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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007  issue

The Mashup Man   

An online innovator uses an ingenious fusion of imagery and databases to present information in exciting new ways.


By Raechal Leone
Raechal Leone (rleone@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Adrian Holovaty with his dimples, his short, brown hair and his affinity for polo shirts doesn't look like a rock star. There's no physical resemblance to Mick Jagger, Ozzy Osbourne or Kid Rock, but the 25-year-old Chicago area native has the same kind of exalted status in the computer geek world of mashups, those places on the Web where databases and computer graphics are "mashed" together in innovative, sophisticated and userfriendly ways.

Holovaty became a celebrity among online journalists last year for his work fusing colorful maps with crime statistics for the Web site Chicagocrime.org. The award-winning site, which is widely accepted as one of the first mashups on the Web, allows users to track crimes reported to the Chicago Police Department on a Google map of the city.

More recently, he was one of two people who developed the U.S. Congress Votes Database at Washingtonpost. Newsweek Interactive, where he is editor of editorial innovations. Readers can use the database to sort congressional votes as far back as 1991 by a number of categories, including state, party affiliation and even astrological sign. Both projects, like most of Holovaty's, require little maintenance. They're engineered to update themselves by "scraping" the most recent information from other Web sites.

Holovaty is "creative and stunningly smart, almost to a scary degree," says Dan Cox, director of new media for the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kansas, where Holovaty worked immediately before taking his current job. Rob Curley, who once supervised Holovaty in Lawrence and now works at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, adds: "He's got this amazing foresight for what the future of journalism might be." The judges who awarded Holovaty the 2005 Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism for Chicagocrime.org agreed. "It's a knockout for one journalist to see all the pieces and put them together," they wrote.

Holovaty is quick to say that he's not doing anything akin to rocket science; it's just that very few of the people who know how to do what he does are in journalism. They tend to be in the computer industry, working on Internet search engines or e-commerce sites, or even in the music industry, where the concept of "mashing" data (music and vocals from multiple songs) originated. People with Web development expertise aren't usually drawn to news, Holovaty says, because they don't think it's a technologically savvy field.

It's certainly not, agrees David Berlind, executive editor of CNET, an Internet-based media company. Many media outlets are focused on converting their product to the Web instead of developing new and innovative features (see "Adapt or Die," June/July 2006). "I would say today that most media properties are still very, very far behind the Internet in general," he says.

Businesses that latch onto new technologies quickly tend to be the most successful, Berlind says. Despite that, there were no traditional journalists among the approximately 800 people who participated in a training session and two "unconferences" he held this year for those who want to learn more about mashups. "We've only had media people interested in reporting on it," Berlind says.

Holovaty says the leaders of news organizations tend to be afraid of change, or that, quite frankly, they're too old to understand the Internet. "There need to be people at the top who either get the Internet or who don't get the Internet and know they don't get it and delegate it to someone who does," he says.

Holovaty's former supervisor and current colleague, Rob Curley, says he sees signs of progress. He remembers when he was working at the award-winning site of the Journal-World, new-media people from other papers would visit to watch and learn from the staff. But, he says, there was a shift about six months ago. At the time Curley was at the Naples Daily News in Florida, and instead of visits from new-media people, there were editors and publishers coming through to see how things were done. They came from the same newspapers that had sent people to Lawrence and other papers, usually arranging their visits through Curley. "I don't know if they're doing more," Curley says, "but they're certainly looking for the answers."

Another in the cautiously optimistic camp is Rex Sorgatz, who works in research and development at msnbc.com. He says there are plenty of people in the media who know at least a little about programming. Sorgatz has been on panels with Holovaty at several conferences, and he says "there's always this moment where someone says [to Holovaty] 'How do I find people like you to work at my company?' I usually say, 'You probably have someone like this at your news organization, but you're not empowering them to do innovative work.'"

Holovaty's background is a blend of computer programming and journalism. At his suburban high school outside Chicago, he served as editor of his school newspaper and learned programming by tinkering. He spent his college years at the University of Missouri working on the Web site for the Maneater, an independent student newspaper, and taking journalism and computer science courses. Post-college, Holovaty worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then the Journal-World, where Washingtonpost. Newsweek Interactive found him in September 2005.

He explained his affinity for Internet journalism as he gave the commencement speech at his alma mater last spring, less than five years after walking across the stage himself. "That's what keeps me going, personally: the challenge of coming up with the best ways of presenting news and information in this new world where the products the industry has been producing for the past several decades are no longer in as much demand," he told the crowd. "The challenge of writing the rules, coming up with best practices. That challenge is monumental but, man, it's fun."

Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, says Holovaty is a modest man who truly loves his job. "He's doing this for all the right reasons. He believes in it." Holovaty refers to his work as "geeky" and says he built the Chicagocrime.org mashup "purely for the technical challenge." He did it in about 40 hours on nights and weekends while working at the Journal-World. He also produced Django, software that allows users to create databases or Web sites quickly, and Ellington, a publishing system designed for people building news and entertainment Web sites.

Even when he's at home in Chicago, where he lives with his wife of four years, Holovaty says he is often at the computer. He chooses to live in his hometown because of "the people, the architecture and the attitude. The city is filled with these amazing technical feats." He splits his working hours between home and an office with two other people in the Post's Chicago bureau. Every Tuesday night, Holovaty leaves the computer long enough to play guitar with some guys involved in Chicago's gypsy jazz scene. He's such a fan that he named Django after Django Reinhardt, who is considered one of the genre's greats, and Ellington after jazz legend Duke Ellington. If he didn't have to worry about little things like food or rent, Holovaty jokes, he would play music full time.

As it is, Holovaty is staying busy as a journalist. His work for Washingtopost.Newsweek Interactive includes searchable databases of the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay and of the men and women killed in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also spearheaded the launch of a new Web site, Post Remix, meant to "spotlight the work of outside Web developers who have made cool and interesting projects ('mashups') using Post content," the site says. Readers have already contributed news quizzes and a mashup that pairs a world map with headlines from many countries. Holovaty maintains a blog on the site.

The work is just what Brady says he was hoping for when he hired Holovaty. Much of it, he says, is produced in the same way a reporter turns around a story: The journalist collects data, synthesizes it and converts it to an understandable format to give readers a deeper understanding. "To me, it's absolutely journalism," Brady says. Holovaty tends to agree, but he says that defining mashups as journalism is not important to him. "At the end of the day, who cares whether it is journalism or not?" he says. "Is it something news organizations should be doing? Yes."