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Postcard from Doha: At Al Jazeera English, interactive journalism built on collaboration

A visit to Al Jazeera reveals an oasis of hacker-journalists in the Middle East.

Doha sunset

Editor’s Note: Nikki Usher and Seth C. Lewis are academic researchers studying the intersection of journalists and technologists, or “hacks and hackers.” The latest part of their work included Usher’s two-week visit to Doha, Qatar, in June to study how this phenomenon is playing out at Al Jazeera English.

DOHA, Qatar — Mohammed el-Haddad knows there is a larger dialogue in the United States and the U.K. about data journalism, hacker journalism, or whatever the term may be. He knows it’s an emerging career track in newsrooms.

Al Jazeera English — despite its vast array of interactive graphics and webpages featuring deep exploration of Syria, Iran, and the like — has only one bona fide, title-in-name interactive journalist on staff, and that’s el-Haddad. But the collaboration I saw among AJE staff to produce interactives suggests Claire Miller is dead on to suggest you don’t have to expend a lot of resources to do good work.

Still, it kind of blew my mind when I visited the newsroom recently to see so few people specifically devoted to interactives. This was Al Jazeera English. An original host of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, now OpenNews. Home of Creative Commons-licensed news and a Drupal-powered content-management system. An organization committed to the idea of applying open source in the newsroom. But AJE’s approach to hacker journalism is one that other newsrooms, perhaps thinly staffed in this area, might follow.

Editorial and technical collaboration

At Al Jazeera English, web journalists sheltered from the 115-degree heat worked in a collaborative environment. Journalists combined good communication and some unknowing experimentation as a workaround to having the kind of large teams we’ve seen heralded by the likes of NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times.

Take, for instance, the three-day stretch where I saw journalist Sam Bollier and el-Haddad put together a fairly complicated Eurozone explainer. If you click on the interactive, you’ll see a number of layers: a map, some information about each country, graphs, background graphics, size of debt relative to country size.

Editors wanted a Eurozone graphic. Both Bollier and el-Haddad thought it would add to the story, and any future stories. Bollier, more of a straight-up journalist, took the initiative to begin playing with Google Fusion Tables to make graphs of country’s debt. He admitted they looked pretty gnarly, and there were things he didn’t know how to fix.

But there he was, playing around with Google Fusion Tables, simply because the time seemed right. El-Haddad was able to sweep in and help fix it, and Bollier kept supplying el-Haddad with additional editorial content. While el-Haddad wasn’t doing the reporting himself, the two worked hand-in-hand, editorial and technical, to produce the graphic.

“We use Google Docs all the time, so it wasn’t that hard to use Google Fusion. It’s kind of like Excel,” Bollier said. And then he struggled with some date formats, and called el-Haddad over to help him figure out the formatting — which he was then able to start fixing himself.

There were other instances. Take a look at some of these graphics that you might assume a big team might have built — or that you’d think require tons of upkeep, research, effort, and the like.

See this: Interactive: Timeline of Syria Unrest. In this case, Basma Atassi worked again using Fusion Tables. She explained the process: “I had my vision. Haddad tells me what is technically possible…It is possible that it will take time. So at first I put together a Word document and [drew it out.]“

Atassi was responsible for keeping up the timeline with the latest events as they unfolded. She helped choose pictures for the timeline and provide content. Haddad, a mild-mannered guy, again rose to her compliments.

“I am not doing this blindly. I feel like it really helps to have a journalist who is [working with you].” Then she added, “I don’t know what you call his job…but you can connect content and technology.”

Secret stores of knowledge

And then were those in the newsroom who were hacker-journalists, as we might call them. Online producers Ben Piven and Gregg Carlstrom both know how to program. Often that takes a back seat to what they do on a daily basis; for Piven, that’s a lot of building and maintaining key landing pages, and for Gregg, that’s writing about Egypt or other hotspots.

For Piven and Carlstrom to embark on an interactive, it goes above and beyond what they’re generally doing at the time, but they already speak the languages of journalism and programming. They do impressive stuff when they have the chance: Piven, for instance, built an interactive using Google Maps to chart Iran’s nuclear sites — a standalone story that created its own hotbed of controversy, given the subject.

Al Jazeera English gets some extra help from some outsourcing, with assistance from talented programmers in Pakistan and the U.K., and community and support from Visual.ly and Information is Beautiful. And of course there’s Mark Boas, the Knight-Mozilla fellow working remotely from Italy.

He has been working on an ongoing problem of the contextual video player: how to make video “searchable” by annotating it with text and rich metadata. This is one of his first projects.

Boas says he’s found Al Jazeera quite open to his ideas. “If you’re a technologist, you can bring in some real changes. That’s really exciting for me as a developer,” he says.

What can newsrooms do who can’t find hacker journalists?

  • Play around with simple tools. Take the step to use free and available visualization tools. Between a text journalist and a graphics editor, chances are you might be able to figure something out.
  • Know that not everything requires serious coding. Not everything needs to be built from scratch (a Prezi, for example). Or rely on existing tools, like the many timeline builders on the web.
  • Look inside your newsroom for expertise that you may not know even exists. Maybe there is someone who has programmed for fun and could pick up a new language, or play around if freed from ordinary duties for a brief time.
  • Go outside the newsroom. Look online for help. Or look to your community. For Al Jazeera, it has meant outsourcing, but check to see if there are local computer scientists, at colleges or universities, who might be convinced to help out on an ad-hoc basis.

Photo of palm trees in Doha by Sam Agnew used under a Creative Commons license

                                   
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