On news, social media and responsibility

The Guardian this morning is published under a new editor. Katharine Viner takes over from Alan Rusbridger, and she takes charge of an institution which is very different from the one Rusbridger inherited from Peter Preston in 1995.

Rusbridger yesterday published a farewell to his readers: now no longer just readers, but also both members and contributors to the conversations which The Guardian facilitates. In the internet age, some papers instituted paywalls: Rusbridger cites Murdoch’s Times, which claims around 280,000 daily readers. The Guardian took the opposite stance, opening up its content to an international readership. It is now the second most widely read online Enlish-language news “paper” worldwide: around seven million people read it online. For myself, I still subscribe to the paper edition: but the smartphone app has taken over from the website as my preferred means of access when, as recently, I am overseas. Even the BBC is not so accessible from abroad.

But the point of this post is to encourage you to read Rusbridger’s farewell in its entirety (and it’s quite long). It contains thoughtful, stimulating analysis of issues such as the place of the social web in interactive journalism – bringing forth a new role, combining journalism with the skill of forum moderation. There’s the continuing role of ethical reporting in holding people to account (including, as seen recently, its own industry peers). Illustrating the trend to online, there’s a comment that the new presses, bought when the paper changed format, were “likely to be the last we ever bought”.

He recalls The Guardian‘s first website, which “didn’t fall into the trap of simply replicating online what we did in print”; in my own career I led my company’s strategy towards the Internet and the emergent World-Wide Web, and I recognise these issues. In due course the paper has developed its interactive model, opening up for response and comment from its online readership as an important part of continuous publishing.

Wikileaks, the phone hacking scandals, Edward Snowden and more; recognition, through the Pulitzer Prize; and successes such as the curtailment of News Corporation’s monopolistic ambtions and, more recently, that the US “phone dragnet hat had secretly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day since October 2001” has been shut down. Interesting sideline: the link to this in Rusbridger’s article is null, and I couldn’t find a recent news article but, in the interactive Comment is Free section, there’s a discussion from the American Civil Liberties Union dating from April 2014.

I’ve scratched the surface. For those of us looking at the ethics as well as the potential of information creation and sharing – and we are all publishers now – Rusbridger’s farewell should be required reading.

• ‘Farewell, readers’: Alan Rusbridger on leaving the Guardian after two decades at the helm, The Guardian, 29 May 2015
• Obama is cancelling the NSA dragnet. So why did all three branches sign off? Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union, in Comment is Free, The Guardian, 25 March 2014
• other references in the articles

Persistent data; non-existent object

We’ve just returned from a short trip overseas. Mostly holiday, and re-making some old acquaintanceships, but at the event which was the trigger for the visit one of those acquaintances mentioned the persistence of an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

It seems that, some years ago, our friend was writing a textbook (his field is astrophysics) with a publisher’s contract, deadlines and so on when he was pre-empted by a couple of other authors. Realising there would be no benefit in continuing (no personal pride there!) he agreed with his publisher to abort the project and the volume was never completed, let alone published.

However, an ISBN had been obtained for the putative title. And it proved impossible to get the issue of this ISBN rescinded. So out there, it appears, there is an ISBN for a book which does not exist, has never existed, and never will exist.

I should note that the obvious easy searches have not turned up the rogue volume; but what price the persistence of data?

Nepal: an IT response

As well as the straightforward humanitarian agencies involved in relief following the now twin earthquakes in Nepal, this morning’s inbox alerted me to another important effort.

I’ve used Mapbox, in tandem with Google Maps, to provide the venues map for the Brighton Early Music Festival. Google Maps got a lot more complex at the last upgrade, and the development interface even for a simple published map is not so easy or friendly. Mapbox can import output from a Google map (which was my starter) and creates, to my mind, a simpler and clearer map with a more useful marker capability: the flags on the map can be numbered or lettered at will (where Google’s can only be in a simple sequence), to link to a list published alongside. With this map linked to a stand-alone Google map which provides the usual directions, search nearby and so on, I think our concert-goers have the best of both worlds.

Mapbox, or Open Street Map, is an open source project. Today’s email flagged up its role in providing fast-response mapping for disasters such as Nepal. The email tells me:

Within just hours of the earthquake in Nepal the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) rallied the OpenStreetMap community. Over 2,000 mappers quadrupled road mileage and added 30% more buildings. We designed print maps to aid post-earthquake relief efforts, chronicled satellite imagery collection over the area, and used Turf.js to identify the hardest-hit buildings and roads.

This is the strength of Open Source as a community effort. It can mobilise people for this kind of task on a scale that a commercial organisation cannot. You don’t have to be in Nepal; the work is to digitise satellite imagery, and the Nepal project wiki can get anyone established in the team.

Oh, and of course the resources (particularly servers and software) come under strain. So if you are not minded to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee or one of its agencies, perhaps you can contribute time or a donation to support OSM’s Humanitarian OSM Team in this work.

• 2015 Nepal Earthquake page from the Open Street Map wiki
• BREMF venues (Mapbox embedded map, with link to Google) for Brighton Early Music Festival
• Mapbox and OpenStreetMap
Why I hate the new Google Maps, ITasITis, 17 Apr 2014

Post election blues

I learned one IT thing during the campaign by participating in a “Thunderclap” – a coordinated social media shot on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, sent by party members at 7 pm on the night before the election. At that time, we’d just finally got our broadband up and running following a move.

Thunderclap invite you to think of a Thunderclap as an “online flash mob”. It’s a coordinating app which requests permission to access your social account (choose just one of the three) and then sends the message on behalf of all the subscribers at the specified time. It’s not necessarily a standard message; you’re offered a starter, but can customise.

This particular Thunderclap exceeded its subscription target many-fold. Sadly it didn’t swing the day …

Thunderclap is at thunderclap.it/