Megan Taylor

front-end dev, volunteacher, news & data junkie, bibliophile, Flyers fan, sci-fi geek and kitteh servant

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Data in New York City

On top of the Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York City, by meironke.

On top of the Empire State Building, Manhattan, New York City, by meironke.

One of the things that makes doing web journalism in New York City absolutely frustrating is the lack of online data.

I’m not looking for anything strange. The first data set I wanted was crime reports that include individual crimes and locations. NYPD publishes weekly crime statistics, but not data that could easily be plotted on a map.

It absolutely stuns me that one of the biggest, most famous cities in the world is so backward. And why hasn’t the police department been slammed with FOIAs from every journalist in the city for the past 15 years?

Guardian DataStore

Guardian DataStore

About a week ago I posted to Twitter an idea for creating a data hub for NYC, in the vein of The Guardian’s Data Store. Everyblock does a good job of the collecting what data NYC does put online, but their job isn’t to track down city departments and convince them that providing clean data in multiple, usable formats would be to their benefit.

About a year ago, some journalists were complaining about the “data ghettos” that began popping up on newspaper websites. The problem was/is that newspaper organizations began publishing databases without context.

How would my NYC data hub be different?

It’s not. I don’t envision this as journalism. It is, instead a service provided TO journalists.

The idea needs some more fleshing out, some investors, and a business model. But it’s doable, and necessary. I don’t ever want to hear another editor turn down an idea because it will take 2 years and a FOIA to get the required data.

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A new look to show off skills and experience

Yesterday's look

Yesterday's look

You may notice that the site looks radically different today, after being offline yesterday.

I’ve switched to Darren Hoyt’s Mimbo 3.0 theme, for a couple of reasons.

Why are you changing your site, AGAIN?!

One is that I’ve always used this site as a learning experience. Learning about how WordPress can be twisted into much more than it was originally intended to be. Learning more about design. Learning about building communities.

The second major reason is that the content of the site has changed a lot since its inceptions. What started out as an experiment in blogging has become my home, a place where I collect all the various things I do online.

Now, I participate in social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. I’ve started freelancing, both as a web developer and journalist.

I wanted a new way to approach all those things. To show what I can do, what I have done, what I’m thinking about and reading.

Where is everything now?

Today's Look

Today's Look

So, assuming you land on the front page, (and I know, most of you reading this are not) you’ll see several divisions in content. The most recent story is more prominent. A small right-hand column displays recent works and job experience. The middle column lists recent blog posts. And the ever-present sidebar? Well, that has remained largely the same.

The navigation has changed as well. I went back through my posts and have started to collect some of them into series pages. These are the drop-down pages you’ll see if you hover on the Archive link. I merged “Sink, Florida, Sink,” my road trip to NYC blog, into this one, while still making it easy to follow the journey.

Finally, I’ve installed the DISQUS plugin for comments. I really like the way they integrate comments that are made on social media sites and add tools to develop conversations on the blog.

Please help me out

There’s some tweaking to do, and a few more ideas I want to try out. I’m hoping you’ll all help me with that: Take a look around over the next week and let me know what’s working and what isn’t. What do you like? What do you hate? I’d really appreciate your feedback.

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Learning Web Design: 6 Blogs, 3 Cheat Sheets and 1 Degree

Over the past few months, I’ve been picking up quite a bit of freelance work. Most of it has been on the technical side of building Web sites. For the most part, I’ve been working with WordPress, so I can send a client a list of appropriate themes and let them decide.

In the scenario that I’m not using an easily theme-able framework, I’m stuck.

So, I’ve been spending some more time looking at design elements on various blogs, how colors and typography and borders are used to make even a simple layout look amazing. I’ve also been collecting resources to keep in mind when working on Web sites.

Six Blogs

  1. Authentic Boredom: Cameron Moll’s design blog.
  2. 24 Ways: 24 ways is the advent calendar for web geeks. Each day throughout December we publish a daily dose of web design and development goodness to bring you all a little Christmas cheer.
  3. Designm.ag: DesignM.ag is a new site that is aimed at providing a wide variety of resources for web designers and developers. The purpose of the site is to keep many useful elements, such as a blog, community news, design gallery, and job board all at one place.
  4. i love typography: iLT is designed to inspire its readers, to make people more aware of the typography that’s around them. We really cannot escape type; it’s everywhere: on road signs, shampoo bottles, toothpaste, and even on billboard posters, in books and magazines, online … the list is endless, and the possibilities equally so.
  5. Jason Santa Maria: This site represents an experiment in art direction online. Rather than allowing the content to flow from a content management system into the same page layout every time, I’ve created a system for fast design direction based on the needs of the content.
  6. Mark Boulton: This is primarily designed to be a portfolio presence for Mark but it also acts as a notebook, journal, experimental space and general dumping ground for designs, commentary and ideas.

Three Cheat Sheets

  1. How a Simple Layout Can Be Mixed ‘n’ Matched with Patterns, Photos and Backgrounds:It’s pretty amazing how much color and background can change the look and feel of a website. In this tutorial we’re going to put together a quick, simple but effective layout and then create variations using backgrounds, photos and patterns. We’ll also look at how to make seamless tiled backgrounds out of a photo, methods for ending a single photo and simple ways to create pixel patterns. In short it’s a jam packed tutorial!
  2. 8 Simple Ways to Improve Typography In Your Designs:Many people, designers included, think that typography consists of only selecting a typeface, choosing a font size and whether it should be regular or bold. For most people it ends there. But there is much more to achieving good typography and it’s in the details that designers often neglect.
  3. 10 Simple and Impressive Design Techniques: Simple effects and techniques are the building blocks of today’s designs. With a “less is more” mentality, we’ve selected 10 very simple and impressive design techniques that can drastically improve the performance and appearance of your designs.

One Web Design Degree

  1. The Personal Web Design Degree: The personal web design degree is the response of one designer to the question “What do I need to study to become a web designer?” The truth is that all the information needed to obtain a functional knowledge of web design is out there just waiting to be read. The only thing stopping most designers from doing so is sifting through all the information and knowing what is worth reading.

What are your favorite design resources? Where do you get inspiration?

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MediaShift Innovation Spotlight: ChangeTracker, plus hiatus

mediashift_spotlightThis week I wrote my last Spotlight article for a while. Hopefully I’ll get to start them up again sometime down the road, but for now, sayonara.

My last Spotlight is ProPublica’s ChangeTracker, created by new intern Brian Boyer.

ChangeTracker is a project at ProPublica that watches three government websites — Whitehouse.gov, Recovery.gov and Financialstability.gov — for edits, deletions or changes to existing content. Through an RSS feed, Twitter account or daily email digest, ChangeTracker will inform you when a page changes on these sites, and show you what’s been added or removed.

ChangeTracker is yet another example of a trend I’ve noticed in newer journalism projects. Rather than building a single thing, some journalists are building tools that can be used over and over, in different ways, to produce information and tell stories.

It’s an important concept, given the restrictions and limited resources available to journalists whose publications are struggling. I hope to see a lot more work like this.

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News Web site user interfaces

Patrick Thornton wrote about user interfaces today, and how news Web sites are so loath to move away from an interface that mimicks the print product.

The last time I visited a news Web site, I was an employee of the paper working on code changes. I’m not counting clicking through to articles, but deliberately going to the home page of a site.

So Where Do I Get News?

I get my news from a couple of sources:

  • Google Reader, where I’m subscribed to over 400 blogs and news sites (including a personalized version of Google News), in addition to recieving shared content from all my friends
  • Twitter, where I follow over 400 users, mostly journalists
  • The AP Mobile News application on my phone. Great for the long commute to work.

Why Don’t I Go To News Sites?

Because they don’t give me what I want. Because I prefer serendipity.

I’m interested in a lot of things and a lot of places and a lot of people. There isn’t one place where I can get all the information I want. And I’m busy, I don’t have time to spend all day bouncing from site to site, hoping someone wrote or produced something I care about.

The other reason is this: A lot of people complain about the Internet being an echo chamber. To some degree, this sucks. I have to scroll through a bunch of work that is the same concept iterated over and over.

But, since I don’t visit news sites, I also don’t see the hierarchy that editors and readers have placed on certain stories. The echo chamber mitigates this problem for me, because I can gurantee that if something is important (or even important only to a certain group of people…people I chose to follow because I care about what’s important to them…) I’ll see it at least 5 times in Google Reader and another 20 on Twitter.

Is a different UI (user interface) really going to change my behavior? I’ll still have to visit multiple sites. The river of news (a la Facebook or Twitter) can get really annoying when I’m looking for something specific. For me, that only works seredipitously. And those cool mapping UI are just cluttery and hard to focus on. To be honest, if I’m looking for articles on a specific topic, I’ll just do a Google search.

Thornton is right, though: news Web sites need to stop emulating print. But they need to do it in a way that actually helps the users. We’ve learned certain behaviors when looking for content online. There are rules that we expect Web sites to follow, and when those are bent too much, we get frustrated. Not good for news sites.

So the question is, without breaking basic UI rules or being gimmicky, how should news sites be designed differently?

Edit: Check out the comments for a discussion between Aron Pilhofer and myself about user interface vs. user interaction.

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NOT Another Resolution: Learn Design

I deliberately left something out of my resolutions post last week.

I left out my recent efforts to defeat my greatest weakness: Design.

Forget about when I started building Web sites (age 11), my relationship with design didn’t start until I got into online journalism.

And I learned that I couldn’t design my way out of a keg. ::shudder::

For a while I thought I could get away without being able to design visual elements. I could shoot photos and video, I could program in Flash and code a site from a .pdf. After all, there’s a reason for having designers, right?

I was wrong. I learned that sometimes, there just isn’t enough designer to go around, and you have to be able to make your own decisions. Things move faster and more smoothly if I don’t have to go ask the designer about an element.

Also, there are design elements to everything else I do online, from customizing a Twitter page to visualizing data. I was going to have to learn.

But how do you learn design?

I didn’t take a class, or sign up for a workshop. I just started reading design blogs. Following designers on Twitter. Paying attention to what I liked about certain Web sites and what made them ugly.

And I’ve made progress. I’m not good at details, but I can spec an overall design that doesn’t make people wish for blindness. I’d say I’ve reached paper bag status (as in can design my way out of), but anything more is beyond me.

I want to get better, because I hate not being able to do things. And because Web deisgn is important. I know I’ll never be a designer, but it would be nice to have a touch of the craft.

So if you’ve got resources, blogs, Web sites, or people that I should be paying attention to, please let me know in the comments.

Edit: I decided to add in a list of what I’m reading.

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New Year’s Resolutions: Surviving in the Real World

Even though I graduated from college in May, I have trouble with the concept of not being in school. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I love school, and I miss all the things that come with it: being a part of a community, constantly learning new things, the surety of having something to work toward for the next few years.

Obviously, these are all part of living in the real world as well, but they seem harder and less tangible. I’ve lived in the Bronx for three months now, and I still only know the building super and the guy at the convenience store down the street. I’m so busy trying to make rent that I’m not learning the way I was in school. Sure, I learn new things on the job, but it’s very different. As for goals to work toward, instead of aiming for a degree I know I can get, I’m working toward a career in an industry that’s too busy trying to land on its feet to notice my efforts.

There’s no despair in this. Just readjustment. And resolutions.

I don’t need to be in school or have my dream job to learn new things or to be a journalist. I just have to carve out the time to do what needs doing.

So here’s a list of things I want to learn or do, regardless of jobs.

  1. Formally learn Javascript. I have some experience, but mostly in the vein of searching for the code that will do what I want, and implementing it. I’d like to be able to write a little on my own.
  2. Learn PHP. Like Javascript, I know quite a bit just from fiddling with websites (especially WordPress). But I’d like the formal knowledge that would allow me to manipulate databases without have to do a Google search every ten minutes.
  3. Write. I recently signed up at BrightHub, a science and technology site. I’d like to write at least one article a week. In addition, I want to try some pitching for publications. I think that my deficiency in published writing (due to a proficiency in multimedia and programming) has been detrimental to my career goals.
  4. Produce multimedia and web development projects. I want to keep my skills fresh, even if I’m not using them in day-to-day work. So each month I’ll come up some sort of project to work on, be it video, photography, data analysis…just something to keep me from getting rusty.
  5. Find a way to participate in my new community. I’ve been poking around community boards for the Bronx, and have also found some interesting groups in Manhattan. I want to get involved. There are also a few online communities that I’m a part of that I’d like to be more involved in.

I think these are good ways to be a journalist without the benefits of working for a publication. I’m still busting my butt to get a job in news, but until then, this is a good simulation.

What else can I do to be a journalist without the framework? What tips or advice can you give me for fulfilling these resolutions?

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Journalism Schools’ Curriculum

Mark Luckie at 10,000 Words ran the website descriptions from a couple of journalism schools through Wordle, creating a tag-cloud-esque depiction of words found on the sites.

The most popular word breakdown:

Medill Graduate School of Journalism: Reporting.

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: Reporting, Writing.

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism: Reporting, Immigration, Stories, New

Asian College of Journalism: Media, Political, Issues.

UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communications: Media, Research.

I ran the University of Florida’s College of Journalism site through Wordle, and came up with this:

University of Florida College of Journalism word cloud

University of Florida College of Journalism word cloud

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Mobile News: Problems, Examples, & Real World Use

(Note: I wrote this a few months ago and forgot about it. I found it while cleaning off my hard drive today. Oops!)

I got a Blackberry Pearl about a year ago, and while I have access to Google Reader and Twitter, (my main sources of news) I just haven’t gotten out of the habit of reading off the larger screen of my laptop.

Many media outlets are pursuing the possibilities of mobile news, having learned from their mistake with the Internet. As mobile phones get more advanced and more people use them, there is an opportunity to capture an audience.

Problems

One issue to address when setting out to get news on mobile phones is the variation in technologies used by different phones. Many phones can play video or view websites. All phones can receive text messages, but that can be costly to the user.

Viewing websites on a non-iPhone is a ghastly business. Tiny screens, poor rendering of CSS, graphic-heavy or Flash-based websites, they all make information harder to get at. One solution here is to create a mobile stylesheet that the phone browser will detect.

Another problem is content. Just as people don’t read off a computer screen the way they read a print product, no one wants to read a lengthy feature article on a 2-inch screen.

What kind of content might one want to see on a phone?

Weather and traffic alerts, events, and big, huge, breaking news. Seriously, the feature article can wait till I get home. But if a criminal is running around my neighborhood with a gun, I’d like to know, ASAP.

What about multimedia? I don’t see myself using my phone to go through a complex multimedia package. A video or slideshow, maybe, if I’m really interested. But phones are about “right now” communication. That should be reflected in how news companies approach them.

It may be that the only real solution for phones is better phone software. It doesn’t have to be iPhone quality, but the ability to add “news” to your basic menu would change everything. You could do any kind of feed you want then, while not having to go three steps in just to open a browser.

Examples

The Associated Press launched the Mobile News Network. The view on a phone is pretty nice, with a top news home screen, categorized story feeds (you can pick the general topics, and a “saved” category for custom searches). You can set preferences for location and the types of news you want to see. They also do video pretty well, providing various formats. They have applications for Blackberry/iPhone/iPod Touch users.

CNN’s mobile offerings include a Java application, SMS alerts, live TV (for certain providers), and downloadable videos.


The BBC actually explains
how they set up several different versions of their mobile site and let your browser choose the best one.

The New York Times offers a mobile site where you can read the NYT blogs, see most e-mailed articles, get alerts for topics or keywords, and browse real estate listings, stocks and weather forecasts. You can also choose to have news sent to your phone via text message. Customers of certain providers can also get access to crossword puzzles.

Fox News provides live video, streaming video clips, the requisite mobile site, and text alerts. Something a little different: they also offer an audio version of FNC, for a monthly fee.

Real World Use

The people most likely to have a compulsion to check the news every few hours, no matter where they are, are journalists. So I rounded up a few and asked about their mobile news habits.

Greg Linch sent me an e-mail after I asked for responses on Twitter.

I check Gmail on my smart phone (an AT&T Tilt), where I might have a New York Times, Washington Post or Miami Herald breaking news e-mail. After checking Gmail, I look at Twitter for other news and any interesting conversations. I also get Miami Herald breaking news text alerts, which include big national and local news.

If I’m away from the computer for an extended period of time — or if I’m bored somewhere — I’ll check Google Reader on my phone. If I just want a quick peek at the latest headlines, I’ll go to the mobile version of a site such as CNN, NYT or the Herald.

Kyle Mitchell is a music writer. He carries an iPod Touch. In an IM conversation, Kyle told me about his news habits.

NYT is one that keeps going down all the time. AP Mobile News is absolutely fantastic: runs fast as hell and top news never contains any bullshit like celebrity news. I check that a few times a day. Google News has a similar setup, but it’s much more clunky.

Brett Roegiers associate producer at CNN.com said

On my phone, I consume the news via Google Reader and Twitter.

Brett volunteered some advice to media outlets:

I’ll tell you what news organizations should pay attention to: location-based web apps. I click ‘restaurants’ or ‘bars’ and it shows me what’s in my area without me having to input where I am. I guess I’d say try to take advantage of the platform in some way and not just show the latest headlines.


Lyndsey Lewis
has an older Nokia, but checks the news on her iPod Touch.

I don’t use my phone, because I have a shitty Nokia phone and it’s hard to read stuff on it. But, I also own an iPod Touch, which I bring with me everywhere and use for news. I have the New York Times app on it and use that almost every day.

So what applications are you using to get the news on your phone? What do you think media outlets should be doing to get people’s attention? What can manufacturers do to make phones easier to use in this context?