OpenCan – The #MozNewsLab Final Pitch

SO, opencan might just stand for “Open, Collaborative, Annotated News”
What it is for sure is a Graphically Dynamic News Ecosystem.

Here’s why:

It’s a visual (graphic) representation of news topics made up of all contributing elements/information concerned with that topic. (News articles, professional and citizen photo/video/audio, infographics, documents, social media posts, etc.)

It’s an interactive and fluid (dynamic) user experience for news readers to experience news evidence and facts in an omni-directional flow and for news writers to collect, organize, and visualize their story material throughout the news writing process.

It’s a collection of all newly received or noteworthy information. (Okay, so all I did was just define news here, but you get the point.)

It’s a community of interactive individuals (ecosystem) that collaboratively builds and annotates all elements contributing to a news story.

why it’s unique
Rather than transposing/translating a print format of news, this project takes a digital-first approach to news gathering, construction and dissemination.

Different web applications right now are addressing different elements of opencan, but no one is bringing all of these elements together.

why it’s useful
This project leverages the best elements of cutting edge web applications to:

  • streamline journalistic and editorial workflow;
  • create deep, meaningful and highly organized information databases;
  • encourage user interaction, participation and content generation
  • meaningfully visualize the components which contribute to  news stories to foster the audience’s confidence and trust in their comprehension of news items
  • cultivate a culture of non-linear, omni-directional storytelling in news journalism.

how it works
opencan organizes all elements contributing to a specific news topic on a visual field in the browser – videos, photos, news articles, tweets, you name it. (These elements are collected either by web news scraper, or by user/editor submission.)

Each element of thoroughly tagged with relevant metadata so each element can be sorted in a myriad of different ways, relative to the other elements. (Such metadata would include: usefulness, credibility, interest, accuracy, date created/published, times referenced by other publications, other elements referenced within, author, geolocation, etc.)

Users can then constrain the elements to experience different element orientations. eg: connections between elements, the ontology of the story, most credible and useful elements – it is up to the users.

For a news reader, they can now experience a news story, rather than be told about it. For a news producer, they can use opencan as a private content organization and visualization tool.

opencan is intended to be interacted with by various parties which results in an organically evolving story. This collaboration can happen between producer and audience, or between multiple producers.

In short, it’s an interactive mind-map on drugs.
Each element in the ‘map’ is fluid, the position dependant on the user defined variables for organization. Users (can) have the ability to add, edit and modify elements.

Step by step…

1) Dynamic content organization system.
Have journalists, or J-school students use the application as a news content management system and story building tool. All ‘private’ to begin with.

2) Read-only news “end product.” (A news viewing tool.)
Use opencan as news viewing tool, where web users can explore and visualize elements of stories in different ways, as directed by user defined variables.

3) Enhanced private collaboration.
Focus on developing tools to have multiple collaborators working on constructing an opencan story before publishing to web.

4) Full public collaboration.
Adding functionality to allow users to contribute information to opencan stories.

unknown and anticipated hurdles
How in the hell do we build this?
Using javascript treemaps is where I am starting with this, but I will need some serious help to determine a serious development path.

How to work with, or as, a content management system?
Sure, opencan would be a seriously awesome approach to building a new content management system for news organizations. (Or, for anyone with heaps of information to archive.) However, I reckon that news organizations would be weary of doing so. What is likely critical is to determine if it is truly more beneficial to build a new CMS, or if opencan can effectively use the current news organization’s CMS as it is.

why does this need to exist?
Current static news formats on web are failing to capitalize on the dynamic nature of the internet. Someone better get web journalism whipped into shape. If it has to be me, than so be it.

Here is a “business brief” for opencan, directed towards the #MozNewsLab partners (Al Jazeera English, BBC, The Guardian UK, & Zeit online.)

References to other cool things, from which opencan steals the best ideas: is fostering a niche online ecosystem via browser and mobile applications.
Etherpad is a great example of collaborative content generation.
Evernote is doing an interesting job of online/offline note taking, synchronizing and information organizing. (Using tags and projects, aka ‘notebooks.’)
Zotero is an example of comprehensive metadata tagging, and document annotations.
Storify brings together different sources of news into one, evolving visual timeline. great example of interconnected visual organization of different elements, while javascript treemaps is my initial template for an opencan visualization and interface.


More Awesome Than I Even Realized!

Saturday’s meetup turned out to be very helpful. Although only Saleem and myself showed up at the space graciously donated by Buzzdata, our brainstorming was awesome.

First thing though, props to Buzzdata for the lovely space in downtown Toronto – their digs look great, and the beta version of their website looks even better. Also, this weekend is a long weekend in Canada, so it’s absolutely forgivable that some other locals couldn’t make it.

Though I am closer to the hack side of hack or hacker, Saleem is a legitimate professional journalist. His Twitter bio proves it: (Pro journalist, news innovation consultant, Innovate News founder, chairman@CAJ, technology observer, speaker, traveller; ex CBC, Torstar, Metro Intl. Craplets.)

His insight was very helpful. I asked Saleem if he would actually use this platform in his role as a professional journalist. His response? “Absolutely.” Pretty big compliment, as far as I am concerned.

Even better than that great compliment was Saleem’s explanation of just how versatile and flexible “OpenCan” (OC) is in terms of integration with news rooms. The opportunity and benefit from OC extends far beyond what I had initially realized, largely due to the flexibility of the platform to be used by different kinds of journalists in different ways.

“Different kinds of journalists.” …hrm. I should have thought about that. I mean, really. I do enough work with journalists to realize that different news writers work in different ways. I suppose I just got caught up in one idea of what OC is supposed to be like, and stopped considering the full context of the people interacting with the platform. In retrospect, the way Saleem was explaining the flexibility of OC through the perspective of different types of journalistic production was very similar to the idea of personas which a recent #MozNewsLab lecturer was advocating. (I think it was Jesse James Garrett, but I don’t remember offhand.)

After some serious brain and body storming, Saleem came to the conclusion that OCis a beneficial tool to use in every mode of journalistic production.

Here is what we have realized OC can offer to journalists and the newsroom:

Daily News:
– Assists in generating ideas and finding/identifying sources

– Provides dynamic visualization of gathered information. As such, it is easier for the journalist to find and discover useful connections between collected information.
– Provides a cleaner, more efficient, visual space to align elements of a story to visualize the potential narratives of a news story. (Rather than a series of notes and paragraphs needing to be scrolled though in MS Word.)
– An excellent way to manage information.

Ongoing coverage:
– Finding new stories within information within existing stories

Breaking News:
– Collecting citizen journalist artifacts, via user uploads, and social media scraping.

Soft News/Pop News:
– A new way to visualize (tell stories about) popular events.
– Source information and credit information sources.

A Few Good Steps Backwards.

The frustrating thing about my project is that there are so many independent elements which need to exists and work together for the project to come together as a whole.

Well, rather than looking at “the whole” and getting frustrated, I have to focus on one element, figure out how to make it work, and then step back to see how it can fit with the rest of project.

The question is: where to start?

What if I am able to put something together that is completely incompatible with the technology needed to include the other elements? “Oh well,” is what I’ll have to say, and then get back at it. Waiting until everything is perfectly aligned before getting down to work is silly. Things are going to go wrong. It’s better for me to just get down to getting things done and mess up along the way, rather than thinking about what could go wrong and doing nothing at all.

So what to start on could be anything, really.

For me though, it makes the most sense to start where I can best communicate what the hell I am trying to do. (Seeing as I have recently discussed the importance of being able to effectively communicate your ideas to differing groups.)

I want to first build a platform where multiple elements (imagine squares) can be visually arranged and re-arranged in a number of ways based on tags/metadata assigned to each element. The arrangement of the elements is determined by the user’s selection of filtering variables.

I’ll elaborate and add some kind of hypothetical example in the next post.

The Value of Open Collaboration

One of my main goals must be “create an open and expandable platform as possible.” The more people can modify, customize, alter and expand on what I create, the more likely it will be widely adopted and successful.

When you have one person making, remixing and remaking a closed product, the time to arrive at any trial-and-error best solution is exponentially more than when you have a multitude of people simultaneously making, remixing and remaking an open product.

If we can bring many people together and fail a whole bunch at something, we’ll eventually get something right a hell of a lot faster than one person doing everything on his or her own.

So let’s open up our work, share with anyone who is interested, and get some sweet sweet collaboration goin’.


This post came to me somehow after reading Alexandra Samur’s post “#MozNewsLab week one: Prototyping, engaging, and iterating’“.

Also, here is a great TED talk video which discusses the value of trial-and-error as a problem solving method.

On Considering the Context of Your Audience

This post is largely inspired by Jesse James Garrett’s MozNewsLab lecture on July 22nd.

During JJG’s presentation, something clicked and all of a sudden a lot of my uncertainty about getting started on a practical game plan lifted. This epiphany of sorts came about through JJG’s discussion of considering the context of the audience when designing content. Right then I made the connection between all of my academic studies in documentary media, specifically with regard to how the author/audience positionality directs the truth or meaning of any documentary work or visual communication.

The crux of both JJG’s point and one of main points I outline in a recent paper I wrote on author/audience power dynamics is one and the same. (Maybe I’ll post that paper at some point?) For the author of content to effectively engage their audience, where the audience receives and interacts with the content as the author intends, it is absolutely critical that the author understand the context, or positionality, of the audience. “Content” in this instance is any communication, be it a documentary film, a user interface, or a research paper.

Because I care so much about the project I brought to the MozNewsLab, I wanted my audience to be “everyone everywhere, always.” So maybe that’s not the best place to start designing from.

In the past few days I have taken advice from JJG and considered more of a bottom>up approach to design, where before I was only considering a top>down approach.

So sure, it sounds common sense, but I still feel like I need to say it out loud:

“The first version should be super simple, basic, and approachable. made for specific and well defined audience”.

From Jesse James Garrett: “For my content to be successful, I needed to understand the shape of the experience around it.” He explained that the source of some of the biggest problems or failures has come from “not knowing the internal politics of your clients.”

/end of MozNewsLab weekly post

So here is the new game plan, based on these revelations.

Aim for two specific development iterations:
(Hedging my bets, in case I am unable to work with one of the groups I am intending on consulting.)

who is the first audience?

1) &
2) MA Journalism Students at Ryerson University

Now, What are the main goals of this project as determined by the audience?

Give and the ability to show their users meaningfully dynamic and interconnected information, documents and sources which are referenced through the factchecking of a particular story.

 Problem being solved: how “unaproachable” footnotes and bibliographies are to the average user. the average user is not going to explore the source material referenced. (Even though and are awesome and actually provide their sources and references.)

(Side note: This project could also end up being used as a really awesome way to visualize bibliographies.)

 Result: Users of and are more educated about the elements contributing to stories being reported and more confident in their knowledge as they encounter more primary source material, and can view the evolution of a news story over time.

Result: and have more engaged and interested contributors, and potentially convert more users into collaborators.

Create a platform for journalists (specifically, MA journalism students) to collect and visualize elements of their story or major research project. Furthermore, allow the platform to be used as a presentation method for a story of MRP.

 Problem being solved: Not so much a problem as an opportunity for a more efficient workflow.

Result: Journalists are able to upload and link in information and content being used to formulate a story or MRP.

Result: Journalists are given the ability to encourage collaboration and input from other parties via web to aid in the research around, and construction of their stories.

 Result: Journalists are able to present their story in a new digital format which their audiences engage with and actively explore and navigate.

   Result: This new format is able to be embedded on any webpage, increasing the probability of both increased interest in collaboration and an increased size in audience.

…and that’s where I am at right now.

Lost in Translation: barriers to collaboration between hacks and hackers

Being able to communicate a message to your audience in a such a way that your audience will comprehend precisely what you intend to have them comprehend is easier said than done – but this skill is essential for the success of any project.

One of the hurdles in the whole future of journalism discourse is the varied stakeholders involved. Referencing the MozNewsLab specifically, there are two main factions: Hacks – journalism types – and Hackers – computer types. There are also individuals who belong to both groups, to neither groups, and plenty of other smaller factions – like academics and artists for instance. However, I’m focusing here on the Hacks and Hackers for the sake of simplicity.

The first barrier to effective communication between these two groups is an inherent lack of a common lexicon. Initially, hackers cannot simply have a discussion with a hack in the same way that they would normally discuss ideas with other hackers. The same goes for hacks communicating their ideas to hackers. In the beginning of your hack/hacker relationship, explain and elaborate as much as possible. Hackers: don’t assume a hack knows what an API is or does. Hacks: say something like “media captured in the field, as opposed to in studio” when referring to EFP. You don’t have to avoid jargon – but you absolutely should carefully describe industry terms and jargon so that in the future both parties can confidently converse using the language of both industries.

Here is a great example of this in practise from Wednesday’s chat logs:

[15:32] <knowtheory> i should add that DocumentCloud is open source 🙂
[15:32] <knowtheory> the main platform hasn’t been open sourced yet, but i hear that it will be soon
[15:32] <knowtheory> which means that it could actually be used as a platform for some of this stuff you guys are interested in
[15:33] <corbin> thanks for the “which means…” 🙂
[15:33] <knowtheory> er… is that facetious? 😀
[15:33] <corbin> not in the least.

Reading this in the moment of the chat, there was a palpable beat before knowtheory (Ted Han) got to explaining the ramifications of “the main platform being open sourced.” Before the “which means…” moment I was thinking something along the lines of “cool. things being open sourced is beneficial to the greater good of the internet – but I have no idea what the implications of DocumentCloud being open sourced are. I mean, I get that open source is good. I understand that open source means that different people can access the tools (code) used to build something and add, alter and remix it as they see fit. But that’s all I really know. I couldn’t have told you why the DocumentCloud platform being open sourced had anything to do with me or my project.

I think that I have had to ask “…and what does that mean?” to Ted so frequently that he has started to preemptively explain and elaborate on any ‘computer-y’ bits of information that he shares with me – which is great.

The second element to this improving communication dynamic is being bold enough to quickly let people know when you are not familiar with what is being discussed. Now, it might not always be the most opportune time to interrupt someone to have them explain to you what you don’t understand, but the risk of feeling somewhat uncomfortable is absolutely worth the reward of garnering a better understanding of the topic at hand. Furthermore, if you are struggling with some aspect of the discussion, there is almost definitely at least one more person experiencing that same struggle. Asking for clarification and elaboration of concepts nearly always increases the collective comprehension of a group’s topic of discussion.

What I am getting at here is that in order to collaborate cross-industry we each need to be more than just a skilled communicators. We must also be good teachers and translators. Knowing how to speak the language of our audiences is immensely helpful – as is the ability to teach your audience the intricacies of your language. Until hacks and hackers can speak each others language(s), true collaboration in unachievable. Until then, journalism types will continue to think “oh! this web xyz thing is super cool. some tech person should build it for us!” while hacker types will think “collaboration” means “getting journalism types to write out API documentation.”

Not being able to speak each others language is the barrier preventing simple skill supplementation from becoming meaningful collaboration.

Demo bomb’d


So  Christian Heilmann just unloaded a heap of totally awesome examples of how people are doing wicked-cool things with the internet. Sure, that statement is vague and poorly written, but it’s still true.

I am going to take some of the day today and tomorrow to work through these and take copious notes about how I could apply some of the innovative ways that people are using open source web technology in developing my project.