Enter the Rift: Taking journalism to VR

As I write, my voice is hoarse from three days showing Harvest of Change — a Des Moines Register/Gannett Digital series that used the Oculus Rift and 360-degree video — to hundreds of journalists at the Online News Association conference in Chicago.

The demos capped a two-week sprint that included a media day in New York City, publishing five versions of the software and then catching some media buzz, which alternately praised and scoffed at the effort. Such whirlwinds are fleeting, but highlights are milestones. So, while it’s fresh, here’s a recap.

First, a scene from the Midway at ONA:

That’s Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, trying out the project. We set up three Oculus workstations, and for three days the chairs were rarely empty. On the last day, as we packed up, we figured between 400 and 500 people had tried it.

Most people came out of curiosity, or with skepticism, but left impressed. Some were compelled by Amy Webb, who said in a Saturday ONA session that our experience was a must-see. Apparently, we even made the unofficial ONA bingo card.

The story behind this story

The project came together over the summer. When I wasn’t coding backend data for an election forecast, I was heading a small team visiting the dusty back roads of Iowa, both in person and in the Oculus headset. Lots has been written about the Oculus Rift, especially since its acquisition for $2 billion by Facebook, but the focus so far has been on gaming. But after journalism innovation professor Dan Pacheco of Syracuse University introduced us to the Rift, Gannett Digital decided to build its first VR explanatory journalism project. Continue…

csvkit: A Swiss Army Knife for Comma-Delimited Files

If you’ve ever stared into the abyss of a big, uncooperative comma-delimited text file, it won’t take long to appreciate the value and potential of csvkit.

csvkit is a Python-based Swiss Army knife of utilities for dealing with, as its documentation says, “the king of tabular file formats.” It lets you examine, fix, slice, transform and otherwise master text-based data files (and not only the comma-delimited variety, as its name implies, but tab-delimited and fixed-width as well). Christopher Groskopf, lead developer on the Knight News Challenge-winning Panda project and recently a member of the Chicago Tribune’s news apps team, is the primary coder and architect, but the code’s hosted on Github and has a growing list of contributors.

As of version 0.3.0, csvkit comprises 11 utilities. The documentation describes them well, so rather than rehash it, here are highlights of three of the utilities I found interesting during a recent test drive:
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Free Software and APIs: NICAR 2011 slides

I had the privilege this week of speaking on two panels at the 2011 Investigative Reporters and Editors Computer-Assisted Reporting* conference in Raleigh, N.C. Here are the slides my co-presenters and I put together:

— “Free Software: From Spreadsheets to GIS” with Jacob Fenton of the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Here is part 1, and here’s part 2.

“APIs: Making the Web a Data Medium” with Derek Willis of The New York Times.

* Those of us with a few miles on the tires remember that the conference used to go by the name NICAR — for National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. People still call it that.

Test Drive: Freebase Gridworks 1.1

Update, 11/10/2010: Since I originally reviewed Freebase Gridworks, it has been acquired by Google. It’s now called Google Refine, and version 2.0 has been released. Original post follows:

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Data journalists spend lots of time wrestling dirty data, so when I heard the News Applications team at the Chicago Tribune raving about the data-handling abilities of Freebase Gridworks, my interest was piqued. Anything that can lessen the pain of cleaning data is worth a closer look!

Freebase Gridworks is a Java-based app that runs locally in your web browser. The makers’ pitch describes it best:

… A power tool that allows you to load data, understand it, clean it up, reconcile it internally, augment it with data coming from Freebase, and optionally contribute your data to Freebase for others to use. All in the comfort and privacy of your own computer.

Installation is simple. I chose to load Gridworks on my Windows XP-based work laptop, although you can download Mac and Linux versions from the code page. I was up and running in about five minutes, which included loading a new version of Java. Once running, the opening screen looks like so (click for larger version):

You can open an existing project or create a new one by importing a data file — and Gridworks hints at its utility by providing options to parse delimited or non-delimited files, limit the import to specific rows, etc. For testing, I grabbed the Academic Libraries: 2008 Public Use Data file from the National Center for Education Statistics — a tab-delimited text file of about 4,100 rows.
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The danger of thinking like it’s 1985

For a devout music fan weaned on what’s now called classic rock, the ’80s were miserable. Sure, we had U2 — they alone helped ease the pain of hair metal and synthpop. But from an audiophile’s perspective, for someone who thinks sound is as important as structure, the era made for painful listening.

Why? Because most music recorded in the ’80s — for all its supposed ambition and technical innovation — sounds more dated, more processed and more fake today than the music of the ’60s and ’70s, including disco. Line up Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon next to anything by Duran Duran or Human League and the point is made.

What hurt ’80s music most was the rush to digital sounds. Musicians grabbed every gizmo they could find — synthesizers, drum machines, vocal effects, digital guitar processors — and abandoned their lovely analog gear. When Phil Collins’ engineer figured out how to use a noise gate to make his drums sound as big as a 747, everyone copied. Songs now revolved not around good lyrics or melodies but the sounds of these machines. It all had a big wow factor, but it lacked one important quality:

None of it was timeless.

Oh, people thought it was. That’s what it feels like in the midst of every movement. “This will last forever.” Well …

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