Newsrooms vs. the Volcano

Over in Geneva, the EBU Radio News Conference 2010 is underway, and I’m watching from afar via the wonders of Twitter.

Late yesterday, Michael Good of RTE talked about how they covered the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and, finding that the “public wanted more than radio programmes could give”, had to turn to the web and networked journalism to improve coverage. Charlie Beckett reports:

In the final session it was made clear by speakers such as Michael Good of RTE that mainstream media can’t cope with big complex crisis stories such as the volcanic ash story: ‘ the public wanted more than radio programmes could give’

RTE responded by using social media connected to their coverage to fill the gaps and to tell the micro as well as the macro story. To provide context as well as drama, information as well as narrative. As Michael put it, it showed how social media has to be at the heart of the newsroom.

Brett Spencer also reported that “SWR say if it happened again right now they would approach the science and the experts with more caution” and “Richard Clark of the BBC Newsroom says an awful lot of experts got airtime who actually didn’t know very much.”

As someone who followed Eyjafjallajökull’s progress from the beginning of the first ‘tourist eruption’ right the way through to the final gasps of the phreatomagmatic eruption (i.e. the big explosive bit), I can say with some certainty that the mainstream media did a pretty appalling job of choosing experts to talk about the eruption. Often, they chose to speak to industry representatives, such as union leaders or airline owners, who knew very little about the eruption itself but had very strong views on what they thought reality ought to be. They also had a vested interest in portraying the situation in a particular light.

I was particularly disgusted by people like Richard Branson, who threw a strop because he thought the flight ban was unnecessary. The BBC reported Branson being either disingenuous or dangerously ignorant:

Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson meanwhile told the BBC that he believed governments would be unlikely to impose a blanket ban again.

“I think if they’d sent up planes immediately to see whether the ash was actually too dangerous to fly through or to look for corridors where it wasn’t very thick, I think that we would have been back flying a lot sooner,” he said.

This fundamentally misrepresents the monitoring that was going on at the time (planes were being sent up to look at the ash cloud) and, more importantly, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of ash clouds. They are not a uniform blanket of ash floating through the air, but a constantly changing area of high and low ash densities: Any ‘corridor’ there today probably wouldn’t be there tomorrow.

But in the scramble for experts, no one flubbed quite as badly as the Wall Street Journal and CNN, who both featured Robert “R.B.” Trombley, a self-styled volcanologist who turned out to be not quite the expert they had assumed.

Going back to #RNews10, Charlie Beckett said, “Yes the volcano exposed limits of MSM & value of social media bt it also exposed lack of data transparency from airlines, govt etc” to which Mike Mullane replied, “Beckett: Don’t beat yourselves up. There was failure on the part of governments and meteorologists to provide data for journalists”. And, in a related point, Andy Carvin Tweeted, “Don’t think anyone mentioned maps, though, whether newsroom generated, user-generated or both. Were there any?”

Mike and Charlie’s assertions are only true for the UK and the air travel industry: The airlines were, unsurprisingly, entirely opaque. The UK Met Office had some data, particularly on ash measurement and predictions, but could have done a much better job of communicating what they were doing and providing data. That’s a problem they seriously need to fix: They opened themselves up to undeserved criticism because no one had any idea what they were actually doing. The Civil Aviation Authority and the National Air Traffic Services should also be soundly criticised for appalling communications as well. Their online information and data was not well organised, to say the least.

But there was a huge amount of data coming out of other sources, particularly the Icelandic Met Office, which the mainstream media completely ignored. The IMO was providing near-live earthquake data for the Mýrdalsjökull area, which includes Eyjafjallajökull icecap, available as a map or a data table. And, as I discovered when I did this myself, if you sent them a nice email they would send you the raw data to play with. There is no reason why the media could not have contacted the IMO and used some of this data in visualisations for their coverage, like this one done by

There was quite a lot of ash forecast data coming out of various different institutes, primarily the UK Met Office. There were videos (search for Eyjafjallajökull) and photos taken by scientists, tourists, locals and the Icelandic news organisations (whose coverage was obviously much better). There were multiple live webcams and volcano enthusiasts captured and shared webcam timelapses showing the eruption and jökulhlaups (flash floods of ash and meltwater) on a daily basis. There was even a cut-out-and-keep model of the volcano, made by the British Geological Society.

And there was some flight data available, as exemplified by this fabulous timelapse of the European flights resuming after the ban:

The problem was that most news journalists, obviously, do not have the kind of specialist knowledge to be able to assess sources, experts, or data for an event that is so far outside of their usual field of experience. I understand that journalists can’t be experts in everything, but I do expect them to know how to find information, find sources, and to find data, and to do so reliably.

But they seemed oblivious to the online communities that were following this eruption closely and where there were people who could have helped them. I spent a lot of time on Erik Klemetti‘s wonderful blog, Eruptions (new site, old site). Erik, a vulcanologist at Denison University in Ohio, played host to a community of scientists and amateurs who discussed developments in detail and answered questions that people had about how all this volcano stuff really works.

I was on that blog almost every day, I don’t remember a single journalist ever asking in the comments for help in finding information or understanding its implications. I do remember, however, a lot of people popping in to get clarification on the misinformation promulgated by the media, particularly rumours that Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbour, Katla, was about to erupt.

The truth is that Eyjafjallajökull was probably the best observed, monitored and recorded eruption in history. The sheer volume of data produced was enormous. And the mainstream media ignored everthing but the pretty pictures.

Scrobbling business

Via Roo Reynolds I just came across Dale Lane’s TV scrobbling project. For those of you who don’t use the social music site Last.FM, ‘scrobbling‘ is the act of gathering attention data for analysis. Last.FM pioneered the scrobbling of listening data from people’s computers, allowing them to see at a glance what they listened to, what their friends listened to, and discover people with similar taste in music.

Dale has taken this idea a step further and has whipped up a scrobbler for his TV data. This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the fact that Dale’s TV is also his computer. This gives him access to data that would otherwise be stuck inside a set-top box:

Tv Scrobbling

Similar software exists to track your attention during day-to-day work on your computer. I have RescueTime installed on my laptop. That gives me access to information about which applications I use and how much time I spend using them, and allows me to decide if an app is productive or not. It then scores my overall productivity accordingly. Sometimes the results can be surprising, for example, I spend a lot less time in email than I had thought, often less than half an hour a day, and I never look at email on the weekends. RescueTime also illustrates changing preferences for software. Here’s me experimenting with Google’s Chrome browser (olive green = Firefox; teal green = Chrome):

Rescuetime All Activities By Day

The aim of RescueTime, if you put the effort in to set it up properly, (e.g. choose which applications and websites you find distracting, neutral or productive), is to reveal where you can make productivity gains. If, for example, you discover that you spend a lot of time on Twitter and you find it to be very distracting then you can use RescueTime to track your progress in resisting its lure.

Of course, attention data can just become infoporn, producing endless pretty graphs that don’t help alter behaviour, so scrobbling isn’t a solution by itself. It could, however, form the basis of behavioural analysis and change projects that would not otherwise be possible. Productivity is the holy grail of the knowledge worker, but it’s hard to know how productive one is being as we’re not built to accurately track our actions as we carry them out. My guess for amount of time spent in Twitter, for example, was wildly higher than reality – I generally use it for less than an hour a day, which is not bad given my line of work.

Attention data scrobbling could also, with a clever bit of functionality design, help do away with timesheets, which I loathe to the core of my being. The key there, as with RescueTime, is understanding what constitutes ‘productivity’. Splitting behaviours out by application, or even by website, doesn’t necessarily tell you if you’re being productive. Time in instant messenger, for example, could be productive or it could be a distraction, depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about. Scrobbling won’t solve that bit of the puzzle, but it would make a good starting point.

There is an obvious dark side to attention data scrobbling in business, though: such data could easily be misused by management as a stick to beat employees with. Care would need to be taken as to who could access what data, perhaps with data anonymised when accessed by management to prevent victimisation. There would also need to be an educational component to any scrobbling project to ensure that people knew what the data meant and how to act on it.

There’s such great opportunity here for both knowledge workers and the businesses who employ them. I’d love to hear from anyone using or interested in collecting and using attention data in this way.

The decline of empire

Oh, I love a bit of infoporn and this is a truly glorious visualisation of the decline of the British, Spanish, French and Portuguese maritime empires by Pedro Cruz. (For a bigger version, pop along to Vimeo.)

Cruz explains:

The data refers to the evolution of the top 4 maritime empires of the XIX and XX centuries by extent. I chose the maritime empires because of their more abrupt and obtuse evolution as the visual emphasis is on their decline. The first idea to represent a territory independence was a mitosis like split — it’s harder to implement than it looks. Each shape tends to retain an area that’s directly proportional to the extent of the occupied territory on a specific year. The datasource is mostly our beloved wikipedia. The split of a territory is often the result of an extent process and it had to be visualized on a specific year. So I chose to pick the dates where it was perceived a de facto independence (e.g. the most of independence declarations prior to the new state’s recognition). Dominions of an empire, were considered part of that empire and thus not independent.

The wonderful thing about these sorts of projects is that they turn otherwise dry information into fascinating social objects.

Via David Weinberger.