When the technology/editorial walls come down magic happens

The Guardian’s home-brewed analytics platform called Ophan featured on Journalism.co.uk this week. It’s well worth the read if you are a publisher.

While the detail on what it does is useful to understand, the conditions that made it possible to create such a thing are also important.

There is often an uncomfortable gap between the technology teams and the editorial teams at news organizations. That cultural mismatch often gets expressed through the tools used internally at those organizations.

Editors hate the pace of change for the small things that they need like approval buttons and copy&paste features, things that will make them more effective in their jobs. Equally, developers hate the lack of understanding of the things they are trying to accomplish, things that could solve much bigger challenges for the entire company.

It can be two sides of the same coin that just can’t see each other.

Magic is possible, though, when developers listen well and bend the path to fulfilling their vision in order to accommodate realworld tactical needs of the editors.

That’s what happened when Graham Tackley was given the freedom to create his realtime analytics platform at the Guardian alongside Chris Moran. Graham had ideas about some new tools that would give editors insights on what’s happening on the web site in realtime. And Chris had experimented with Yahoo! Pipes in Hack Days to look at referral traffic in a different kind of dashboard format.

The project was initially about technology. But it adopted bigger ambitions as it started answering questions for them. Chris told me, “We realised how useful it would be to others and started listening to more editors around the building. They had interesting questions, too.”

The project was explicitly endorsed by the CEO Andrew Miller, the Chief Digital Officer Tanya Cordrey and Graham’s manager Shanon Maher. They all knew the project mattered and needed to be handled differently. Creating that space for Ophan to happen was a brilliant investment – it didn’t cost much and it wasn’t hard to do.

Of course, Graham’s time was in high demand, and the effort required to evolve Ophan would have to come from somewhere. So he was careful not to spread himself too thin and applied his time wisely in order to progress it without failing the day-to-day needs of his colleagues.

Similarly, getting it adopted internally would require time and patience. Chris worked closely with Graham and fellow architect Phil Wills to shape it into something that could be demo’d in meetings, bringing on one editor at a time and eventually informing the daily publishing process.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen in the end. Ophan became business critical at the Guardian. You can see why in the Journalism.co.uk article.

Ophan tells editors the stories they need to hear about what’s happening on the site in language that is relevant to their jobs in ways that are enjoyable to use.

The Guardian editors don’t have to think about how Ophan works. It just does. And it makes them better at their jobs.

The lesson here is more about attitude than technology. Graham says straddling the technology/editorial divide helps him to write better code. “When I work this way I have a much better understanding of what’s important and what is not.”

Yes, Graham is clever, but he did something unusual with his talent. Rather then solve a hard problem for the sake of solving problems, he listened.

“We never planned to create our own real time analytics system. But we just kept talking to people and implementing the next thing that would make a difference. And here we are today.”