Monthly Archives: January 2008

Interactive journalism: An amazing homicide mashup

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Connelly and Katy Newton for YDN Theater recently with YDN videographer Ricky Montalvo. They created the amazing (and award-winning) crime data mashup Not Just A Number in partnership with The Oakland Tribune.

Not Just A NumberAfter getting tired of watching the homicide count for 2006 climb higher and higher, they decided to humanize the issue and talk to the families of the victims directly. They wanted to expose the story beneath the number and give a platform upon which the community could make the issue real.

Statistics can tell effective stories, but death and loss reach emotional depths beyond the power of any numerical exploration.

Sean and Katy posted recordings of the families talking about the sons, daughters, sisters and brothers that they lost. They integrated family photos, message boards, articles and more along with the interactive homicide map on the site to round out the experience making it much more human than the traditional crime data mashup.

Here is the video (7 min.):

I also asked them if they had trouble getting data to make the site, and they said the Oakland Tribune staff were very supportive. There weren’t any usable open data sets coming out of the city, so they had to collect and enter everything themselves.

This, of course, is a very manual process. Given the challenge of getting the data Sean and Katy didn’t see how the idea could possibly scale outside of the city of Oakland.

SOmebody needs to take that on as a challenge.

I’m hopeful that efforts like Not Just A Number and the Open Government Data organization will be able to surface why it’s important for our government to open up access to the many data repositories they hold. And if the government won’t do it, then it should be the job of journalists and media companies to surface government data so that people can use it in meaningful ways.

This is a great example of how the Internet can empower people who otherwise have no voice or audience despite having profound stories to tell.

A handy music playlist tool

I’ve been looking for a way to share playlists on my blog and elsewhere online for a long time. It’s been surprisingly hard to find a really convenient way to do it.

DRM and industry lockdown have been a big part of that, but there have also been too few technical ways to point to music files that are already publicly available. There are tons of legal MP3′s on the Internet that reside at readable URLs today.

Lucas Gonze and his team at Yahoo! solved this problem. They launched a source-agnostic embeddable media player. You can read more about it on YDN.

It’s fantastically simple. All you do is paste this reference to Yahoo!’s media player javascript code anywhere on your web page (I added it at the bottom of my blog templates):

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://mediaplayer.yahoo.com/js”></script>

Then you just add an HTML link somewhere on your web page to any MP3 file you want to see in your playlist.

That’s it. You’re already done. The link you just made will now include a small play button in front of it, and a mini media player will appear in the browser.

Here’s a short playlist I quickly put together to show how it works. The 4th track here is particularly relevant to my life:

Cut Chemist – The Garden
Young Einstein (Ugly Duckling) – Handcuts Soul Mix
They Might Be Giants- Birdhouse in Your Soul
LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge

The code for that playlist looks like this:

<a href=”http://download.wbr.com/cutchemist/TheGarden.mp3″> Cut Chemist – The Garden </a>
<a href=”http://www.uglyduckling.us/music/HandCutsSoulMix.mp3″> Young Einstein (Ugly Duckling) – Handcuts Soul Mix </a>
<a href=”http://midwesternhousewives.com/mix/The%20Might%20Be%20Giants-%20Birdhouse%20in%20Your%20Soul.mp3″> They Might Be Giants- Birdhouse in Your Soul </a>
<a href=”http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/m/smk291/muchies/LCD%20Soundsystem%20-%20Losing%20My%20Edge.mp3″> LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge </a>

They’ve included some other nice things in the code that give you some flexibility. You can create a shareable playlist file, and you can add cover art, for example.

What I like most, probably, is the architecture of the solution. Anyone who already links to MP3 files can just add the music player javascript code to their page templates, and it will just work immediately. You don’t have to force fit a heavily branded HTML badge into your web page. And since the links are all standard HTML href’s, the content of the playlist is search engine friendly.

It’s the first time I’ve seen a media player so closely aligned with the way the Internet works.

Lucas posts about the need to unlock how media files are referenced. He wants to take the complexity out of distribution and reduce the concept of music sharing and discoverability to the Internet’s roots with URLs as identifiers:

“Almost all online music businesses right now are in the distribution business, even if they see other functions like discovery or social connection as their main value, because they have no way to connect their discovery or social connection features with a reliable provisioning service from a third party. But provisioning is a commodity service which doesn’t give anybody an edge. They don’t want to import playlists from third parties because *that’s* where they are adding value.

Exporting playlists for others to provision, though, is a different story, and it makes much more sense from a business perspective. Let somebody else deal with provisioning. This is what it would mean for somebody like Launchcast or Pandora to publish XSPF with portable song identifiers that could be resolved by companies that specialize in provisioning.”

It seems Lucas is thinking about how to get music flowing around the Internet with the same efficiency that text has enjoyed. Very smart.

Building markets out of data

I’m intrigued by the various ways people view ‘value’. There seem to be 2 camps: 1) people who view the world in terms of competition for finite resources and 2) people who see ways to create new forms of value and to grow the entire pie.

Umair Haque talks about choices companies make that push them into one of those 2 camps. He often argues that the market needs more builders than winners. He clarifies his position in his post The Economics of Evil:

“When you’re evil, your ability to co-create value implodes: because you make moves which are focused on shifting costs and extracting value, rather than creating it. …when you’re evil, the only game you want to – or can play – is domination.”

I really like the idea that the future of the media business is in the way we build value for all constituencies rather than the way we extract value from various parts of a system. It’s not about how you secure marketshare, control distribution, mitigate risk or reduce costs. It’s about how you enable the creation of value for all.

He goes on to explain how media companies often make the mistake of focusing on data ownership:

“Data isn’t the value. In fact, data’s a commodity…What is valuable are the things that create data: markets, networks, and communities.

Google isn’t revolutionizing media because it “owns the data”. Rather, it’s because Google uses markets and networks to massively amplify the flow of data relative to competitors.”

I would add that it’s not just the creation of valuable data that matters but also in the way people interface with existing data. Scott Karp’s excellent post on the guidelines for transforming media companies shares a similar view:

“The most successful media companies will be those that learn to how build networks and harness network effects. This requires a mindset that completely contradicts traditional media business practices. Remember, Google doesn’t own the web. It doesn’t control the web. Google harnesses the power of the web by analyzing how websites link to each other.”

The useful convergence of data

I have only one prediction for 2008. I think we’re finally about to see the useful combination of the 4 W’s – Who, What, Where, and When.

Marc Davis has done some interesting research in this area at Yahoo!, and Bradley Horowitz articulated how he sees the future of this space unfolding in a BBC article in June ’07:

“We do a great job as a culture of “when”. Using GMT I can say this particular moment in time and we have a great consensus about what that means…We also do a very good job of “where” – with GPS we have latitude and longitude and can specify a precise location on the planet…The remaining two Ws – we are not doing a great job of.”

I’d argue that the social networks are now really honing in on “who”, and despite having few open standards for “what” data (other than UPC) there is no shortage of “what” data amongst all the “what” providers. Every product vendor has their own version of a product identifier or serial number (such as Amazon’s ASIN, for example).

We’ve seen a lot of online services solving problems in these areas either by isolating specific pieces of data or combining the data in specific ways. But nobody has yet integrated all 4 in a meaningful way.


Jeff Jarvis’ insightful post on social airlines starts to show how these concepts might form in all kinds of markets. When you’re traveling it makes a lot of sense to tap into “who” data to create compelling experiences that will benefit everyone:

  • At the simplest level, we could connect while in the air to set up shared cab rides once we land, saving passengers a fortune.
  • We can ask our fellow passengers who live in or frequently visit a destination for their recommendations for restaurants, things to do, ways to get around.
  • We can play games.
  • What if you chose to fly on one airline vs. another because you knew and liked the people better? What if the airline’s brand became its passengers?
  • Imagine if on this onboard social network, you could find people you want to meet – people in the same business going to the same conference, people of similar interests, future husbands and wives – and you can rendezvous in the lounge.
  • The airline can set up an auction marketplace for at least some of the seats: What’s it worth for you to fly to Berlin next Wednesday?

Carrying the theme to retail markets, you can imagine that you will walk into H&M and discover that one of your first-degree contacts recently bought the same shirt you were about to purchase. You buy a different one instead. Or people who usually buy the same hair conditioner as you at the Walgreen’s you’re in now are switching to a different hair conditioner this month. Though this wouldn’t help someone like me who has no hair to condition.

Similarly, you can imagine that marketing messages could actually become useful in addition to being relevant. If CostCo would tell me which of the products I often buy are on sale as I’m shopping, or which of the products I’m likely to need given what they know about how much I buy of what and when, then my loyalty there is going to shoot through the roof. They may even be able to identify that I’m likely buying milk elsewhere and give me a one-time coupon for CostCo milk.

Bradley sees it playing out on the phone, too:

“On my phone I see prices for a can of soup in my neighbourhood. It resolves not only that particular can of soup but knows who I am, where I am and where I live and helps me make an intelligent decision about whether or not it is a fair price.

It has to be transparent and it has to be easy because I am not going to invest a lot of effort or time to save 13 cents.”

It may be unrealistic to expect that this trend will explode in 2008, but I expect it to at least appear in a number of places and inspire future implementations as a result. What I’m sure we will see in 2008 is dramatic growth in the behind-the-scenes work that will make this happen, such as the development and customization of CRM-like systems.

Lots of companies have danced around these ideas for years, but I think the ideas and the technologies are finally ready to create something real, something very powerful.

Photo: SophieMuc