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July 1, 2011, 1 p.m.

Solving data overload with design: News Challenge winner iWitness aggregates media by time and place

Jesse James Garrett

If consumers struggle to keep up with breaking news and current events, it’s certainly not for lack of data. Jesse James Garrett thinks the problem with news is one of design.

“As the data sources become more and more massive, the role of user experience in shaping technology that helps people make sense of those data sources is a vital part of delivering on the mission of journalism,” Garrett said.

Though he went to journalism school, Garrett is a professional web designer. He is president of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based design firm he co-founded almost 10 years ago, and best known for coining the term AJAX to describe a new way of building websites.

Garrett’s first attempt to rescue journalism from bad design is iWitness, an aggregation tool that will mine Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for user-generated material unique to a particular time and place — the kind of tool that might prove particularly useful during political protests or natural disasters. iWitness is only an idea at this point, but now it’s funded by a two-year, $360,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge.

“Give us a time and a place and we’ll find everything, from the services that we’re able to support, that was posted by somebody who was there — in that place, at that time,” Garrett said. Centrality is one of iWitness’ key selling points. Nothing out there at the moment automatically pulls content from across social-service sites at the same time.

“The sites themselves don’t really provide easy mechanisms for sifting their data by location. They’re collecting all this data, but they don’t really present it to users in a way that makes it easy for them to work,” Garrett said. For all the petabytes of data out there, there’s even more metadata — data about the data — just waiting to be put in context.

So if you were able to follow the streams of photos and video and tweets coming out of Tahrir Square right now, for example, it would give you an immediate, and intimate, insight into the political upheaval in Egypt. “That right now is very difficult to do. It takes a lot of manual labor,” Garrett said. Even Andy Carvin sleeps.

Andy Carvin, of course, adds another layer — human-powered curation — to the mix, and that’s not what iWitness is for. It’s not Storify, Garrett said.

“I feel like Storify’s core strength is as a curation tool, to allow people to pull together and create a narrative from social media. What we’re doing is really raw aggregation,” he said. You could use iWitness to gather source material for a story, the way you might use Kayak as a starting point for planning a trip.

Garrett will distribute the code as open-source, not because the Knight Foundation requires it but because he thinks it’s the most effective way to win widespread adoption. He plans to build a working demo but leave it up to others to build public-facing websites. News organizations also could adopt and expand the software for internal use.

The project will borrow some of the programmers and designers at Adaptive Path and should get underway this fall. The involvement of a respected design firm, not a news organization, is interesting — and not a traditional choice for the News Challenge. iWitness will probably be beautiful. And that could be what gets people to use it.

POSTED     July 1, 2011, 1 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2011
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