Dispatchorama: a distributed approach to covering a distributed news event

We’ve had a sort of Hack Week at the Guardian, or “Discovery Week“. So, I took the opportunity to mess around with the n0tice API to test out some ideas about distributed reporting.

This is what it became (best if opened in a mobile web browser):


It’s a little web app that looks at your location and then helps you to quickly get to the scene of whatever nearby news events are happening right now.

The content is primarily coming from n0tice at the moment, but I’ve added some tweets with location data. I’ve looked at some geoRSS feeds, but I haven’t tackled that, yet. It should also include only things from the last 24 hours. Adding more feeds and tuning the timing will help it feel more ‘live’.

The concept here is another way of thinking about the impact of the binding effect of the digital and physical worlds. Being able to understand the signals coming out of networked media is increasingly important. By using the context that travels with bits of information to inform your physical reality you can be quicker to respond, more insightful about what’s going on and proactive in your participation, as a result.

I’m applying that idea to distributed news events here, things that might be happening in many places at once or a news event that is moving around.

In many ways, this little experiment is a response to the amazing effort of the Guardian’s Paul Lewis and several other brave reporters covering last year’s UK riots.

There were 2 surprises in doing this:

  1. The twitter location-based tweets are really all over the place and not helpful. You really have to narrow your source list to known twitter accounts to get anything good, but that kind of defeats the purpose.
  2. I haven’t done a ton of research, yet, but there seems to be a real lack of useful geoRSS feeds out there. What happened? Did the failure of RSS readers kill the geoRSS movement? What a shame. That needs to change.

The app uses the n0tice API, JQuery Mobile, and Google’s location APIs and a few snippets picked off StackOverflow. It’s on GitHub here:

No backlog

The backlog has lots of benefits in the software development process, but is it necessary?  Could there be more to gain by just trusting your crew will do the right thing at the right time?

It occurred to me while tracking Github commits on a project that I didn’t need to maintain a backlog or a burn down chart or any of those kinds of things anymore.

Everyone was watching each other’s commits, commenting on issues, and chatting when they needed to.  I could see what everyone had done the day before.

They were all in synch enough to collaborate on the output when it helped to collaborate or work independently when that was more effective.

What could I add? Remind them of all the things they haven’t done? That’s uninspiring for everyone involved.

How does everyone know what to work on next?

The devs know what’s important, and they know how to do their job efficiently…let them work it out. If they don’t know what’s important it will become obvious in their commits. Then you can just steer when the emphasis is wrong rather than mapping hours to tasks.

They may in fact want to maintain a list that works like a backlog.  But maybe that should be a personal productivity choice, not something that’s imposed by someone else.

What about all those things you want to do that aren’t getting done?

I’ve never had a feature that really mattered to me just fade from memory. In fact, having no backlog forces a sharper focus.

How do you know when things will get done?

Your devs will tell you, and they will be accurate if it’s a personal agreement between you rather than a number on a spreadsheet.  If you have a deadline that really matters, then just be clear about that.  That becomes framework within which to operate, a feature of the code.

What if the developer doesn’t understand the requirements?

Well, do you actually really need to spell out requirements? Aren’t your developers tasked with solving the need? Let them pitch a solution to a problem, agree on it, and then let them run with it.

Of course, I don’t know how well this approach would work in a team larger than maybe 8 people, or a large-scale project with multiple parallel streams to it.  And maybe the chaos does more harm than good over time.

Clearly, I’m exaggerating for effect a little here, but I wonder a lot about how far you could go with this approach and where it really breaks down.

I think a lot of folks want things like backlogs because one can establish a meaningful agreement and reduce tension between people who organize stuff and people who create stuff.  But it’s often used to protect one side from the faults of the other rather than join them up to create a stronger whole.

But all projects and teams are different.  And it can be very tricky working out what should be done, by whom and when.

I think what I’m suggesting is that rather than making decisions around time and resource where success is measured by how effectively activity maps to a plan, maybe the better way to lead a software project instead is to adjust decision making according to the appropriate abstraction level for the project.  That way you can value quality and creativity over precision of delivery.

For example, the resources required to build, say, a global transaction platform vs a web page are very different.  And your teams will not allow you to rank them together.  You have to zoom in or out to understand the impact of those two projects, and that will then affect how you allocate resources to make them each happen.

Once that discussion has been had and everyone has agreed on what they are supposed to be working on, make sure they have enough caffeinated beverages and get out of the way.

Keep an eye on their commits each day.  And drop the backlog.

It’s incredibly liberating.

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-Spall, Lisa 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.

The generosity strategy

I’ve wondered for a long time why WordPress doesn’t get the dotcom homage some of the other perhaps less interesting organizations are showered with.

There are many reasons to pay attention to them, but there’s one primary aspect of what they do that’s worth spending some time thinking about – what they give to the market in order to fuel a network that they benefit from in the end.

As Andy Weissman wrote about TED, sometimes giving away the core assets of your business is exactly what will create success for you.

“With the content, processes and brand more freely available, the community and the set of values can instead drive the business. And those are not as easily replicable.”

This attitude is what won them the war with their first rival in the blogging world, Movable Type.  It turns out that generosity is a very competitive strategy in a globally connected world.

Except it’s not my impression that was what they were intending the strategy to be used for. I think they used that strategy because it resonated with what type of company they wanted to have first and foremost.

It’s also true that ‘free’ can destroy established markets in order to create advantage for alternative models.  Bill Gurley has written before about how Google is intentionally using a scorched earth policy with Android, in particular, in order to build an unapproachable moat around their core business.

The WordPress approach has similar effects in the content management market, but they’ve built the core business itself on the open strategy.  They have made themselves dependent on the success of their customers.

I had the good fortune of inteviewing Matt Mullenweg on stage at The Guardian’s Activate Summit event last week where we spent most of our time talking about how the WordPress team operates. This is not a man chasing wealth for the sake of wealth, though wealth may in fact be chasing him. This is a person who understands the DNA of the Internet and knows intuitively how to craft a movement optimized to use the most powerful aspects of the network.

In case you’re unaware, WordPress is a publishing platform. They sell access to the WordPress tools, and they also give away the software.  The whole thing. They put it out there to download for free with an open license. They even make it super easy to install. No tricks. It’s genuine. They want you to use their software even if they don’t see a shred of direct value coming back to them as a result.

Their software is their core asset. Without it they have nothing. Why would they give it away?

What they are building is not your traditional enterprise software business. What they are building is at the very least a partner network if not something even bigger, something that looks more like a movement.

Looking at their business through the enterprise sofware lens is easy to do and certainly worth more consideration. They are leaving a lot of money on the table. They know this, and they’ve made impressive progress recapturing that lost opportunity with their VIP business.

But the founder’s philosophies lead the commercial strategy, not the other way around. WordPress wants to be a platform for free speech. Everything else comes after that.

As Matt said at Activate, “We are a neutral force. We participated in the SOPA blackout because we felt it posed a threat to our ability to stay that way.”

Operating the business strategy at that level creates a framework for all their decision-making.

They can open source their core assets because it strengthens the collective power of the WordPress toolset as a platform for free speech. In addition, it gives them a sensible model for working with developers who want to contribute code to the platform. They can operate with a small staff, prioritize product over profit, and play fast-follower to the break-neck pace of innovation that most of the rest of the top players in the business may be forced to play.

What’s the result of the generous nature of their business?

75M blogs, about half of which are hosted by them, and many of those pay them a monthly hosting fee. 341M monthly users across the network. 20,000 software plugins built by a huge network of developers working on the platform…many of whom make money being professional service providers and premium template designers for WordPress.

Now, they have a lot of powerful forces challenging their existence. Not least of which is the atomization of everything and challenges to the idea of blogs and even articles.

But by embracing a strategy of giving and a deep-seated commitment to enabling others to speak their minds on the global stage, WordPress has something more valuable than robust revenue streams. They have a network of customers who need them to succeed in the world.

That network of people is more valuable than any software or hardware distribution platform.