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From AJR,   December/January 2010  issue

The Delights of Data   

News organizations would be wise to embrace mashups on their Web sites.


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Looking for a nearby museum your kids will enjoy? Curious about the rate of crime in the neighborhood you're considering moving into? Need to find a recycling drop-off spot for that dead TV? If you live in San Francisco, there's an app for that.

In fact, residents of San Francisco now have access to more than 100 raw data feeds covering everything from public transportation schedules to building permits. Much of this data has already been converted to Web and smart phone applications by news organizations, companies and private individuals. And the city wants to encourage more mashing and remixing of its data.

In August, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of DataSF.org, a clearinghouse of data feeds designed to improve the public's access to city information. In a guest post on the blog TechCrunch.com, Newsom said: "We imagine creative developers taking apartment listings and city crime data and mashing it up to help renters find their next home or an iPhone application that shows restaurant ratings based on health code violations."

San Francisco isn't the only city to make civic data available in a format that can be ingested and parsed by Web developers, although it may be doing so with the most fanfare. Several major cities including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., make available such data as restaurant inspection reports, crime statistics and road construction projects.

As local and state governments open more data to the public, will news organizations still have value in the distribution chain? Or will traditional media merely be beneficiaries and consumers of the information supply, like everyone else?

Some news organizations have been publishing public data online as a service to their Web site visitors for many years. In the late '90s, many newspaper and television Web sites received local restaurant rating and crime data on CDs or as hard-copy documents that needed to be manually published to their Web sites. Often, the only way to access government information online was through a media Web site.

More recently, NYTimes.com and MSNBC.com became leaders in the mashup era, taking government and other information and layering it over Google maps, or combining data sets to uncover stories in areas such as campaign finance, demographic trends and public safety.

In August, MSNBC.com purchased EveryBlock.com, one of the sites that will benefit from San Francisco's leap toward transparency. EveryBlock.com is a "microlocal" news and information site launched in January of 2008 by developer Adrian Holovaty, using a $1.1 million Knight Foundation grant. In 2005, Holovaty built Chicagocrime.org, the site often credited with awakening news organizations to the art of the mashup. While most hyperlocal projects launched by traditional media companies focus on stories, press releases and user-generated content, Holovaty's projects lean as much, if not more, on local data and statistics.

At sfgate.com/data, the San Francisco Chronicle's Data Center uses local, state and federal databases to show users where the most parking tickets are issued, where bicycle accidents occur and how incomes vary across the region. At projects.latimes.com, the Los Angeles Times' Data Desk offers maps of local farmers markets, SAT scores by school and more. Despite these good projects, it's still a challenge for traditional media companies to produce Web and mobile apps that are as dynamic and well-designed as those being built by the Internet companies and whiz kids.

Some of the greatest opportunities for news organizations could be in communities much smaller than San Francisco, New York and Chicago. It'll be the smaller cities and towns where governments will be slower and less equipped and perhaps more reluctant to make large amounts of data available in electronic form. Yet the citizens of these communities would value access as much as their urban counterparts. It's also the smaller markets where the MSNBC.coms of the world will take longer to reach and where the return on their investment would be much less. In these communities, a local news organization might forge a relationship with government agencies and perhaps even assist in the conversion of data to usable online forms. That news organization would provide a great service to its community and also carve out a valuable role for itself.

Even though some news organizations have been quick to jump on data such as that being made available on DataSF.org, it's understandable that others haven't. Many traditional newsrooms think in terms of presenting fully formed stories to mass audiences, not bits and particles of data. The opening of government data will certainly help journalists uncover important new stories.

But the mashups and apps derived from that data are also about the individual stories that people build for themselves, about their daily needs and decisions. There's no reason traditional news organizations couldn't help communicate those stories, too.