Journalist/developer. Interactive editor @frontlinepbs. Builder of @HomicideWatch. Sinophile for fun. Past: @WBUR, @NPR, @NewsHour.
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Airplanes and Spaceships

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Despite having now taken three months longer than the airplane people, we're making disappointingly little progress toward the obvious next stage of vehicle: The Unobtanium-hulled tunneling ship from the 2003 film 'The Core.'
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chrisamico
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alt_text_bot
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Despite having now taken three months longer than the airplane people, we're making disappointingly little progress toward the obvious next stage of vehicle: The Unobtanium-hulled tunneling ship from the 2003 film 'The Core.'
alt_text_at_your_service
2 days ago
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Despite having now taken three months longer than the airplane people, we're making disappointingly little progress toward the obvious next stage of vehicle: The Unobtanium-hulled tunneling ship from the 2003 film 'The Core.'

Scary maps: A warning

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By: Eric Gundersen

When you’re heading in the wrong direction, your map should tell you. I just landed home at SFO, sunrise was a thick haze with the smoke from the Camp Fire still burning up in Butte County. Today, maps are a giving us a warning. Showing not just where we are now, but the future we are heading toward. When we’re warned to the hazards on the road ahead, we have a chance to reroute in a different direction.

The air quality here is the worst in the world right now. Over breakfast, I convinced my boys that N95 masks were cool. I ordered them before I left, when the fires started. I’m lucky; the backlog on Amazon is now two weeks. Should have ordered them last year after the big fires in October but didn’t. This is starting to feel like a pattern.

Everyone is rubbing their eyes. The air is dry. Everything’s dry. California is as dry as it’s ever been this time of year. Up until last week, temperatures in the Bay Area were hitting the mid-70s every day. The forecast is finally calling for rain the day before Thanksgiving.

This data is dense. While hard to understand what, say, emissions data means, there’s something visceral about actually visualizing it. Or in the case of most of us in California today, just breathing and feeling it in our lungs.

2100 temperature map from Bread for the World, Buzzfeed News residential real estate flood maps, Mapbox fire map demo.

We have to stop this. We need to look at the data to understand how to solve this at the root. The UN says that our ability to substantially bring down emissions by 2030 will determine if an Alaska-sized area of Arctic permafrost will melt (read: a lot more carbon in the atmosphere) or stay frozen. Today atmospheric CO2 is at 407 parts per million. That’s up almost 30% from 1960 when it was 320 ppm. Atmospheric methane (CH4) — which dissipates much faster than CO2, over a decade or two, but in that time traps about 70x more heat — has a concentration of about 1850 parts per billion today. That’s up from 1650 ppb in 1985. What does that actually look like?

This map from Bread For The World is striking, visualizing 12TB data set of global temperature data for 1950, today, and 2100 — assuming we maintain this killer pace of inaction — for everywhere in the world, broken into a million different points. An average global temperature rise of 8.5°C (about 15°F) means it’ll be routinely hitting 122°F in Saudi Arabia, and 110°F in Texas by 2100. To be honest that feels low, but the map and data are quite dramatic.

It was amazing working this week with BuzzFeed, Zillow, and Climate Central to visualize sea level rise and flood risk for 385,000 US homes that will be in routine flood zones by 2050, about the time when today’s home buyers will just finish paying off their home mortgage. It’s shocking to consider the amount of building that’s still going on in the highest risk areas. Since 2009, New Jersey has added 2,700 new homes in high-risk areas, currently worth about $2.6 billion. We’ve also been playing with different styles and data layers on a fire map, to track all the blazes in California and elsewhere. It’s scary.

If we want to make progress, science, data, and truth have to matter. People have to care, and for that they have to understand. I’m hopeful that maps can be part of telling a story in a way that resonates, that by visualizing a future we don’t want, we can find our way to a safer one. Let’s keep building for something better.

Eric Gundersen


Scary maps: A warning was originally published in Points of interest on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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chrisamico
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Election coverage: the road not taken

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Originally published as a Twitter thread on election day, 2018.

There was a path the American press could have walked, but did not. This alternative way was illuminated as far back as 1992. Our political journalists declined it. And here we are. This post is that story.

One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that (and they can’t) it would not be much of a public service, would it? A very weird thing about horse race or “game” coverage is that it doesn’t answer to any identifiable need of the voter. Should I vote for the candidate with the best strategy for capturing my vote? Do I walk into the voting booth clutching a list of who’s ahead in the polls?

In 1992, the The Observer in Charlotte, NC teamed up with the Poynter Institute to pioneer a different way to cover elections. The idea was very simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform.

This came to be called the “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It revolves around the power of a single question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” From good answers to that everything else in the model flows.

A few things about that question, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Notice what it is not. It is not “who’s going to win?” It’s not “who are you going to vote for?” And it’s not “which party would do a better job at addressing…” For the whole purpose of the citizens agenda approach is to find an alternative to the horse race style in campaign coverage, which starts with “who’s gonna win?” What are the keys to winning? How close is the race? Which tactics seem to be working? What do the latest polls say?

The horse race style is the default pattern. It’s easy to criticize, and I have done that. A lot. But the default has some impressive strengths. It’s repeatable in every election, everywhere. It creates suspense and thus interest. It tells you where to put your resources (on the closest races.) 

Here’s how the alternative style — the citizens agenda in election coverage— works. First you need to know who your community is. If informing the public is the mission statement of every good journalist, then identifying the public you’re trying to inform is basic to the job. If you can identify the particular public you’re trying to inform — and you know how to reach those people — then you can ask them the question at the core of the citizens agenda approach. “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” 

The key is to pose this question in every possible form and forum. Interviews with reporters. Focus groups with researchers. Call and leave us a message. Email us. Tweet us. Text us. Fill out this form. Speak up at our event. Comment on our Facebook page. Talk to us! 

In addition to those inputs, the polling budget has to be redirected. Away from the horse race, toward the organizing principle in our revised approach, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” You can poll for that. But it’s not normal.

Put it all together, and the journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizens agenda. The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about. The citizens agenda, an exercise in high quality public listening, is both a published product (tested, designed, packaged properly for multiple platforms) and a template for covering the rest of the campaign. It tells you how to “win” at campaign coverage. Or stop losing.

But you have to get the list right. If you can spread out and properly canvas the community, ask good questions, listen well to the answers, transcend your limited starting points (your bias) and piece together an accurate and nuanced understanding, then you have something truly valuable.

The template has multiple purposes. It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets…) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters’ concerns. When a candidate comes to town and gives a speech, you map what is said against the citizens agenda. When your reporters interview the candidate, questions are drawn from the citizens agenda. If the candidate speaks to your editorial board, you know what to do.

But it goes beyond that. Synthesizing a citizens agenda at the beginning creates a mission statement for your campaign coverage later on. Now you know what you’re supposed to accomplish. Press the candidates to talk about what your readers and listeners want most to hear about. 

The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage (sorry for the dorky name) tells reporters, editors and producers how they’re doing. Here’s how. If you’ve done the work and your list is accurate, the candidates will have to start talking about the items on that agenda. That’s how you know it’s working. That’s how you know you’re winning. Now you can press them for better answers, and dig deep on things you know people care about. That’s pubic service!

This I can tell you. If reporters ask the people they’re trying to inform, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” no one is going to answer with, “You’re down five points in the latest polls. Realistically, can you recover?”

The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage was first tried at the Charlotte Observer in 1992. I wrote about that adventure in my book, What Are Journalists For? in 1999. I explained it again in 2010 at my blog. So it’s been out there. My own read is that it never took off because this is not what political reporters want to do. They want to hang with the pros. They want to pick apart the strategy. The best ones (and there are some very good ones) want to explain what the candidates are appealing to. In us.

Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post gave a grade of C-minus to the campaign press. “Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose,” she said. “With the president as their de facto assignment editor.”  And I agree with that. But here’s the kicker: You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform. 

A demonstrable public service, the citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power. That is the road not taken. Now I have to add that good reporters on the campaign trail spend a lot of time listening to voters. This happens. They ask about the issues on voters minds. But it’s pitched to who’s ahead and why. To which appeals are resonating.

For the sophisticated professionals who cover elections, the “citizens agenda in campaign coverage” sounds — let’s be honest — a little too earnest, a bit minor league. Civics class, as against drinks with the county chairman at the Des Moines Marriott. I know this. I get it.

Thing is, the only way up from the hole they’re in is to pitch their journalism at an electorate they understand better than the politicians who are leading it off a cliff. You don’t get there with a savvy analysis of who’s going to win this round. You have to represent.

The post Election coverage: the road not taken appeared first on PressThink.

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chrisamico
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Indirect Detection

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I'm like a prisoner in Plato's Cave, seeing only the shade you throw on the wall.
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chrisamico
9 days ago
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This is pretty much the social web in 2018.
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Covarr
9 days ago
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I had a friend a couple months ago ranting about how awful the pro-pedophilia movement was, and all I could think was "what pro-pedophilia movement?"
Moses Lake, WA
rraszews
9 days ago
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Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, has written a bunch of times before about the "Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition". Long story short, probably no one is burning kittens or hunting shelter animals for sport; claiming such (and in many cases, convincing yourself you believe it too) is a way to make yourself feel like a hero for opposing something evil (Without having to do much work, since you can't actually go out there and fight the kitten-burners as said burners do not exist), and get other people to sign on to support your side because otherwise they're siding with the kitten-burners.
corjen
9 days ago
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Sharing for the alt text.
Iowa
ireuben
9 days ago
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I totally thought this was going to be a “my hobby is...” post (or maybe that’s just what the friend is doing!).
alt_text_at_your_service
9 days ago
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I'm like a prisoner in Plato's Cave, seeing only the shade you throw on the wall.
alt_text_bot
9 days ago
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I'm like a prisoner in Plato's Cave, seeing only the shade you throw on the wall.

Less Wooden

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Chinese AI.pngRemember the old joke about the 1960s British Thunderbirds puppet TV series?  “The show’s good but the acting is kind of wooden?”  OK, so you probably didn’t.  Anyway, the joke was that the characters were played by puppets, so they were a little wooden… oh, never mind.

Fast forward to today, and Chinese news agency Xinhua has just unveiled a news anchor that’s – well, not a puppet, but certainly not human.  As Xinhua notes:

The news anchor, based on the latest AI technology, has a male image with a voice, facial expressions and actions of a real person. “He” learns from live broadcasting videos by himself and can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor.

The AI news anchor was jointly developed by Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run media outlet of China, and Chinese search engine company Sogou.com.

The new newsperson got a lot of coverage – here, here, and here for example, but the reviews haven’t been kind.  The BBC quoted an Oxford professor:

The presenter struggled to appear completely natural, said Michael Wooldridge at the University of Oxford.

It was stuck somewhat in the “uncanny valley” – a term used to describe human-like robots and avatars which seem subtly unrealistic.

“It’s quite difficult to watch for more than a few minutes. It’s very flat, very single-paced, it’s not got rhythm, pace or emphasis,” Prof Wooldridge told the BBC.

He also pointed out that human news presenters have traditionally – in many cases – become highly trusted public figures.

“If you’re just looking at animation you’ve completely lost that connection to an anchor,” he added.

And India’s Scroll piled on:

Although the virtual anchor’s features are based on a real-life Xinhua host, Zhang Zhao, his voice remains robotic and detached.

But in some ways, everyone is asking the wrong question.  Xinhua is suggesting the technology can be used to reduce costs – and it probably can.  Everyone else is talking about how it compares to a real human – and it’s honestly pretty wooden.  But isn’t the real question what it can enable news organizations to do differently?

So, sure a human being is more emotive and makes better human connections with other humans.  Duh.  But a human being can’t give hundreds of thousands of individuals a personalized newscast, or provide one on demand with the latest stories.  Think of how Alexa and other personal digital assistants already manage to provide voice-activated spoken news bulletins, and expand that idea to video news.  Imagine if you could have a dialogue with that virtual news anchor instead of simply passively watching the show.

So, yes, this particular avatar is pretty wooden (although the visuals are pretty damn good) and is unlikely to displace a human being anytime soon.  But the failure here isn’t in the quality of our technology – it’s in our imagination to come up with ways that it can benefit our mission, and more importantly, how it can help the public and the people we serve.



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chrisamico
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The shrinking Globe pursues funding alternatives for accountability journalism

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For local and regional news organizations, nothing is more expensive — or more important — than investigative journalism aimed at holding government and other large institutions to account. Despite the economic challenges that continue to shrink the newspaper business, The Boston Globe continues to provide a steady stream of such stories. And over the past few days, the paper demonstrated the results of two innovative ways to fund such reporting.

First, on Saturday, the Globe published a major update on how Catholic bishops have failed in their response to the sexual-abuse crisis. The story, which appeared in print on Sunday, was reported and written by a team of journalists from the Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, with funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The institute, a nonprofit organization, owns the Inquirer and two sister media properties, the result of a gift from the late Gerry Lenfest in 2016. (I wrote about Lenfest’s legacy for the Globe after his death in August.) Here is how the Globe describes the partnership:

Boston and Philadelphia have been ground zero for the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal — both cities have endured years of church investigations, allegations, prosecutions, and lasting scars. Now, amid a rising tide of revelations about misconduct by US bishops, the Inquirer and Globe pooled their resources for a deeper look at the crisis. Reporters from the two newsrooms visited nine states, conducted scores of interviews, and reviewed thousands of pages of court and church records to produce this report. Funding for the effort came from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Then, today, the Globe published a story by Jana Winter on attempts by hackers to penetrate voting systems across the United States. Fortunately, her reporting shows that officials are well aware of those attempts and that they appear to be on top of it. Equally interesting, though, is that Winter is the Globe’s Spotlight Fellow — a program funded by Participant Media, which produced the movie “Spotlight.” The fellowship, according to the online description, provides “awards up to $100,000 for one or more individuals or teams of journalists to work on in-depth research and reporting projects.”

As if to underscore the need for alternative funding for accountability journalism, the Globe unveiled a shrunken business section on Sunday, moving innovation columnist Scott Kirsner to Monday.

Kirsner’s column was usually the main event in the Sunday business section. Given that it will continue, this isn’t too much of a loss. But it does show that the Globe’s finances remain precarious, as publisher John Henry admitted when I interviewed him during the summer for WGBH News:

The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that. This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.

In such an economic environment, it’s essential that the Globe find new ways to pay for what really matters.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

 



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chrisamico
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