#ONA10: Real-time, mobile coverage

My road trip kit

Tomorrow I fly to Washington ahead of the Online News Association conference. I’ll be doing a pre-conference session next Thursday on real-time coverage with Kathryn Corrick, digital media consultant and ONA UK Chair, Gary Symons of VeriCorder Technology. Kathryn is going to focus on desktop-based real-time coverage. There is a lot that is possible from the newsroom, and often when you’ve got a lot of journalists in the field, you need someone back at base to help collate and curate all the content. Gary is going to focus on multimedia, especially some of the tools that Vericoder offers. I’m going to focus on a wide range of mobile tools and techniques highlighting some of the examples of what news organisations and innovative journalists are doing.

Two years ago, I was traveling across the US on my way to Washington covering the 2008 elections. It was my third presidential election. I covered the 2000 and 2004 elections for the BBC. Every election, the mobile technology got a little more sophisticated and a lot more portable.

In the 2000 election, Tom Carver and I traveled across the US in six days answering questions from the BBC’s international audience. We used portable satellite technology, a mini-DV camera and webcasting kit to do live and as-live webcasts. The satellite gear was similar to what would become standard for live video feeds from Afghanistan. We used it in much less threatening locales such as a bar in Miami to talk to college students about apathy amongst youth. The gear weighed about 70 pounds, and it was a bit temperamental. I had to buy a toolkit in Texas and perform emergency surgery in a Home Depot parking lot. That definitely wasn’t in the job description when I was hired, but we got the job done.

In 2004, everything had changed. I used an early data modem to file from the field. The BBC content management didn’t quite work in the field, but we could at least send text and images. Richard Greene and I worked to engage our audiences, again fielding their questions and bringing them along on our journey. I blogged through election day, and that blogging experiment would send my career in a radically new direction.

It would be 2008 when I finally realised my dream of being able to work almost constantly on the move publishing via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and the Guardian blogs via a laptop and mobile modem and a state-of-the-art multimedia mobile phone, the Nokia N82 . The picture above shows my road trip kit. It did more with much with so much less weight than the gear I lugged around in 2000. I could fit it all easily in a backpack. I had my laptop, a data modem, a power inverter, a Nikon D70, a geo-tagger and my Nokia. I geo-tagged all of my pictures, posts and most of my tweets. Before anyone knew what Foursquare or location-based networks were, I saw an opportunity to geo-tag content to map it and eventually deliver relevant content to where people are. I have a detailed explanation of how I did it.

The trip was the realisation of a journalistic dream; I could report live while staying in the middle of the story. I could use my phone to tweet and upload pictures from the celebrations on the streets of Washington. This was two years ago. The technology has moved on, and now it’s easier and the the video, images and audio are better. It’s now easy to broadcast live video with nothing more than a mobile phone.

We’ll cover the latest developments and then go out on the streets of Washington just days before Americans go back to the polls in this critical midterm election. There are a still a few slots left so if you’re coming, come join us from 2-5 Thursday 28 October.

Obama celebrations Washington DC

Howto: Geo-tagging photos for an easy map mashup

Next month, I’ll be heading to the US to travel across the country and to talk to ordinary people about the issues that are important to them in the presidential election. I did similar trips for the BBC in 2000 (that’s me behind the floppy hair) and 2004, and I often credit the BBC’s Steve Herrmann for encouraging me to blog. This time I’ll be travelling with James Ridgeway and the Guardian Films team. Jim and I will be vlogging, blogging, Twittering and Flickring our way across the States. I’m keen to geo-tag as much as possible to give people another way to follow the story.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, both in terms of miles and in terms of the journalism so I’m looking for all sorts of time-saving ways that we can give the kind of rolling road trip coverage that is expected in the age of internet journalism. I want readers to feel as if they are there with us in the car. I plan to use Twibble mobile and Twittervision to geo-tag our Twitter updates. That’s tomorrow’s work.

Today, I’ve managed to figure out a way to easily tag and post all of my photos. I’ll be using a Nokia N82, which has an amazing 5-megapixel camera, brilliant (in every sense of the word) xenon flash and built-in GPS. Right before Suw and I left on our walk last week, I discovered the Nokia Location Tagger application. It automatically adds geo-data to the EXIF file of your photos. Nokia recently stopped work on the application, but there are rumours that it will be added to an upcoming firmware update for the N-series. UPDATE: Ricky Cadden, from Symbian Guru, says that the firmware has been updated. I’m still hunting for the setting to enable it, but it’s there.

UPDATE 2: Ricky comes up with the goods and how to enable geo-tagging with the updated firmware:

The setting is admittedly a bit hidden, you should open the camera and then press the left softkey to open the options submenu, and go into the settings. There you will be able to activate the geotagging feature. You can confirm this as a small satellite icon will appear in the bottom left corner of the camera viewfinder, so that you can easily see whether or not you have a good GPS fix.

It took from a few seconds to almost a minute for the Location Tagger application to acquire a location. I used assisted GPS, which triangulates using geo-data from mobile phone masts (cell towers) to help increase the speed and precision of the GPS. UPDATE: Ricky also said that the A-GPS works slightly differently in the N82 and other new S60 devices, using the data connection to off-load positioning tasks to a server to speed the GPS lock. The positioning information embedded in the photo files turned out to be scarily accurate, showing the outlines of churches where we took photos.

My next challenge was how to easily get the embedded geo-data into Flickr and out of the EXIF file. When I first uploaded photos, I found I had to cut-and-paste the geo-data from the additional EXIF data in the photos. That was too cumbersome. However, Flickr has a not quite, but just about, hidden setting to ‘Automagically import GPS information as geo data‘. Tick the box ‘yes please, that would be lovely’, and you’re laughing. I can even upload directly to Flickr from the N82, although my Pay-as-you-Go data tariff quickly becomes pay-through-the-nose so I rarely do that unless I’m near a WiFi hotspot. I usually wait and upload from the phone via USB cable to my computer.

With that problem solved, the photos were plotted on a map. You can now see an extra ‘Map’ option below each geo-tagged photo.

Flickr with geo-tagged informatioin

Also, at the bottom of your Flickr photo page, you’ll see feeds that have geo-data embedded in them, a geoFeed and a KML feed, the latter which can be used on Google Maps and Google Earth. (A Google Maps representative told me that a browser-based version of Google Earth is on its way, although it will initially only work in Internet Explorer.) UPDATE: Keir Clarke, from Google Maps Mania, says: “A browser-based version of Google Earth is already available. It isn’t restricted to Internet Explorer but is restricted to Microsoft operating systems.”

GeoFeed and KML feeds from Flickr

Now, this will show you the last 20 items in your full feed, and I will be travelling for more than a month and hope to shoot hundreds of pictures. How am I going to create some kind of archival map? Adam Franco has developed a wonderful script to generate a KML file from an entire Flickr photo set. Thanks Adam, it’s a brilliant piece of work with some basic options. You’ll end up with a KML file based on the name of your set. You can then upload the KML file to your server and either use Map Channels or Google My Maps to generate the map.

If you only want the most recent photos, you can just use the KML or geoFeed from Flickr and use that URL. If you only care about the last 20 photos in a set, you can get a geoRSS feed simply by adding &georss=1 to the end of the feed URL. Google My Maps even has an import feature if you can’t host the KML file yourself. (Or for some reason the powers that be won’t give you access to a server. Not as if that ever happens.)

You can choose whether you want a satellite or map view. If you can’t use an iFrame in your CMS, throw it into a widget on Widgetbox. You can usually find a code format that your CMS will like (or allow). And voila. You now have lovely map ready for embedding using an iFrame. These are pictures from our recent walk along the Offa’s Dyke Trail.

View Larger Map

Newspapers can break news again

Steve Outing highlighted on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits how useful Twitter can be during breaking news. Sending out short burst updates during a breaking news event can keep journalists in the field and close to the story while quickly filing updates that can easily be pulled via RSS into your site. He wrote:

In the not-so-distant past, I would have urged you to create a breaking-news blog for your news site if any big story like those hit in your backyard. …That’s so 2004! You can still do it, and probably should. But the breaking-news blog is about to be supplanted (or perhaps supplemented is a better word) by the Twitter breaking-news feed.

I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. Twitter can be a good resource to reach your audience via SMS and even desktop alerts if you encourage your subscribers to follow breaking news ‘tweets’ via applications like Twitterific. But you can easily pull that into a blog via an RSS feed, and really, in the age of networked journalism, it’s about your site being a hub in the network to disseminate news. Journalists back at base can tap into the network for leads, pictures and first person reports.

I’ll give you an example from last week when we looked out our window here on the fifth floor of the Guardian and saw black smoke billowing from somewhere in east London. Journalism.co.uk noted the pace of updates across several different sites and services, including Twitter, Flickr and the Guardian’s Newsblog:

The first tweet Journalism.co.uk saw on the fire came from the Guardian’s head of blogging Kevin Anderson shortly before 12:30pm. Anderson has also posted pictures to Flickr and at 12:45pm posted an entry on the events to his Guardian blog.

I also did a quick post here on Strange Attractor. A commenter from Washington DC found the post and said:

Greetings from Washington D.C. Getting reports here that it is an industrial site. Stock futures markets moving up after intial shock. Looks ugly but, industrial chemical fires usually are. Yours was the first blog I came across that had the story. Who needs cables news? Will be watching to see how story develops. Thanks for posting



I was able to post faster and with more pictures and information than Sky and the BBC, which we were watching in the office. Flickr users noted that they were seeing more pictures on the site than on traditional news sites and TV channels. I also used Technorati to find video posted to YouTube before Sky had its helicopter on the scene. People were also posting links in the comments on the Guardian Newsblog.

Since the advent of radio and television, newspapers have been pushed out of the breaking news business. News is frozen at the time you have to go to press. Web-first has only slowly been embraced by newspapers and newspaper journalists.

I do sometimes find that newspaper journalists suddenly pushed into the 24/7 news cycle can feel that quality suffers as one daily deadline becomes a rolling deadline. But the internet does both immediacy as well as depth as Paul Bradshaw recently highlighted in the first of his 21st Century Journalism series of posts.

The strengths of the online medium are essentially twofold, and contradictory: speed, and depth.

And Paul’s ‘News Diamond’ shows how a story passes from speed to user control. It’s a great series of posts, and Paul’s thinking has brought together some brilliant ideas. Ideas that I’ll use the next time I’m blogging breaking news.

I was sitting in the office, which is a role for a networked journalist to play pulling together a news organisation’s own coverage while also aggregating the best of crowdsourced content. But I think there is also a role for field journalists to use Twitter, blogging software or other forms of flexible field filing to break news. Blogging was liberating for me as a journalist if for no other reason as a field journalist, it gave me a much easier way to file than using traditional content management systems that are made to work in the office but are unusable in the field. Until traditional CMSes provide that kind of flexibility, they will have significant drawbacks when compared to blogging platforms. But that’s another post for later.

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Lebanese-Israeli conflict via mobile phones

Suw and I have been meaning to do a podcast, maybe a podcast over crepes in the morning. The Strange Attractor Crepe-cast. At any rate, fresh off our two-week European road trip, I decided to take the podcast plunge and have a chat with Eric Sundelof, who is just finishing a fellowship with the Reuters Digital Vision programme.

As he says on his site:

Cell phones today transmit audio, video, photographs and text. When combined with the proper web application, cell phones enable any citizen in any country of any background to publish information and share it with the world.

I talked to him about how he put this idea into practice to hear voices in Lebanon and Israel.

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Download podcast here

Technical Notes: As Kevin Marks noted before, I originally didn’t enclose the audio download in the RSS feed. It was easily solved by linking to the file on Odeo and using Kevin’s rel=enclosure microformat. The directions are here.

For those of you who are interested, I used a very versatile Skype add-on called Pamela to record the interview with Erik. Pamela is like a Swiss Army knife add-on for Skype, allowing you to record both audio and video, upload it to remote servers and even generate RSS feeds from the uploads. I’m not using half of the functionality, but I have found it well worth the cost and use it often for work.

One note with Odeo’s upload service. I originally had saved my file as 64kbps at 22Khz. Odeo didn’t like that, nor did it seem terribly happy using. But when I resaved the file at 44Khz and uploaded it using Internet Explorer, it worked.

NowPublic Citizen Photojournalism Awards

NowPublic, the website that allows you to post photos online to illustrate news stories, has announced its new Citizen Photojournalism Awards. With a prize of $100 on offer for the five weeks from 13th May to 10th June, and a Grand Prize of $500 to be awarded on 17th June, this competition is open to anyone who takes a newsworthy photo and posts it up to the NowPublic site. It doesn’t matter where you live, or what you snap, so long as it’s news!

Now Public now public

Whilst I was at Northern Voice, I had an interesting chat with Michael Tippett about citizen journalism and his site NowPublic, which was then in beta. NowPublic’s remit is simple – marry photos and news stories so that anyone with a digital camera or cameraphone can become a photojournalist.

Once logged in, you can either request photos to go with a story that you’re interested in, add photos to a story someone else has uploaded as an assignment, or just browse the news. Assignments are as diverse as a multi-car pile up or U2 playing a surprise gig at Brooklyn Bridge, and can be voted on by users so that there’s a clear indication to photographers as to which stories are important.

Even though NowPublic is in its infancy, it shows what’s possible when you give people the right tools for collaboration – it’s a clear example of citizen journalists adding depth and detail to stories that were covered either cursorily or not at all by the mainstream media. It’s not that the mainstream media don’t have the skills, it’s that they don’t have the manpower to get photos of everything.

I can see sites like NowPublic changing the way that we take photos too, changing the way we think about what we are doing, what we are involved in. By giving people an outlet for citizen photojournalism, I think we’ll see more people taking photojournalistic pictures rather than just the family snaps or artistic vistas that make up most people’s photo albums. Instead of passing by an incident or event, people will be more likely to stop and document what has happened if they have a community with which to share the resultant imagery.

This existing snaps-and-vistas photographic paradigm is Flickr‘s domain, but although brilliant for sharing photos and serendipitous discovery, it’s not so useful for finding them, particularly if the photo does not have a short, obvious tag attached. Etech05 is easy, yes, but how would you tag/search for photos of a multi-car pile up or the underfunding of the public transport network?

By giving people the ability to upload related photos, NowPublic gives people the opportunity to add their personal experience of the news and create a richer, more vibrant, more relevant news media for all of us.

Mobroadcasting breaking news

The potential for digital cameras to capture breaking news is in itself old news. News programmes have been using stills and footage sent in by viewers who happened to be in the right place at the right time for ages.

But I saw for the first time this morning an example of the ultimate in moblogging: Mobroadcasting. BBC South‘s news bulletins have this morning been illustrating a breaking news story with a still photo taken by a cameraphone, and have explicitly stated it as such.

The photo, of the plume of smoke caused by a serious fire that had just broken out, was easily as good as the stills you’d get from a ‘proper’ camera – testament to the quality of cameraphones now. Strangely, although the photo made it on to tv, it isn’t yet on the relevant BBCi page.

I wonder how long it will be before we have open collaborative mobroadcasting on our screens.