30 Jul 2012
Meedan held a team meeting in Vancouver, BC two weeks ago. Six years into our experiment in fielding a globally distributed team, we treat our time together as a critical component of our organizational design. Seven days in the company of Tom Trewinnard, Anas Qtiesh, James Andres, Chris Blow, Karim Ratib, and George Weyman is hard to capture in a single blog post, but here is my best effort at offering a snap-shot of our gathering.
Remarkably, we experienced one of the world's most beautiful cities during a seven day span of perfect weather. The fact that we spent most of our waking hours in a small - one bathroom - house on the outskirts of downtown Vancouver drawing, arguing, laughing, typing, and developing theories of society and the internet is a sort of logical proof that Meedan is more interesting than the world's most beautiful city (multiplied by perfect weather, to flesh out the equation). Note that the equation also solves if you insert general Meedani bad judgement. But, let's go with the first interpretation.
Truth be told we did manage to get out and about - or 'a-boot' - as our local linguistic guide James Andres would point out. Incredible walk up the Grouse Grind - highly recommended, though do not try in flip flops (per TT) - and a capstone salmon grilling on Beach 3 at Stanley Park.
It was not lost on our team that the usual distortion of the internet during times of crisis was only amplified with having the full team together. Working in warm, safe and beautiful environs designing technologies which are currently deployed to chronicle the unending tragedy in Syria gives one pause.
This is the beauty, however, of the open source era of humanity - people in every corner of the world can meaningfully convert concern (or outrage) into a contribution. Sure, we have done this through recent history with UNICEF boxes taken around neighborhoods, and before that with acts of personal charity and philanthropy. What is different now is that we have the ability to design applications and fork codebases from any corner of the internet. It is, to invoke a fairly cheesy framing - the change from Activism to Code-ivism; the change from advocacy against or for a certain position or policy to actually improving the way we assemble, contextualize, and share knowledge.
Which seems like a fair jumping off point to talking about what we did in Vancouver. While some time was spent working on our great partner projects with Cambridge University - Nurani and the Nurani Library, and Qatar Foundation International - Yallah Forum and Classrom2Classroom, the major push during this meeting was work on the next phase of our Sida and International Press Institute (Google.org) sponsored project for new media journalism in the MENA. As we go from the beta implementation of this project with a single partner - now up at http://liveblog.almasryalyoum.com and http://liveblog.egyptindependent.com - to a V1.0 with 7 partners we are evolving the vision. Checkdesk is our effort to move forward the way professional journalists and citizen journalist collectives work through social media to evolve and improve their reporting on emerging events. Where our first implementation gave the Al Masry Al Youm the ability to generate a liveblog with embedded social media - with the twist of offering a queue for citizen reporters to contribute suggested links to these journalists (link to reports page) - our Vancouver Variations will create a formal framework for enabling a group of journalists to query the network to share the work of contextualizing social media objects.
It is a liveblog where each embed can be examined, poked, prodded, marked-up, translated, and assigned a status by the reporter. We generate a nutritional label for each link in the system and allow the curious viewer to see the free-form conversation that grounds that assessment.
Yes, we are tackling the most interesting problem in global new media journalism. And, yes, we are completely and utterly downstream of the work of @ethanz (http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/02/eat-your-vegetables-ideas-from-news-nutritionists-to-reform-our-media-diets/) and the brilliant, brilliant work and writings of Mark Little, http://hvrd.me/NlZHWB. However, we are also clearly downstream of the fourteen sketchpads Chris Blow has filled over the past four years with Meedan thinking as a journalism degree holding UI/UX designer. Much of the inspiration for Checkdesk, in fact, came from Chris' Swiftriver ideation in 2009.
With a practical approach to our engineering - Karim leads the engineering team with a 'code less, assemble more' mantra, and with a rigorous approach to our testing and validation work - the 'test everything' mantra applies, we expect to release a useful, innovative, and robust contribution to the new media journalism ecosystem into public view before the end of 2012.
In closing, much of the work we have done with Meedan over the years has been focused on translation. Those of you who have heard any of us talk about the philosophical grounding of Meedan know that we have chosen to focus on translation not just for love of language (though we have that) but also because it is the most explicit limitation on the network diversity of information flow on the internet. And we have this mission to get people thinking wider - we are fighting the convenience of proximate knowledge and the narrowness it tends to breed.
So, the Vancouver Variations are our taking this observation about wide truth and moving past language as an access point to knowledge and looking a bit lower in the stack. Language will remain a particular point of concern for Meedan, but with Checkdesk we are addressing the professional journalists need to tap into global networks to help them do better and faster journalism as they seek to make sense of the tweeted, uploaded, and posted artifacts of emerging histories. The journalist has always sorted for proximities - they go to the scene of the crime and talk to people on the street, they interview the neighbor of the criminal, they reach out to the world's expert on whatever has just caught the world's attention.
The next generation of journalists will be carrying on with this work, though, like all professions run through Moore's grinder, they must adapt new tools and techniques to address to changes of scope, scale, and speed. They no longer jump in the cab to get to the scene of the crime and find the few people mulling about who might have some insight. There are now ten thousand bystanders who might have something to add to the story. With Checkdesk we are hoping to provide a desk of sorts for our media partners to staff teams of journalists tto assess, track, contextualize, validate, locate, and corroborate the artifacts of the digital bystanders, experts, neighbors, and pundits. We are taking a distinctly human and network driven approach to the task (though of course we see a clear role for data driven journalistic power tools like Swiftriver, Mapbox, Prismatic, etc) and see Checkdesk as a tool for helping the professional journalists of the world do serious work. So, our Vancouver Variations are in flight.