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June 20, 2012, 2:55 p.m.
Reporting & Production

From social-media soap operas to magic orbs: 22 future-of-news hacks you’ve never seen before

At this year’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, two back-to-back presentations wowed us with new ideas.

Imagine a news article presented in the form of Choose Your Own Adventure. Or a virtual soap opera powered by the life events of your Facebook news feed. Or a widget that lets you edit the home page of any major news site. These are ideas that reimagine the future of news and information.

At this year’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, two back-to-back presentations showed me more ideas in 10 minutes than I’ve covered in a year. Dan Schultz, a recent MIT Media Lab grad, and Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, presented ideas ranging from real to fanciful. (Schultz managed to get through 18 in 4.5 minutes.) To watch the presentations, skip to about 1:07:10 in the video above.

The Knight Foundation awarded grants to more thought-out projects that will unfold over the course of 18 months. Here’s a look at some decidedly less developed projects, roughly categorized by their status. (I give credit to the inventors wherever possible; if I missed anyone, say so in the comments.)

Working code! (Still beta, might break)

NewsQuest lets you plug in the URL of a news article and then scans the web for multiple articles about the same topic. The interface presents only the first paragraph and then two questions about what the user wants to learn more about. Then another paragraph, then two more questions. Think of it as “News Your Own Adventure.” (Schultz, Laurian Gridinoc, Chris Droukas, Erhardt Graeff)

Condition of Anonymity presents an almost poetic look at the reasons The New York Times grants anonymity to sources. The app scans articles for that seemingly ubiquitous phrase, “on condition of anonymity,” and grabs the text that immediately follows. So the list reads like this:

  • for fear of affecting his current practice.
  • for fear of reprisals.
  • for rear of retaliation by the institute.
  • for no apparent reason.

You can click any word to see how frequently it appears in articles.

NewsDiffs tracks the evolution of web stories and highlights the differences over time. The app tracks articles from The New York Times, CNN, and Politico and downloads a new copy whenever a change is made — whether it’s a minor copy fix, a deletion, or a major reframing of the article. The inspiration for NewsDiffs came, in part, from an October 2011 New York Times story about the Occupy protests, in which the lead was recast in a way that appeared to shift blame from the cops to the protestors. —Eric Price, Jennifer 8. Lee, Greg Price.

Surfbored screen shot

Surfbored is like television programmed by your friends. It grabs YouTube videos shared by your Twitter connections and plays them full-screen. Bored? Click to skip to the next video, Pandora-style, or choose to get something completely random. To paraphrase my stepdad: People don’t want to know what’s on TV, they want to know what else is on. —Brian Boyer, Kara Oehler, Mark Boas, James Burns, Corey Ford, Jesse Shapins

Outside Mappers Guild overlays Instagram photos on a map and allows you to categorize them by topic. You can create image-based datasets to tell local stories. For example, a news organization might map abandoned houses in a neighborhood hit hard by foreclosure. —Jessica Lord, Max Ogden

NewsJack is a browser tool that lets you “hijack the front page of any news website in the world using Mozilla’s Hackasaurus. You can just point, click, change a headline and publish to share across the social web.” —Schultz, Sasha Costanza-Chock

Projects with code written, probably happening

ThoughtBox is like Twitter, but you follow only yourself. “You contribute thoughts and observations, which are immediately hidden from sight. They are then sent back to you over hours, days, and years.” —Schultz

Meta Meta Project is an API of APIs in a friendly, web-based interfaced. “Developers won’t need to be domain experts to do things like recognize names in text or identify words in photographs or videos.” —Schultz

ATTN-SPAN “watches C-SPAN because you don’t. It weeds out the signal from the noise to find clips that are relevant to you. It then automatically embeds those clips into related news articles while you’re reading.” —Schultz

“What happens when every surface has the ability to display information? Wall Paper tracks proximity to only display content where it is wanted. The screens know where you are standing, and you can navigate information by walking around.” —Schultz

GPF (Globally Personalized Forum) is a “community hub that allows content to appear in more than one place. Users get the benefits of shared identity and privacy without being cut off from the rest of the world.” —Schultz

Truth Goggles is an automated B.S. detector for the Internet, which I first covered here last year. “It highlights fact-checked phrases inline and guides you through the process of thinking about them more carefully. It’s not telling you what to think but reminding you when it’s most important to think.” —Schultz

Concepts or products that exist but would need to be hacked

Grace Woo’s invisible QR codes could be embedded in video. “QR TV uses this to create information and experiences around specific moments. Clip sharing and extra layers of content suddenly become simple,” Schultz said.

Droplet demo

Droplet is a “tangible interface” designed by MIT’s Robert Hemsley. It’s a copper orb that stores data and interfaces; place it on a touch screen to reveal all of the information inside. Schultz said he would like newspapers to experiment with this technology.

“Ambient displays take large datasets and summarize them in the corner of your eye,” Schultz said. “Ambiartist is a toolset to make it easy to create and display digital artwork that reflects what’s going on in cyberspace.”

Doable things that are just ideas now

“Siri and Wolfram Alpha have shown that specialized questions can create really compelling user experiences,” Schultz said. Poliri would tap into government datasets to let users ask questions about civic matters. For example: “Poliri, where does my senator stand on health care reform?” —Schultz

TierRaid is a community-edited ranking of news organizations, fashioned after competitive gaming. “What are the Tier 1 newspapers? What makes them different from Tier 2 newspapers? Experts weigh in, and novices learn.” —Schultz

JESS3's visualization of new global top-level domains

TLD® visualizes the landscape of new top-level domains (.lol, .radio, .boston) to show us which corporations own the Internet. —Schultz

Media Empire is a real-time strategy game that teaches you how to manage resources. In this game, you earn different resources by consuming specific types of information in the real world. —Schultz

Carstagram is a hands-free, car-mounted camera that takes pictures of what’s happening on the road and uploads them to Google Street View. Just point and shout. —Schultz

Distributary is a directory of Twitter lists about every imaginable topic. Users can rate and share the lists. “It breaks apart the social river into smaller, curated, streams.” —Schultz

Never gonna happen

SocOpera is the days of our lives. “Facebook has trained us all to get updates about our friends through text, but we know that video and animation can be really compelling. So with SocOpera you can take from your network a cast of characters wait a week and watch an episode unfold before your eyes.” —Schultz

POSTED     June 20, 2012, 2:55 p.m.
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