with crime statistics and health statistics overlaid to reveal complete and through profiles of, ooh, all sorts of things.
Three hours of hectic data searching later, it became apparent that we were headed for an extravaganza of fail, and our coder had left to find something to scrape.

At which point, designer Sam Suttonsuggested visualising existing data on the Echo website instead to reinterpret an existing story. We had a few hours left before judging so we picked an interesting topic and, to be honest, it was actually way more interesting than our original idea. Because it had narrative, and data, and imagery in a way that captured the imagination. 
The idea was to create a mashup that moved, taking the reader through the story, around a map, using photos, video, articles and audio to bring together the elements of complex story, in a chronological and geographical timeline that tells it simply and effectively. This is the wireframe that was put forward…

I love it. I think it’s an idea that just works; it had narrative, rich depth of information, used existing resources (the photos, video and articles, for example) and combined them on a Google map. It was a very valuable lesson in not over-complicating things, and a great piece of journalism conceived and produced by a visualisations expert. The designer interpreted the data way more effectively than I had even thought to and for that alone
I found the Hacks and Hackers Hack Day a great learning experience. 

It was a lesson in co-operation, and also in going against reporter instincts to find new facts. This repackaged facts but allowed the user to skip forward, pause, stop, go back – to control how they followed the narrative and when they accessed it. I really like that part of it -the idea that you can skip around this piece of work and, as a journalist, dive back into it and update it as cases proceed. So it not only lives, it moves. 
There are more ScraperWiki hack days planned for journalists up and down the country. I only hope they’re as lucky as our team was with their visualisations expert.

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Freedom of Information Act: not the only option, but sometimes the only known option

I’d guess a lot of people are in the dark about who to speak to when trying to obtain information about something other than bin deliveries or council surgeries.
They also have no real idea how to go about finding out, short of ringing the local council switchboard (IF they can find such a general number) and, consequently, a number of them turn to the Freedom of Information Act.

What Do They Know is a constant source of interesting information for me – sometimes it will throw up stories but a lot of the time I’m just monitoring it to see what sort of details people want from local organisations. Sometimes I can guess the motive (I’d say the person asking for information about a Section 60 from Merseyside Police is probably trying to challenge the legality of a stop-and-search) but a lot of the time it’s just people who want to know stuff.

Wanting to know stuff is a fundamental part of being human. We question, and we like to get answers – uncovering information, being in-the-know, and passing it on feels good; it used to be primarily the realm of MSM journalists and it’s easy for us to take for granted. If, for example I had these questions (sample below – there are a fair few more if you follow the link)…

(1) How many Environmental Enforcement Officers do you employ?

(2) What training have the Officers received?

(3) Please tell me what salary and grade these officers are on.

(4) What qualifications are required in order to be an
Environmental Enforcement Officer?

(5) Does the above officer have to possess a degree?

(6) What professional qualifications are required for this role?

(7) One assumes the above officers may have reason to attend court
in order to give evidence at some time. Do the above officers
receive Professional Witness training? If so, who delivers that

…I’d ring the press office of Liverpool council and ask someone to find out for me. But if I was a member of the public, what would I do? One can imagine Switchboard’s perplexed response to such a question. Such a call would progress through labyrinthine ways and missed connections before the caller found anyone who could assist. In short, you’d have to be committed to getting an answer – and prepared to call back multiple times. No wonder it’s on What Do They Know? as a FOI question. But does that always have to be the way?

And the Act comes in for serious misuse too, from firms trying to winkle commercially sensitive information out of organisations to give them an edge in tenders, councillors who don’t seem to realise they can just ring up their staff and ask, and – absurd, this – confused authorities will submit requests to fellow authorities for information using FOI, simply because they think they have to follow an ‘official process’.

Anyway, this What Do They Know? question about what foster carers are paid got me thinking…

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Looking at questions on What Do They Know; many don’t really need #FOI to get an answer – just clearer avenues of asking the question. less than a minute ago via HootSuite

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Be interesting to know how much unnecessary #FOIs cost authorities a year. Suspect they’d find it cheaper to improve transparency and access less than a minute ago via HootSuite

and I had some interesting responses, not least from Liverpool Lib Dem Cllr Paula Keaveney (and thanks Paul Bradshaw, David Higgerson and Glyn Mottishead for input too)

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@alisongow difficult to judge what an unnecessary foi is but the default should be to publish everything unless clear reason against less than a minute ago via UberTwitter

Now, the above FOI question had recently received a successful answer with a breakdown of the payments and add-ons a foster parent could expect; I wanted to know if I could find the answers without FOI. As a control, I ran a side test on Liverpool council of the same questions.

The short answer is, I couldn’t do it. Liverpool council website, Wirral council website, various Foster Care organisations sites plus advance Google searches in urls, plus blog searches, failed to turn up the necessary figures in my self-imposed 20 minute time limit. (I’m not saying someone else would fail too – just that I, as a user, couldn’t get that information).
Liverpool council’s fostering information section states: “We recognise and value carers as professionals by paying a professional fee” ; Wirral Council didn’t have such information (more of that later).

Next step, phoning switchboard. I was transferred to unknown departments where I got a voicemail and a ring out. However, I don’t think it would be fair of me to suggest a random caller (particularly one asking for unusual information) should be a priority in a busy department charged with child welfare, or that anyone should make a habit of doing it.

So I then went down the press office route. I asked:
1. Rates for foster care
2. Was such information deemed publicly available
3. If not, why was that?
4. If so, was it available online?

Within the hour Wirral press officer Gill Gwatkin (whom I have never spoken to before) was back with the answers. Yes it was public information, there was no reason why it shouldn’t be made public, and it would normally be included in the fostering section of the website. Said website had, however, been just been massively redesigned and some sections were incomplete – the fostering one among them.
And (this is where the more of that later applies) because only a few months ago I spent a week combing Merseyside council websites, including Wirral’s old site, (as part of this research) I know how much better it is now and I’d bet that information will be available when the section is finished.
I had an email from Liverpool council’s press office at 5.17pm to say there were rates, on a scale depending on experience; it didn’t state what the public-availability of such information was.

So,I got the information that the FOI person wanted in less than 60 minutes BUT I did it by phoning the council press office. Such a tactic just isn’t one your average questioning member of the public could or would use, and I’d imagine any press office would point out that’s not what they are there for.
But…the definition of ‘press’ is what, exactly? According to WordNetWeb it is

The print media responsible for gathering and publishing news in the form of newspapers or magazines

So that’s pretty unhelpful. Is it someone who works for mainstream (multi)media? or a freelancer? Or a card-carrying NUJ member? A blogger (something of a misnomer, given that it describes the platform rather than the activity), a photojournalist, a hyperlocal website co-ordinator, or a parish magazine?
What, in short, should your antecedents be if you want to contact a press office?

All in all, I ended up with more questions than answers, But here are some conclusions, for what it’s worth:
1. A lot of information is classes as available to the public; that’s not the same as it being publicly available
2. There are people who readily have the answers in every organisation – the chances of a member of the public gaining access to them are slim
3. Council help points tend to be staffed by people who are experts in sorting out your council tax,; they probably won’t be able to tell you what your councillor’s last annual expenses claim was
4. Processing a lot of FOI requests in accordance with the strictures laid down in the Act is expensive. Hiring someone(s) to job-share or part-time posts would, over time, work out a cheaper option.
5. Local authorities – police, council, nhs et al – need user advocates who can help the public negotiate the maze of so-called publicly-available information (hint: In private companies this is know as Customer Services – although many newspaper readers think it’s actually the newsdesk)
6. This is not the same thing as having an Ombudsman

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Making a 3D Photosynth and Microsoft ICE panorama

Image representing Photosynth as depicted in C...Image via CrunchBase

I’ve been meaning to play with Photosynth for a while… over a year actually;  Steve Clayton ran through the idea at TEDx Liverpool in 2009 but I stowed it away in the ‘things to investigate’ file and only got round to remembering it after it was mentioned again at the recent news:rewired conference.

But I have finally got round to it and, given the short amount of time it took to create one, I’m a bit peeved I didn’t try it before. (Colleagues David Higgerson and Jo Kelly have been experimenting and inspired me to have a go – you can find his reservoir synth here and Jo’s Post&Echo newsroom synth here.)

There are a couple of must-haves – an ability to run Windows on your machine and  Windows Live ID – before you can download the software but other than that you just need a collection of linked images; these were taken with my N86 at Formby beach. Photosynth software lets you select the images you want to upload, then stitches the whole thing together. There are options to add geotagging and more, plus embed and sharing abilities.

I also downloaded Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor) to have a go at making a stitched panorama on my desktop: 

The N86 has the ability to stitch together panoramic shots as you go – you simply set it to ‘panoramic’ and line up your shots in accordance to the screen guides – which is actually easier than doing it on the laptop. But I do think the ICE editing options are a good extra, and I’ll definitely use it in future. I can imagine several upcoming events in Liverpool, like the Mathew Street festival – which would work well as synths and panoramas, and the extra work it takes is so small as to be negligible. For busy photographers on-the-hoof, it’s a real gift.

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Using comic strip tools to create content

Here’s a quick idea for some fun website content that takes seconds to make, and which can really personalise a story and make it sing a little… add a bespoke comic strip.
This is my attempt, using Stripgenerator – it took me a couple of minutes from signing up to designing a character, to completing my first strip:

I wish… by alisongow

Or you can see it in its natural habitat, complete with sharing and rating abilities, title and description, at this link.

Anyway, this one is obviously not reportage (although I’m fairly sure I’ve channelled my cat’s fondest wish accurately) but I do like it as an option for web journalists who want to add a bit of spark to an article or blog post, or who fancy having a daily strip in the best traditions of those ol’ dead tree publications.

Stripgenerator offers free or paid for options. On the free one you get a selection of stock human and ‘beings’ characters – from dogs to aliens – plus limited build-your-own options which are automatically saved as ‘my characters’. You drag and drop characters, objects, shapes, text or thought bubbles into your selected frames, title, tag and publish. Then you can share on various social networks, or embed. Plus, you could always make it, screengrab it and use it in print should you wish.

And it’s not the only one – there are several comic-creating sites I have yet to explore but plan too, like Pixton and Toondoo and I’m currently experimenting with a full-on page turner using the Comic Labs Extreme website (which is for kids but I’m not proud – I’m uploading my own photos and video to use instead).
So, not rocket science or Pulitzer-winning perhaps, but a nice addition to have, nonetheless.

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Visualising data: are the statistics provided always the right ones to use?

It was Liverpool’s first Social Media Cafe Liverpool #smcliv last night and I’d be amazed, given the way it went, if there wasn’t another one taking place very shortly.
I was one of the speakers (report of the evening will be on my work blog later today) but this post is a bit different; I wanted to write some  thoughts out of my head about data, and journalism, and how – for me, at least – it’s very easy to get lost in what makes a Really Awesome Visualisation, when what it should be about is information. Sometimes I need to remind myself, statistics are not the whole story.
When Neil Morrin, of Defnetmedia, asked me to talk at the SMC I was a little stumped for a topic as I know a lot of the social media/tech crowd in Liverpool and many of them have far more ideas about cool online stuff. They tend to build it themselves.
The idea of talking about visualisations – but with the visuals as an aid to exploring the angles of a story rather than the be-all and end-all – came about because I’d found making a couple of infographics helpful in dragging out some interesting facts behind some stats released by Knowsley council. The visuals were tools to help me see what the potential story was, not the reader – although obviously that was a spin-off. As it turned out, I think they helped me uncover a richer news story than the original data provided.

Knowsley had released findings of its March 2010 survey of Kirkby residents, who were asked for their input on the future of the town centre. The report is on the council website and I’ve also put it on Scribd to make it easier for sharing. Here’s a pie chart from the report…

The council also put up residents’ written responses, which was what I was interested; in their own words, locals were abound to be more prescriptive than they could be in a council ‘tick the box’ approach which gave them eight options.

First I put all the text into and refined it to give me the top 50 most repeated words. That gave me an idea of the emotion of the responses, and a hint that the comments held richer pickings than the rest of the report.
So I plotted a spreadsheet of what each resident raised (I kept the headers initially vague, and refined them as I went along and themes emerged) which was tedious and time-consuming in the extreme. But worth it; they differed to council responses in fairly significant areas – such  as being overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the Kirkby Suite and halting planned demolition, and wanting a football stadium linked to a superstore.
Neither of these issues are flagged by the council’s tick-box approach – not because Knowsley didn’t want to acknowledge them but because the suite demolition is planned, and the stadium scheme was rejected.
They are done and dusted in the world of local government – but not in the minds of those who responded to the survey. Policing – or the lack of – is another standout.

Here’s my bar chart from Swivel (interactive on the site, but – at the time of writing – not on here?)

and a pie chart from the same site (interactive here if it’s not here)

Then I hopped over to ManyEyes and made a word tree of the residents’ responses…

I used Kirkby as the starting point but if you change the phrases it gives a marvellous insight into what people want. Try ‘I would like to see‘, for example, and you get everything from the specific and wistful ‘department store selling nice clothes‘ to the rather more damning ‘you tell the truth‘.

Finally, just because I like them, I made a bubble chart

And that was it really. So, how do my infographics and the council’s pie chart differ (and does it matter?) Well, the council has order of importance thus:
Food superstore
New retail
New town square and improved public space
Improved transport links
Public services grouped together in one place
Social / evening facilities
New private sector office quarter
Improved market

From my research I found the most stated/desired things by Kirkby residents were:
Facilities (bars, restaurants, public toilets)
Keep Kirkby Suite
Environment (appearance, green spaces)
Transport links
Demolish Kirkby Suite
Other (childrens play area, OAP centre)

I think it makes interesting reading – sure, it’s not MP expenses but I got satisfaction from digging the details out – and it was a good learning experience for me. Some of the answers don’t differ wildly but aspects – for example, the strong feelings about the need to keep the Kirkby Suite and policing – give clear pointers about local feelings.
That could help really inform an editorial decision on how much space, time and effort to devote to a story – here, for example, I reckon a reporter with multimedia tools and time cleared in the diary to really spend time in Kirkby talking to people, could focus on the real needs of the area, and re-establish a bond between the paper and the area.

Statistics are amazing things and make wonderful visualisations. But they aren’t the whole story. People are the whole story, and I believe these visualisations helped me find that.

UPDATE: This is my presentation from last night

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