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The mobile publishing technology behind GuardianWitness

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One of the great ah-hah moments in my career happened in 2006 when Amazon launched EC2.

To be honest, the shockwave I observed across Silicon Valley at the news inspired that ah-hah rather than any insight I had about the product. I don’t think I really understood virtual machines. The idea still makes my head spin.

But when I realized Bezos was exposing Amazon’s incredible internal infrastructure and selling those capabilities externally everything clicked. What a smart thing to do.

Why don’t more companies do this?

Yes, it might be hard to move legacy bespoke systems into a state where they can support paying customers, but it’s not hard to design the possibility for commercializing technology externally at its conception.

We’ve been applying this strategy to n0tice from the start. Now we have a very significant case study in the form of GuardianWitness, and others will be announced soon.

While the GuardianWitness project is clearly going to have a big impact both in terms of open journalism and in terms of new revenue for the Guardian, there’s a parallel world where the technology making GuardianWitness possible can be used to build both a technology licensing business and an interesting partner network.

appsGuardianWitness was built using n0tice, the mobile publishing platform we launched publicly almost exactly a year ago. The web site, iPhone and Android apps, and a bunch of new capabilities, including moderation tools, video processing and YouTube integration, high performance, scalability and security levels, and a customer support process were all built with the intention of selling those services, too. The n0tice API servicing all this is now very robust.

We have a marketing site at http://vip.n0tice.org explaining the offering. I’ve written a bit more detail about what we did on the n0tice blog. And you can find a lot more technical information on the developer web site here, which includes an architectural overview of the n0tice platform.

If we’ve done this right then any professional publisher, broadcaster, brand, community, developer, etc. who wants to give their customers the ability to post photos and videos from their phones will be able to do so with specialised, high quality, enterprise-level technologies and services.

There’s a ton of great capability here at the Guardian, and we are not the only media organization that could benefit from the technologies that enable us to do what we do.

Mrs. Robinson is the enemy of great software

I was watching The Graduate the other night, and another brilliant quote struck me – not the ‘plastics’ quote this time.

Benjamin describes his post-grad disillusionment to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, “It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. No, I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

The anxiety of being disoriented and confused about how to win the game in the early parts of your career is a wonderful thing. It forces you to adapt quickly, to learn hard, and to test limits.

But different people react differently to the pressure. Some become all about the rules – either creating, enforcing or avoiding them. Others don’t see rules at all.

This gets hammered home in an excellent blog post where Good Sense looks at how trust and autonomy and freedom promotes productivity and creative problem solving whereas controls and requirements and micromanagement have the opposite affect:

“I was part of a scrum team at a large company. Someone already broke the workload up into user stories. Those user stories were further broken down into tasks. The tasks were then evenly divided amongst all the engineers. Each engineer didn’t have much of a say in it.

I was told exactly what to work on and even the day I was going to work on it. It was the most unproductive time of my life.”

That sense of freedom you have after walking away from your last day of school is incredible, and yet so many capable people fail to capitalize on that freedom. They end up recreating structures in their lives that ensure they never face it again.

Of course, there are also many people who thrive on having structure. And there are many who support creativity by trying to create freedom within a structure. Not everyone works well with no rules. And some can even do a lot of damage without boundaries in place.

Agile development intends to deal with this, but I’m amongst those who believe that once you’ve defined a process for something you’ve already sucked the mojo out of it.

The comments on Hacker News are really worth a read:

“Scrum says that team members should answer three questions each working day:
1. What have you done in the last day?
2. What are you doing today?
3. Are you experiencing any impediments to your work?

Here is how these questions get implemented at many companies:
1. Did you do what I told you to yesterday?
2. Here’s what I want you to do today.
3. Fuck the third question.”

Sometimes that scenario plays out with more subtlety, perhaps under the mask of collaboration. I’ve seen many managers using the word “agile” to describe the way they are working when they really mean something totally different.

It’s these kinds of behaviors that Benjamin can’t get his head around in The Graduate – the unwritten rules, the cultural reinforcements, the hidden hierarchies and agendas.

Josh Williams, former co-founder and CEO at the now defunct Foursquare competitor Gowalla, wrote a brilliant post-mortem of sorts recently that should be a real inspiration to the Benjamins out there feeling overwhelmed by all the rules and systems and the perception of predetermination.

“Truth be told, we didn’t really care about Check-Ins. What we really wanted was for people to see the world through the eyes of their friends.

It turns out there was another app that shared a similar vision. They made the act of taking and sharing photos (many of which just happened to be location-tagged) fast, simple and fun.

They made their own rules. They called it Instagram.”

Why EveryBlock’s closure is disappointing

There is a big difference betwen a signal of future potential and the path leading to its real outcome.

The future signal may be wrong even though the path to it might feel right at the time (PointCast, WAP, personalized home pages, Kozmo.com). Or the signal might be right, but the path to it may take the wrong turn (Napster, RSS, AltaVista, Flickr).

The longer I’m in the digital media business, the less sure I am that I can tell the difference in the very early stages of these trends.

For example, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that around 2001 I still thought Google was just another search engine and that it would be a temporary phenomenon. Even worse, I was sure that Facebook was making a mistake when it opened beyond the university networks to the wider masses in 2007 or whenever that was.

So, when things happen like last week’s news that EveryBlock closed down I have to recalibrate my thinking a bit. It’s clear now that EveryBlock fits in the second camp – right signal, wrong path.

I was never convinced they were on a sure path to achieving their ambitions, but I believed in Adrian and that the vision and execution were strong enough to get there with some adjustments and a little bit of luck.

Regardless of the dotcom measures of success, anyone who cares about news and journalism will agree that EveryBlock demonstrated something special about local information – an important step toward recapturing our neighborhood identities in a way that local newspapers used to do, or at least in the way younger people imagine they must have done.

I remember the launch of EveryBlock in 2008. I paid close attention to how it progressed in my neighborhood (Potrero Hill) even after I moved to London later that year.

The attention to detail in data was remarkable – both in terms of capturing the essence of challenging sources but also in the presentation of it. I knew a little about hierarchical geodata from spending time with the Maps and Where On Earth teams at Yahoo!, but EveryBlock was adding human dimentionality to those purely physical interpretations of the world.

For example, crime mapping was a particularly fascinating topic at the time, something I experienced first hand, and there were a few different approaches to addressing it in addition to Adrian’s own groundbreaking ChicagoCrime map. One of the very best that shouldn’t be forgotten was the ‘Not Just a Number‘ campaign done by Katy Newton and Sean Connelley in partnership with the Oakand Tribune.

Crime data is just one of the many information types that catalyze collective understanding in local areas, and EveryBlock rigorously tackled a range of different sources from construction and business permits to travel and commuting information to real estate data. They even started tackling social data including meetups, flickr photos and even conversations amongst EveryBlock users.

The result was a data-rich lens of local life.

People now expect this lens on their local life. It’s not even a matter of wanting it. It’s just supposed to be that way.

And EveryBlock executed on it very well.

So, if the vision was right and the execution was strong, what happened?

Without speaking to the team or NBC it’s not fair to presume to know the answer. But from my view as an industry observer and fellow traveler on the local media train my guess is that the problems were not so much errors in judgment but rather circumstantial challenges.

They may have arrived when local media incumbents were still strong enough to drive the news agendas in their respective areas, cornering EveryBlock into a data pureplay that wasn’t compelling enough for the news junkies to build an exclusive addiction to them.

Though I suspect the decision to join MSNBC in 2009 was completely appropriate and rational at the time, having MSNBC behind them must have limited the partnerships they may have needed to do with those same local media incumbents.

They may have been too early in the game of local data, too, stuck in an awkward market condition where the cities with both good data and tech savvy users were few and fickle.

Perhaps they needed original reporting. A more traditionally news-y positioning may have helped, but the wider digital media market has been flooded with countless startups that offer no editorial structure to them at all. That shouldn’t have been a prerequisite to mass adoption.

It’s probably some of those things and many others that we can’t see from the outside.

I find it very interesting that so many people are so disappointed. I think people would like to believe that good ideas done well will survive and prosper.

Of course, if the world were that simple it would be pretty boring. I’ll take chaos and uncertainty over the sure thing any day, even if that means good things die sometimes.

But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened last week when EveryBlock died.

Where n0tice is headed in 2013

Reposted from the n0tice blog:

There are lots of reasons to be reflective today and to think about the past year. It has been a very serious time with some very serious human stories resulting in many testing questions about fate and destiny and our responsibilities in a civil society.

I intended to write some sort of happy-clappy “what a great year!” type of message today, but I’d prefer to write about the challenges ahead.

Of course, it has been a truly amazing year for n0tice. We moved the service out of beta in the Spring, launched a robust developer platform, rolled out our first sponsored partnership, kicked off an exciting social marketing campaign, rebuilt the n0tice iOS app, launched our new Android app, developed some fun new curation tools, and integrated with the Guardian in some creative ways.

The team, everyone participating on the platform, and the many observers wanting to know how this project unfolds will surely feel the progress we’ve made and hopefully enjoy being part of this journey.

But n0tice is still very far from playing the role it could and should play in the world.

There are many forces challenging the civic fabric that keeps people engaged in the idea of progress. This is happening both in our local communities and the world at large – threats to the shape of the Internet itself, how it is governed and what people can do with it; deep issues of trust in our institutions; economic disparity and shrinking resources; and, worst of all, physical threats both from mother nature and our own kind.

On an admittedly hopeful and probably shallow level I always thought that n0tice could help people to address problems that face us by becoming a more integral part of the spaces we inhabit. Starting with a shared digital platform for reporting what’s happening nearby right now and what’s going to happen tomorrow we could improve local discourse which could then turn into action.

The public noticeboard is the perfect metaphor for what we’re doing. It facilitates a public conversation about our local communities – a space that is open to all, where leadership is flattened and authority is distributed and perhaps even competitive.

The technologies making this possible have pros and cons, of course.

There can be no doubt that being present and aware in the physical world we inhabit will get harder and harder as the digital distractions continue to fight for our focus. It’s also true that the immediacy of today’s digital media is training people to think that everything can happen fast, but sometimes meaning has a longer gestation period which affects cultural evolution at glacial pace.

There’s a big gap between noticing a dangerous street corner to getting a new sign posted which is a far cry from changing the law and even further from changing people’s behaviors.

But maybe these new technologies can enhance our experiences in the real world rather than compete with them. And maybe our local communities will improve as a result of what people accomplish using the digital network.

Sometimes a spark is all that’s needed to put momentum behind a movement.

When we kicked off the #keepcycling campaign we had a feeling it would resonate, but we certainly didn’t expect people to spread it across Twitter as far as it has gone now. Similarly, we were hoping the #localshopping and #gdngig campaigns would trigger an interest in sharing the best of people’s local experiences, and, sure enough, hundreds of reviews and photos later we have some wonderful social maps of what’s happening in small neighborhoods and big cities alike.


#keepcycling

#GdnGig Live Music Map

These are just little tastes of where this journey could start going – turning observation into action. Awareness is the first step toward empathy. And once people start to care about the little things happening around them they might think more about the bigger things.

n0tice may not be able to put fate and destiny back into our own hands. The world is full of surprises – both horror and magic. But we can certainly progress as individuals and as communities by democratizing information about the spaces we inhabit and making that information actionable.

n0tice has had a great year. The n0tice team – Daniel, Sarah and Tony – have been brilliant – creative, hard-working, thoughtful, collaborative, skillful, etc. The n0tice community has been incredibly helpful in steering us and telling us openly and honestly what they think. Our partners have been invaluable as we evolve the tools and strategy – Talk About Local, LBi, Mentally Friendly, Tyrell Mobile. And we’ve had some amazing support from the Guardian, CEO Andrew Miller, in particular, and several editors, community leaders, and the sales team who have pushed us in smart new directions.

Next year is going to be more challenging, in many ways – a more serious test of what this platform can achieve. We know we can build useful social software. Can we also help people actually make a difference?

Testing a photo gallery tool

This collection of Boniver pictures comes via a new photo gallery embed tool called Hash Gordon. I just wanted to see how it looks in a blog post.

Embed: <a href=”http://n0tice.com” data-search=”boniver” data-limit=”9″ data-image-size=”200″ data-pagination=”infinite” > </a><script src=”http://platform.n0tice.com/embed.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Building momentum on local outreach and n0tice

We’ve been rolling out a pretty comprehensive upgrade to n0tice this month. We called it n0tice 2.0 in the press release which is here. Journalism.co.uk and TheNextWeb both covered the launch well.

One of the biggest elements of this most recent push is the marketing campaign. We always knew that the hard part of starting a new brand like n0tice was developing a meaningful and robust community. The tech would come more easily. So, this campaign is designed to address that and to show people the power of this platform – why n0tice should matter to local communities, how it’s different, what can be done with it, what impact it can have, etc.

I’ll go into more detail on the approach another time, but I wanted to show some of the campaign assets developed by our partner LBi.

First, here’s a living infographic that pulls in live data from n0tice:

It shows what people are posting to the My High Street noticeboard, a space we setup to encourage people to see and share things that they want to either celebrate or change about their local neighborhood. We want to demonstrate how n0tice can actually help communities unite into action…that shared observation is a powerful thing.

Second, here’s a short video interviewing local activists around the UK about what’s happening to the High Street (that’s “Main Street” for my American friends) and how people are sharing local information:

The positioning of this first campaign in the series is spot on with what inspired n0tice in the first place (1, 2).

But there’s some clever tech involved in the campaign, too, in the way we it works with Twitter and Instagram, in particular. Engaging people in the social spaces they already inhabit is very important to making outreach effective.

We have some really interesting campaigns in the series that will follow this, including one that went live already. It’s all about encouraging people to #keepcycling during the winter months.

This campaign will result in many lessons and examples for different types of communities to use in order to model local activism and community building that is meaningful for them. We’ll document more of it as we go along.

Information physicality

The recent advances in human-to-computer interaction should be scrambling your brain if you’re paying attention at all. From gesture interfaces (both 2D *and* 3D) to location-aware social media and the rapid adoption of connected devices, our relationship to computing and the increasingly ubiquitous network is changing dramatically.

Whereas I grew up in an era where we had to work relatively hard to get a computer to behave the way we wanted, kids today will grow up expecting computers to respond to them instead.

What is this trend going to mean to journalism and publishers? Getting closer to the leaders will help uncover some answers.

The gaming consoles have been working on this stuff for years already, but now Google, Amazon, Sony and even the telcos all have relevant projects starting to ship now.  

Google, for example, just unveiled a new project called Field Trip to add to its portfolio of location-responsive media that also includes Google Now and Google Glasses.

The app is populated using data from “dozens” of content partners, according to Google. Songkick (show information), Eater (restaurants), Flavorpill (events of all kinds), and Thrillist (hot cafes and shops) are there to tell you where to go and what to eat. Architizer (public art, interesting buildings), Remodelista (designy boutiques), and Inhabitat (a designy blog) are there for the nerdier stuff. You can turn any of these services on or off, or ask to see more or less of the items from each partner.

Also served to you are Google Offers, which show up as coupons and deals for nearby businesses, and restaurant reviews from Zagat, Google’s crown jewel in this space.

- Google’s New Hyper-Local City Guide Is a Real Trip, Wired

What kind of publisher is well-suited for a world where technology responds?

What does it mean for information to adjust to the way we move our hands, the way we slide our fingers across a glass surface, where our eyes are focused, and which direction we’re facing?

What does it mean for information to alter based on our location, places we’ve been and places we’re going?

How do you make information more physical?

The answers have yet to be invented, but there are some obvious ways to re-factor current assets and processes in order to get invited to the party.

  • Atomize everything. Separate independent elements and link them intelligently. Well-structured information and consistent workflow help a lot with this.
  • Add a concept of time and space to media. Location can be a point on the planet, a place, a geopolitical boundary. And time can be a moment or a period. And then look at adding more context.
  • Standardize around formats that software developers like to work with. Offer APIs that can accept data as well as release data.

It’s about adjusting, being malleable and responding. Information, how it’s collected, where it goes, and how it is experienced needs to adjust according to the way the user is looking at it and touching it.  It needs to synch with where in space and time the person is focused and interested.

More simply, make everything you do as software-friendly as you possibly can. And then go partner with people whose brains and financial incentives are inextricably linked to the new hardware and software.

This presentation may communicate some of these ideas more effectively than a blog post:



Posted from London, England, United Kingdom.

Mobilising the web of feeds

I wrote this piece for the Guardian’s Media Network on the role that RSS could play now that the social platforms are becoming more difficult to work with. GeoRSS, in particular, has a lot of potential given the mobile device explosion. I’m not suggesting necessarily that RSS is the answer, but it is something that a lot of people already understand and could help unify the discussion around sharing geotagged information feeds.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Mobilising the web of feeds” was written by Matt McAlister, for theguardian.com on Monday 10th September 2012 16.43 UTC

While the news that Twitter will no longer support RSS was not really surprising, it was a bit annoying. It served as yet another reminder that the Twitter-as-open-message-utility idea that many early adopters of the service loved was in fact going away.

There are already several projects intending to disrupt Twitter, mostly focused on the idea of a distributed, federated messaging standard and/or platform. But we already have such a service: an open standard adopted by millions of sources; a federated network of all kinds of interesting, useful and entertaining data feeds published in real-time. It’s called RSS.

There was a time when nearly every website was RSS-enabled, and a cacophony of Silicon Valley startups fought to own pieces of this new landscape, hoping to find dotcom gold. But RSS didn’t lead to gold, and most people stopped doing anything with it.

Nobody found an effective advertising or service model (except, ironically, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, who sold Feedburner to Google). The end-user market for RSS reading never took off. Media organisations didn’t fully buy into it, and the standard took a backseat to more robust technologies.

Twitter is still very open in many ways and encourages technology partners to use the Twitter API. That model gives the company much more control over who is able to use tweets outside of the Twitter owned apps, and it’s a more obvious commercial strategy that many have been asking Twitter to work on for a long time now.

But I think we’ve all made a mistake in the media world by turning our backs on RSS. It’s understandable why it happened. But hopefully those who rejected RSS in the past will see the signals demonstrating that an open feed network is a sensible thing to embrace today.

Let’s zoom out for context first. Looking at the macro trends in the internet’s evolution, we can see one or two clear winners as more information and more people appeared on the network in waves over the last 15 years.

Following the initial explosion of new domains, Yahoo! solved the need to surface only the websites that mattered through browsing. The Yahoo! directory became saturated, so Google then surfaced pages that mattered within those websites through searches. Google became saturated, so Facebook and Twitter surfaced things that mattered that live on the webpages within those web sites through connecting with people.

Now that the social filter is saturated, what will be used next to surface things that matter out of all the noise? The answer is location. It is well understood technically. The software-hardware-service stack is done. The user experience is great. We’re already there, right?

No – most media organisations still haven’t caught up yet. There’s a ton of information not yet optimised for this new view of the world and much more yet to be created. This is just the beginning.

Do we want a single platform to be created that catalyses the location filter of the internet and mediates who sees what and when? Or do we want to secure forever a neutral environment where all can participate openly and equally?

If the first option happens, as historically has been the case, then I hope that position is taken by a force that exists because of and reliant on the second option.

What can a media company do to help make that happen? The answer is to mobilise your feeds. As a publisher, being part of the wider network used to mean having a website on a domain that Yahoo! could categorise. Then it meant having webpages on that website optimised for search terms people were using to find things via Google. And more recently it has meant providing sharing hooks that can spread things from those pages on that site from person to person.

Being part of the wider network today suddenly means all of those things above, and, additionally, being location-enabled for location-aware services.

It doesn’t just mean offering a location-specific version of your brand, though that is certainly an important thing to do as well. The major dotcoms use this strategy increasingly across their portfolios, and I’m surprised more publishers don’t do this.

More importantly, though, and this is where it matters in the long run, it means offering location-enabled feeds that everyone can use in order to be relevant in all mobile clients, applications and utilities.

Entrepreneurs are all over this space already. Pure-play location-based apps can be interesting, but many feel very shallow without useful information. The iTunes store is full of travel apps, reference apps, news, sports, utilities and so on that are location-aware, but they are missing some of the depth that you can get on blogs and larger publishers’ sites. They need your feeds.

Some folks have been experimenting in some very interesting ways that demonstrate what is possible with location-enabled feeds. Several mobile services, such as FlipBoard, Pulse and now Prismatic, have really nice and very popular mobile reading apps that all pull RSS feeds, and they are well placed to turn those into location-based news services.

Perhaps a more instructive example of the potential is the augmented reality app hypARlocal at Talk About Local. They are getting location-aware content out of geoRSS feeds published by hyperlocal bloggers around the UK and the citizen journalism platform n0tice.com.

But it’s not just the entrepreneurs that want your location-enabled feeds. Google Now for Android notifies you of local weather and sports scores along with bus times and other local data, and Google Glasses will be dependent on quality location-specific data as well.

Of course, the innovations come with new revenue models that could get big for media organisations. They include direct, advertising, and syndication models, to name a few, but have a look at some of the startups in the rather dense ‘location‘ category on Crunchbase to find commercial innovations too.

Again, this isn’t a new space. Not only has the location stack been well formed, but there are also a number of bloggers who have been evangelising location feeds for years. They already use WordPress, which automatically pumps out RSS. And many of them also geotag their posts today using one of the many useful WordPress mapping plugins.

It would take very little to reinvigorate a movement around open location-based feeds. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google prioritising geotagged posts in search results, for example. That would probably make Google’s search on mobile devices much more compelling, anyhow.

Many publishers and app developers, large and small, have complained that the social platforms are breaking their promises and closing down access, becoming enemies of the open internet and being difficult to work with. The federated messaging network is being killed off, they say. Maybe it’s just now being born.

Media organisations need to look again at RSS, open APIs, geotagging, open licensing, and better ways of collaborating. You may have abandoned it in the past, but RSS would have you back in a heartbeat. And if RSS is insufficient then any location-aware API standard could be the meeting place where we rebuild the open internet together.

It won’t solve all your problems, but it could certainly solve a few, including new revenue streams. And it’s conceivable that critical mass around open location-based feeds would mean that the internet becomes a stronger force for us all, protected from nascent platforms whose their future selves may not share the same vision that got them off the ground in the first place.

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guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Capturing the essence of a region through photography

We’ve already seen some fantastic submissions just hours after publishing this on the Guardian via The Northerner blog.  Anyone can contribute here: http://northernlandscapes.n0tice.com 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Do you have an image that captures the essence of The North?” was written by Sarah Hartley, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 9th July 2012 10.00 UTC

Being such a diverse and, frankly huge, geographical area, the north of England is difficult to sum up.

There’s plenty of well-known monuments such as the Angel of the North, wonderful landmark buildings such as Manchester’s mini houses of parliament in the shape of the town hall or the industrial heritage of Teesside’s Transporter Bridge but what’s the image that says The North to you?

We are inviting you to share your photos on the theme of Landscapes of the North during July. We’ll feature some of them here on The Northerner blog during the month and two expert photographers from the region will help us find a shortlist of images.

We’ll then ask Northerner readers to vote on those before selecting a final image to represent the north which will also become the backdrop for our official Northerner noticeboard.

One of the the judges helping to find that final selection will be Graeme Rowatt, an award-winning commercial photographer, based in the North East, who specialises in quality, bespoke commercial, editorial, corporate and advertising photograph.

The other, Jon Eland is well-known through Exposure Leeds, of which he is founding director, who describes himself as photographic image-maker, digital evangelist and all-round good egg. He offers this tip to those looking to take a winning image:

“As with all photography – a pretty picture can only count for so much – interest, excitement and a strong story to tell will always be a priority for me. It has to be much more than face value.”

To take part in the challenge, you’ll need to have the basic details of where in the north the image is located, a suitable headline/title, and a brief description of what the picture is about. Submit it to us using the instructions below. Please note that by entering into this, you are agreeing to have your picture shown on this blog and on the noticeboard but the copyright for the image remains with you. Maximum size of 2MB. JPG, GIF, PNG. Entries close Friday 27 July.

To submit your picture:

- if this is your first visit you’ll need to sign-up to n0tice.com. You can do this via your existing Facebook or Twitter accounts or by creating a user name and entering your email address.
- once logged in, go to http://northernlandscapes.n0tice.com and click on ‘post a new report’
- you will be presented with a simple form asking for the information mentioned above.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

The effects of openness matter more than the degrees of openness

Platform strategy or more specifically API strategy is a very effective starting point from which to debate the many flavors and degrees of ‘open’ that play out on the Internet.

For me, the open API debate is all about catering to the means of production.

Developers want data to be hosted by machines at some URL that they don’t have to worry about. When they are building things, they like the data output from those sources to be structured in clean formats and easy to obtain in different ways.

Give them good materials to build with and maintain low overheads.  They will build better things as a result.  Your costs go down.  Your output and your ceiling of opportunity go up.  It’s that simple really.

Of course, there are certainly many nuances.

When Mathew Ingram of GigaOm recently posed the challenge that Twitter and NYT face a similar business model issue around openness he was right to point out the difference between NYT and the Guardian’s approaches to APIs.

The New York Times has experimented with open APIs, which give outside developers access to its data for use in third-party services or features…But the traditional media player that has taken this idea the furthest is The Guardian newspaper in Britain — which launched an “open platform” project in 2010, offering all of its data to outside developers through an API. Doing this has been a core part of Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger’s concept of “open journalism.”

It’s useful to have an example of where an open API creates value.  The Guardian Facebook app is a good example both in terms of innovation with partners but also in terms of real commercial value.

The concept for the app had already been explored months before Facebook announced seamless sharing.  Michael Brunton-SpallLisa van Gelder and Graham Tackley built a clever app they called Social Guardian at a Hack Day.

When FB then gave us the opportunity to build something for their launch, we obviously took it.  The app was built by a 3rd party in record time, and it subsequently took off like a rocket.

As we all know, Facebook adjusted their algorithm and tempered the explosive growth, but it should be considered a success by any measure.  It was built quickly and executed well.  It cost us very little. Users adopted it very quickly.  It generated huge buzz for our brand and introduced the Guardian to a whole new audience we weren’t reaching.

It also drove dramatic traffic levels back to the Guardian web site which we then turned into advertising revenue for the business.

Low cost. High adoption rate. Innovative. Revenue generating.  What else could you ask for?

It’s a solid example of the generative media strategy I was trying to articulate a while back.

Martin Belam posted a detailed case study of the app here and here.

However, while we’ve pushed the envelope on openness and commercial leverage for APIs in the newspaper world, there are other API pure play businesses like NewsCred who have expressed the open API strategy for content in an even more complete form.

They are a content API warehouse. As a developer, if you are working on a digital product that could use some high quality articles or video from brand name media sources then you would be wise to browse the NewsCred catalog.

But NewsCred doesn’t allow just anyone to drop a feed of content directly into their platform. They want to curate relationships with their sources and their API customers…they make money being in the middle.

What’s the trajectory on the sliding scale of open APIs?

There was an interesting marketplace forming several years ago around similar types of businesses we’re seeing today that never completely catalyzed.  It might be instructive to look at that space with fresh eyes.

The blog, RSS feed and personal start page triple play was a perfect storm of networked information innovation in 2004 or so. Several companies including Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s company did very well executing an open platform strategy and exiting at the right moment.

Today the new blog includes context in addition to words and pictures. RSS feeds evolved into APIs. And personal start pages learned to listen to our behaviors.

The killer open strategy now would be one that can unify those forces into a self-reinforcing amplifier.

Arguably, Facebook already did that, but they’ve applied a portal-like layer to the idea creating a destination instead of an ecosystem.  They are also using personal connections as the glue that brings out the best in these 3 things.

That is only one approach to this space.  Another approach is to do one of those things really really well.

Twitter, Tumblr and WordPress are doing great on the creation side, but they need to keep an eye on open participation platforms that marry context with content. Mass market API activity is nascent but bound to explode again given how important APIs are for developers. FlipBoard and some newcomers are reinventing the old idea of automated aggregation through better packaging and smarter recommendation algorithms.

Enter the business model question.

One thing I’ve learned to appreciate since joining the Guardian 4 years ago now is the value of the long game.  The long game forces you to think about what value you create for your customers more than what value you take from your customers.

Of course, going long should never be mistaken for being slow. Marathon runners can still do a sub 5 minute mile.

As I recently said about the WordPress strategy of generosity, the value you create in the market will then come back in the form of stronger ties and meaningful relationships with partners who can help you make money.

The open debate often gets ruined at this point in the argument by those who only think of success in terms of quarterly P&Ls. That’s fine and totally understandable. That matters, too…massively. But it’s not everything. And it’s as big of a mistake to focus only on P&L as it is to focus only on the long term.

I once got some brilliant advice from my former boss at The Industry Standard Europe, Neil Thackray, who said to me when I was struggling to work out what my next move was going to be after that business failed.

He said, “what are you going to tell the grandkids you did during the war?”

It’s a great way of looking at this problem.

The battle we’re all fighting in the news business is how to make the P&L work.  We will win that battle with hard work, creativity, and perseverance.

But the war we’re all fighting in the news business is about securing the long term viability of journalism or a journalism-like force in the world that can hold power to account and amplify the voices of people that need to be heard.

Profit is one force that can secure that future.  But profit is not the goal itself.  Nor is the success of one media brand at the expense of another.

I’m also of the opinion that Twitter has made a long term mistake by prioritizing advertising on their client experiences over the value of their partner ecosystem.  But it’s easy to have that opinion from outside their board room, and perhaps advertising will make them a stronger force for good than they would have been as a pure platform service.

Similarly, NYT is using their APIs to improve innovation within the business. Effectively, the Guardian is doing the same except that it views the success of its business through the eyes of its partners in addition to itself.

Is that ‘more open’, as Mathew asks?

Who cares?

Is the NYT form of an open API helping them secure a future for the effects of journalism in the world?

If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then the degree of openness compared to others is totally irrelevant.