Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Computer-aid journalism: GIGO or the next wave?

John Mecklin of Miller-McCune research writes an intriguing post about Duke University's search to fill an endowed chair of computational journalism.

He makes many points worth considering.

Let's take one, for now.

"If you live in one of the 11 American cities EveryBlock covers, you now can enter your address, and the site gives you civic information (think building permits, police reports and so on), news reports, blog items and other Web-based information, such as consumer reviews and photos, all connected to your immediate geographic neighborhood. In the not-too-distant future, (Duke's James) Hamilton suggests, an algorithm could take information from EveryBlock and other database inputs and actually write articles personalized to your neighborhood and your interests, giving you, for example, a story about crime in your neighborhood this week and whether it has increased or decreased in relation to a month or a year ago."

Intriguing idea. Charlotte is covered by EveryBlock, and my neighborhood blog has a widget with an Everyblock feed. Could EveryBlock's data be combined with tools like Tansa or similar to "write" stories or create readable, understandable lists of local information that wouldn't be shared any other way? Like zoning cases? Or city council actions that affect a small, specific neighborhood?

The idea intrigued me so much that I considered offering it to Howard Rheingold for his master's degree students to explore. He recently tweeted a question asking for ideas for those students.

Then I did a little homework. The latest zoning minutes available today from EveryBlock for Charlotte are from May 19, 2008. The latest city council meetings are from July 21, 2008. EveryBlock lists frequency updates for both kinds of information as "sporadically," and the source as the Charlotte city clerk.

What that lag shows is the need for a real person to contact public officials to remind them of the need for sharing information in a certain way, with a certain audience. EveryBlock isn't funded to be a government watchdog and to make that call.

Charlotte's feeds for crime, building permits and food inspections are relatively up to date, and light years beyond what less-wired, lighter-funded nearby governments are doing.

But the quick reality check shows that even in a year, or two, or five, as the tools advance, technology will not replace human contact that reminds government employees to provide public information to the public.

If nobody's watching, it won't happen.

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