Small teams, loosely joined

May 07 2010

Chicago homicide tracker screenshotThis is re-posted from the News Apps Blog.

Last week, we launched a new application for the RedEye – the Chicago homicide tracker. The web site makes it simple and interesting to browse homicide crime data for the city. RedEye reporter Tracy Swartz has been compiling the homicides since Jan. 1, 2009 and writes a weekly analysis. She wanted to give readers a better way to browse and understand the data and we wanted to help but never had enough time to give the project the attention it deserved.

The homicide tracker might look familiar if you’ve ever seen the L.A. Times homicide project. That’s because it’s the same code. LA Times hacker team of Ben Welsh and Ken Schwencke generously let us use their code (caveat: we all get our paychecks from the same place – Tribune Co.). It took four days of re-factoring, reorganizing, writing new data loaders and a new skin to make the L.A. Times code work for the RedEye.

This kind of project plays to the strength of the small newsroom dev team. We started with a small-medium application that was built to solve a specific problem, but not to be reusable. We worked with the reporters to figure out what about the L.A. Times app we should keep, what we should scrap and what we should change. We ignored the urge to refactor and leave as much of the original code as possible, tweaking only what was necessary. With the help of the author of the original, we were able to quickly make our changes and launch.

Free and open technologies are key to our small teams working quickly. Pulling content and data from RSS and Google spreadsheets allowed us to skip building a content management system for the homicide tracker. Using a sophisticated, modular web framework helps to make us efficient.

The moral of the story is that for news apps, small teams sharing code, insight and ideas – “small pieces, loosely joined” – is quite effective.

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django + facebook connect

Apr 02 2009

While working on News Mixer and another django project, I’ve refactored all the facebook connect code Brian Boyer and I wrote into a separate application. I’ve opened a google code page for it. I figured if it’s useful to me, it would be useful to others.

It’s a simple thing really. It uses the built in django auth stuff and pyfacebook, and works with django-registration. News Mixer was designed so you had to use facebook and only facebook to log in. The django-facebookconnect application can work side-by-side with regular django user accounts, and it gives new facebook users the option to link their django and facebook accounts.

While building News Mixer, we had a lot of problems getting facebook connect to play nice. Timeouts, expired sessions and connection resets would quickly kill our application. On the face of it, the app doesn’t really do a whole lot, but under the hood it deals with a ton of BS problems that you run into using the facebook API extensively.

Take it, use it, let me know how it goes.

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Whats next for News Mixer

Mar 11 2009

News Mixer

The initial release of News Mixer was the result of eleven weeks of intensive research and development by graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism and sponsorship from the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The goal of the first release was to demonstrate different ways of thinking about how foster communities and conversations around news articles on the web, and not to build a real news website or software to power a real news website.

Version 1.0 of News Mixer is a standalone application built on Python and Django. It is meant as a technology demo. For those who liked the ideas and wanted the software, News Mixer is a great commenting system, but it lacks depth. There was very little time put into anything but the commenting. The content management component is minimal. There is no support for posting media. There was a lot of thought but little dev time put into comment moderation, either for site owners or visitors. It’s what happens when you only have 11 weeks to go from “you can do whatever you want” to working software + report + polished presentation.

Despite the minimalism of News Mixer 1.0, it was a hit. People were impressed and inspired by it. So for a tech demo it was a success. Now to make it usable …


Yes, there will be a WordPress plugin.

The next release of News Mixer will be a more useful application built to actually be used by folks. The plan is to build an API on top of News Mixer and build a plug-in to make the features available for WordPress. In addition to an API, we’re going to give News Mixer the ability to handle commenting for multiple sites.

Why not just put all the commenting features into a standalone WordPress plug in?

So the wheel re-invention is kept to a minimum. So we can plug the features into other applications without writing everything from scratch. So folks can manage the comments for many sites in one place. And so maybe it will grow up to be its own web service someday.

There is a big list of things that our team came up with that could make News Mixer better: more commenting systems, rating systems, moderation. But right now we need to make it accessible for people to use.


Keep tabs on us at the News Mixer Google Code Project.


This project has been dead for a while. Sorry for the disappointment.

Andy Dickinson built a plugin for WordPress called Feedback by Paragraph that accomplishes much of the paragraph commenting that was implemented in News Mixer.

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Thoughts on India

Feb 24 2009

So many colors. That’s what every traveler says at some point on their way through India. Festivals, saris, semi-trucks: everything is vibrant, over-the-top, baroque. The visual complexity of India is just the surface.

I returned to Chicago on February 10 after two eight hour flights and five hour layover at Heathrow in London (least they had beer). Man jet lag is a bitch. I managed to stay awake through most of the traveling in the hope that once I got home and passed out, I would wake up the next morning at my usual time and feel all adjusted.


I woke up at five the next morning ready for a dinner. Wide awake, body not caring that it was still dark out and there was no curry to be found. Two weeks later and my internal clock is finally adjusted.

I’ve been telling my stories and trying to explain India to everyone who’s interested.

India is a wonderful, fascinating place. And it’s absolutely insane. Not in a deranged way, like I said, It’s a wonderful place.

Some knee-jerk examinations:

Chowri Bazzar
Chowri Bazzar

1. There are so many people in India. And they all hang out on the street. At least all the men do. I don’t know where the women hang out, just not all on the street. A country of over one billion in the space one-third the size of the entire United States.

2. There are two India’s. And they exist on top of one another. The prosperous, westernizing/modernizing, middle-upper class India that I recognize having grown up in the middle class neighborhoods of the United States, and poor India. In America we push the poor, unsightly, unappealing to the fringes of society. The streets are clean and empty. In India the poor, unsightly, unappealing is in your face. The problems of the poor are tied to India’s future. And the current government has recognized that and has put an effort into improving infrastructure, health care and education for the poor.

3. Most rules are optional in India. If the rule is unnecessary or in your way, especially if you are in some kind of motorized vehicle with a horn, forget the rule and honk.

I like it.

Why is it that Americans wait for the red lights to change when there is no traffic going the other way? Because of the camera at the stop light. Or because there just might be a cop lingering in that dark parking lot. Our safety-obsessed, sue-happy culture has reduced deaths on the road and accidents in the workplace. Waiting for a few minutes at a stop light never hurt anyone, but our society invests so much into our system of rules those rules are just not questioned. Do we need to law-ify every single nugget of common sense in order to get people to not do dumb stuff?


4. All Indians know one another. Not really. But it seems that way when you don’t understand Hindi. Indians make fast friends. Especially in the country, but even in the city, the social aspect of Indian life is much more open and important than anywhere I’ve been. And if someone knows a little English, you will hear it. Some will strike up a conversation and eventually try to sell you something, but just as many just want to ask you where you’re from.

It’s an amazing place and I encourage everyone to go there. Make sure you learn to like Indian food first, and don’t just eat curry when you’re there. It’s not that good for you.

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Madhya Pradesh

Jan 23 2009

Tonight the group leaves for Delhi after traveling through the towns and cities of Madhaya Pradesh. It was great country, friendly people, and only a small bit of the hustle and crush of Mumbai. We saw buddhist and hindu caves, hills carved into forts and magnificent palaces.

We stayed in some beautiful places, off the beaten tourist track and got to relax. Traveling with a guide makes for a relaxing trip – having somebody who can translate and make the plans takes a load off your back. But I am happy it is finished. Relying on somebody and traveling with like minded tourists is quite insulating.

I’m looking forward to Delhi and meeting some friends in a few days. There are new photos up and more to come.

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Mumbai and Aurangabad

Jan 13 2009

I arrived in Mumbai (or Bombay, depends who you talk to), last Thursday after missing a transfer in London. British Airways was nice enough to give me a hotel room, where I promptly passed out for six hours. Bad idea – sleeping in the middle of the day is good way to make jet lag worse. But it felt so nice after not sleeping on the overnight flight.

My first couple days in Mumbai where great – I met a few different locals who I paid to take me around. It was very helpful. Few people speak English that I can understand and it makes getting around the huge city quite hard. At least the taxis aren’t too expensive. I met a fellow traveller on Saturday, and we saw some museums and Elepanta Island, and finished the day with a beer at the famous Leopold Cafe, where you can still see bullet holes in the windows.

There are just so many people. Everywhere. When I order food in a restaurant, there are four people waiting for my order. There are lines of taxis and auto-rickshaws waiting for anyone to need them, but mostly just waiting. I bought a pair of jeans in Aurangabad today and there where three people working in this small shop all hovering trying to help me to buy something.

But the Indians are very friendly. Visiting Buddhist caves yesterday and a hilltop fort today, people come up to me and the others in my group and ask for photos with us and they practice their english. And all the school children stare and run up to us to say hello and shake our hands, only to shy away halfway through and run away again, laughing.

I’ve made it to Aurangabad, the first stop on my tour after spending four days in Mumbai. It seems much smaller than Mumbai, but it is still a city of two million people. It’s kind of in a valley surrounded by steep rocky hills. Tomorrow we travel to Jalgaon to check out the town and some nearby temples carved into the hills.

Very fun.

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India Trip

Jan 09 2009

For January and half of February I’m traveling in India. I’m starting in Bombay and spending five days until I go on a tour with intrepid travel. It will take me from Bombay to Delhi, stopping at towns and cities along the way. And I’ll end in Delhi where I’ll meet two freinds and spend two weeks exploring the city and surrounding area.

Check my flickr for photos. I’ll be uploading a few here and there (Internet has been slow and spotty for the first few days).

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News Mixer

Dec 11 2008

We presented News Mixer this week to Medill Facult, friends and to our partner, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. People loved it. The internets were all a twitter about our project.

News Mixer is your home for connection and interaction around news in Eastern Iowa. News Mixer adds a new dimension to your relationships with your Facebook friends by taking advantage of a new service called Facebook Connect. We hope News Mixer will helps you build new connections with other people interested in talking about Eastern Iowa news.

This first version of News Mixer is a demonstration site for you to test and explore. Take a look around! We would love your feedback.

I’ll be posting more about the project when I get the time to write. In the meantime – checkout our code.

We got some write-ups:

Medill’s News Mixer remixes story comments – Patrick Beeson said it “could be a game-changing effort for news story comments,” and Richard Kendall, an editor for

Newsmix opens the door to engagement – Richard K called Newsmixer “Very impressive”

A good day for new media in Illinois – Classmate Erin Halasz wrote about our project

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CTA Incidents project code up

Nov 10 2008

I’ve setup a Google code project with my work on the CTA Accidents and Derailments project. I’m slowly plugging away at building a Django back-end to make data entry simple and open to everyone.

If you are interested in contributing to this project in any way send me a message or leave a comment.

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enviroVOTE is a sucess! UPDATE

Nov 05 2008

My fellow hacker j-school classmate Brian Boyer and I spent our weekend putting together a web site called enviroVOTE. It tracked the election results and showed the envirominty-ness of the elected candidates. We lined-up candidates with endorsements each received from environmental interest groups and used a meter to show how the environment was faring in the election.

Lifted from my story on the News 21 project website:

How might this election change our country’s policy on the environment? At, we show you the potential impact of this election by reporting how people are voting for candidates endorsed by environmental groups.

The centerpiece of the Web site is a large meter that fills up based on the number of newly elected candidates with environmental credentials. We are also comparing this year’s election with previous elections to see if the new crop of law-makers are greener then the last. Think environmintier officials to freshen the breath of the country.

Drill down through the site and find the meters for the results in specific states. Look at individual races to see what endorsements the candidates received and find out more about each candidate.

The night went well, we ran into some technical issues throughout the evening, but no show stoppers. Brian did a great job of promoting the hell out of the site. Here is some of the coverage:

Brian also setup a twitter page. At the last minute, he wired up envirovote to automatically twitter as we updated election results in the system. Very cool.

We had a lot of help from Medill grad students Alexander Reed and Julia Dilday, without whom entering all the election results would not have been possible.


Another post about enviroVOTE:

AcClimate: How “enviro” were Tuesday’s votes?

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