big data

Datahead Journos Could Rise Above the Rest

A journalist’s role is to report existing information and tell a story to inform others. Today, there’s such a proliferation of data that it seems to be coming from everywhere. Fortunately, reporters can help the public make heads and tails of it.

While bots and aggregate digests can inform users, good writers help synthesize what’s out there. Yes, we still need humans to help us make sense of things. Yet, people know how to play to our emotions.

The popularity of Buzzfeed is that it appears to be collecting and compiling nuanced trends or observations, but in reality, it’s tabloid-esque. I find it the most distracting online trick. I fall prey to its quippy headlines about what irritates women to how to pull off the best April Fool’s joke.

Just because those articles are sticky and spreadable, they’re not game-changing. The access to data is.

Interactive maps, graphs, libraries, and infographics are perfectly suited for social networks. Plus, they’re quite trendy as deemed by Digital Amy (Weiss). They quickly and effectively spark dialogue and can inform readers at a glance without having to read a 10-page spread.

What’s more impressive is that any online user who’s comfortable with tinkering can build compelling tools to tell a story. For the uninitiated, I would recommend visiting visual.ly.

Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, features major stories each week with accompanying stats. Unlike many of my peers, I do receive its crispy-pages on my doorstep. However, its online datasets are much more fun for learning about income levels by zip code, for instance. (Grant Smith, a CA data guy, frequently pairs with reporters to convey information just like photographers have done for decades.)

By no means am I the first to preach the importance of informing with data. Even my company has an entire team focused on the analytics of our fundraising progress and donors. Yet, my favorite part about that newspaper and nonprofit example is that I’ve noticed greater collaboration between all parties.

Usually dense information was limited to the geeky teams of people who compiled it and possibly shared it in high-level reports. Because of technology and nifty scripting, single-shop journalists can also arm their audiences with mountains of information by employing eye-catching and easy-to-use widgets.

In other words, the big data playing field has been leveled. And that’s empowering.

Finding and conveying data is not always serious. Check out this cheeky clip about Game of Thrones factoids via Visually.

 

 

Facebook knows me like the back of its cursor.

Did you know that your Facebook likes predict preferences? And people study them!

Margaret Weigel‘s article, “Facebook, Private Traits, and Attributes,” cites research conducted at Cambridge and Microsoft that Facebook can accurately tell a person’s traits and innermost personal details.

By one’s online activity, they could accurately predict religion, sex, sexual orientation, and political ideologies from liking a certain TV show or artist. Yet, I will add that for years, Facebook nearly required its users to self-identify with nearly all of those categories.

As soon as one becomes a user, it prompts you to state if you are male or female, etc. While it is disconcerting that Facebook knows so much, we pretty much told them everything about us out of the gate.

Yes, this study was much more than people checking boxes about themselves. It studied user behavior. This further proves that the way we consume social media is just an extension of our everyday lives.

If someone votes for President Obama in an election and places the bumper sticker on back of a vehicle, it’s not surprising that liking certain shared links would also reflect that candidate preference. It’s context clues.

What scares people though is how Facebook intends to use that data. It’s one thing for my family to know who I am, it’s another for companies to send me “Burton-specific” deals, ads, and offers. Smart? Absolutely.

Is it enough that this company is worth billions? If Facebook quit raking in money tomorrow, it could probably sell our information piecemeal to others for decades and still be worth billions. Such personal information is invaluable, especially when they didn’t have to work or bribe their users to obtain it.

A poor graduate student didn’t have to beg folks to take a survey. Facebook simply let people loose on its playground and watched…and saved everything like a depression-era family.

Right now, campaign managers rely on dated census information and voting records to determine who to mail for certain primaries. In the near future, I bet anyone will be able to buy lists from Facebook for the purpose of targeting ads. “I want to buy an ad that’s just visible to all users with Democrat-tendencies in the Memphis area.” Presto!

This is more efficient, probably comes with more purchasing power, and online content can be uploaded or removed in seconds (unlike a mailer with a typo). Facebook might already be doing this, but it’s not spelled out that clearly to me. Comment below if you know.

In sum, as a new blogger with a geographic and generational focus, this information could help me grow MemphisMaverick’s visibility. I could specifically target a niche audience with ads, shares, and links that would be of interest to certain users.

So, while some denounce Facebook’s tactics, I think it’s too powerful to be declining anytime soon, especially with its monstrous pocketbook and ability to acquire trendy apps like Instagram.

Facebook Data Center

Facebook Data Center

They like it? Hey, Mikey!

Businesses live and die by big data. In fact, there’s so much content production (2.5 quintillion bytes per day according to IBM) that we can’t begin to make sense of it.

However, metrics and optimization tools are here to help us. As a new blogger, I don’t have to spend my day counting the different IP addresses that hit my site. WordPress magically aggregates the number of unique views and slices and dices them to my liking.

Reporters don’t have to scour through 2.9 million Google results pages to find an acceptable definition of “quintillion.” They can mostly trust the first page because search engine optimization (SEO) terms push the salient sites to the top.

Metrics have enabled us to analyze, infer, and interpret large quantities of information. Metrics have shown newsrooms which headlines spike traffic. And metrics have infatuated leaders to the point where decisions can be made based solely on numbers.

If data is available, it should be studied. Highly clicked stories can let an editor know what’s resonating with people. This is especially helpful for news outlets who are still trying to determine how to monetize operations as advertising and subscription revenues have decreased.

According to a study by Nikki UsherAl Jazeera, the Middle Eastern media network, has captured the attention of millions (e.g., 220MM households), established itself as a notable news source, and grown rapidly over the last 18 years, all while being financed by monarchs. i.e., “They got money.”

To some, a news organization being owned by rich, powerful people sounds alarming, yet it’s worked for decades.  Around the world, readers have trusted the San Francisco Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN despite the names Hearst, Murdoch, and Turner. (Albeit, Al Jazeera’s financiers are also government leaders.)

As a result, Al Jazeera has been insulated from the economic penalties associated with being a news organization. It doesn’t risk losing readers from the creation of a pay-wall. It doesn’t have to compromise editorial decisions to only produce stories that will guarantee a bump in web traffic. And its staff have the luxury to focus on what they want to do: report the news.

Is it worried about profits? Of course! But execs and managers keep track of the bottom line. While Al Jazeera is in a plumb position to ignore perilous economic effects, it still keeps up with metrics. Usher found that individual reporters want to see who’s reading what. Managers want to see what audiences want.

Even if Al Jazeera’s modus operandi seems vague to others, it clearly understands that measuring engagement is critical. Because of social media, viewers can tell companies what they like and dislike. Yet, direct conversation is not the only way to communicate.

Everyday, we interpret emotion and feelings from nonverbal body language. Likewise, news organizations, journalists, and bootstrapping bloggers infer a lot from metrics. By tracking the behavior of users, we can stay one step ahead in this content-saturated world.

Visit Steadman's blog for quintillion explained.

Mark Steadman built this clutch quintillion infographic. Click graphic to see his Robin Leach-esque break-down.