First meetings with Google Fusion Tables

For our coverage of the 2013 Colorado general election, I employed mapping lessons learned during my attendance at the ONA13 conference. I used data from the Secretary of State to create four Fusion Table maps used on TV and online.

The first two maps showed turnout results for the mail-in ballots submitted before the actual opening of the polls on Nov. 5, 2013.

The first colors each Colorado county on a scale between blue and red, indicating which party has had a greater overall turnout.

The second shows, in solid colors, which party has had a greater percentage of their registered members vote.

Marshall Zelinger used simplified versions of these two maps in his presentation during the 5pm news on election day. See that video on TheDenverChannel.

The second pair of maps were built for display on our website and in our app. They indicate the approval or rejection of two statewide initiatives: Proposition AA – taxes on recreational marijuana; Amendment 66 – education funding changes and taxes. See those on TheDenverChannel’s 2013 election page.

All of the information I used to learn this tool is available in this summary of the session I attended during ONA:

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Are pageviews dead?

Companies say pageviews are dead, but we use them every single day.

Pageviews are useful because everyone can measure them, but a consequence of them is mugshot galleries and BuzzFeed listicles. These are eamples of juking the stats to drive more pageviews.

We are all stats jukers in that we promote our content in different ways every day. So making real sense of our pageviews involves controlling for promotion when judging performance.

Things that did well consistently at The New York Times:
– things on the home page (but there is a point of diminishing returns when it’s left on the homepage for a long period of time.)
-things shared by The Times’ main social media accounts
– local content, as opposed to wire articles
– magazine, opinion, science and fashion articles, but they get a great deal of promotion (business, U.S., world news and sports stories received almost no promotion but their pageviews did fairly well despite that)

It’s interesting to note and important to be aware of how much our decision on where to put articles and how we promote them affects their pageviews.

The next step should be how to make this actionable. Figure out what does well and how we promote it (note: correlation doesn’t equal causation!) and go from there with a plan.

– Naudia Jawad, The Commercial Appeal

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TileMill lesson

My final session of the conference was a lesson in the free TileMill software from MapBox. It was like the third major mapping revelation in the three days I was here, building on what I had already learned about Google’s maps engine and Fusion tables.

The lesson from the session is all transcribed here:

On that page are other links, including a Google Drive script that helps with geocoding plain addresses and sources of shape files for map outlines.

What remains to be practiced and learned in this level of mapping complexity is the available styling options.

–Phil Tenser, KMGH

‘Asymmetry’ of transparency: journalism in the age of surveillance

“There is an asymmetry at the moment of how the government can access our information” but isn’t immediately transparent to journalists, attorney Naboha Syed observed during a keynote panel on the third and final day of ONA13.

Her succinct observation came on the tail end of an hour long discussion centered around the Edward Snowden case and the age of government surveillance. 

It began, as It would eventually end, with Guardian US editor-in-chief Janine Gibson fielding questions about the high profile and massive story. She explained in broad strokes how Snowden made contact with the newspaper, how he wanted to reveal himself as the source and had a respectful approach to the judgement of his chosen outlet in the fourth estate. 

In exchange, Gibson said, the Guardian took several steps to protect their private communications. Firstly, she said, reporters were sent to communicate with Snowden face-to-face because that is always the most secure method. She said it took a great deal of trust to send them to Hong Kong and not want them to provide updates to the home office, which would ruin the security plans.

When they did communicate, she said, they used secured disposable chatrooms.

Micah Lee, Staff Technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, observed that encryption was also used in the initial email contact with Snowden. It is a trend he observed was growing as organizations try to learn good habits that will protect them if an important source does come up.

“What we do on the internet and what we say on the phone is like an open book,” Lee answers, adding good security habits close the book at least partially.

Nabiha seemed to agree, saying the proposed federal shield law won’t protect the kind of national security information leaked by Snnowden. She added, “I don’t know what (law) can.”

“Technological solutions are really key because we don’t have anything else,” she said.

The result? The panel concluded we are at the beginning of a new era, and suggested investing in the security and infrastructure to be prepared for the future. Having in-house counsel and basic security protocols were recommended.

Precautions aside, Gibson said the Guardian staff was not under a pretense that security would continue after publication began. After the first story, she said, everyone would know there was a leak. The second would prove it was a big leak and the third, she said, would make the government begin to investigate very quickly.

The Snowden NSA documents story is not over, as Gibson revealed. They are still exploring the information in the leak and preparing more stories.

“We have a ton of stuff still to do. We’re not stopping,” she said.


–Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Matt Waite’s drone

Drones are not legal for news organization use. Some regulations that may allow their use could be in place by early 2015, but Matt Waite, a Pulitzer-prize winner who now teaches journalism at the University of Nebraska has one and demonstrated it for the ONA13 throng.


Nate Silver’s eight cool things journalist ought to know about statistics

1) Statistics aren’t just numbers.
2)  Data requires context
3) Correlation is not causation
4) Take the average, stupid
5) Intuition is a poor judge of probability
6) Know thy priors aka know your preconceptions
7) ‘Insiderism’ is the enemy of objectivity
8) Making predictions improves accountability

Bonus quote: “A bet is a tax on bullshit.”


Google mapping and fusion tables exercises

Here’s a link from a Google mapping and Fusion Tables session Friday afternoon, containing links to sample data sets and instructions for trying the tools for ourselves:


— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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How Natgeo is ‘opening the yellow border’

I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase from digital manager Keith W Jenkins, who talked about getting the magazine’s digital outlets to focus on its core strength: Photography.

Images are “The great attractor in the online connected space,” he said.

“We make things, we’re not just decorating the room with things,” Sarah Leen said about the magazine and the organization overall.

Illustrating his point, Jenkins shared the enormous success story of their latest version of UGC, called “YourShot” and provided a sneak peak of their upcoming site redesign.

Leen also showed samples from the magazine’s recent photography issue, which I was moved to download for my iPad. Of particular interest: their layouts for touchscreen images and an essay on the future of photography.



— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Nate Silver keynote -quick blog

Quick notes, top 4 quotes IMHO from Nate Silver’s awesome keynote lunch speech:

“Too often the respiration of a statistic shuts down the critical thinking from a reporter”

“Just as they ask good questions of their sources, journalists should ask good questions of the data”

“You can train research techniques and writing skill, but do you have that critical thinking ability?”

“In the online news space, it’s all about differentiation and not about volume”

What were your favorites?




— Phil Tenser, KMGH

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Bag A Troll

Presenter: Peter Dykstra – Publisher, The Daily Climate & Environmental Health News
@pdykstra |

Would it work to have a “Troll of the Week”? Using shame as a deterrent?

Boston paper: They pay outside company about $5,000/month to moderate comments, then two regular people serve as moderators for Red Sox/Patriots forum.

Having columnists/reporters go into the comments and post has changed the tenor of the debate, but only when the reporters/columnists are men.

When it’s women, they get attacked. It’s a safety issue for female journalists and female commenters when they have to use their real names.

Some sites have a “bozo” feature – they get banned but they think they’re still posting.

UT San Diego – has hired company to moderate comments means nothing remains up for more than an hour. Comments have to be moderated.

Livestrong site: Using FB comments has been helpful. About 60% women on site. Still have people post fat shaming remarks, listing tempting foods in threads about dieting, also problem with pro-anoxeric posts

Martha Vineyard’s paper: Has had sources refuse to talk for a story because they don’t want to be subjected to the comments online. (This is my worst fear.)

Question from woman w/ Site that deals with intersection of LGBT/spirituality: Where are the sites that have good commenting?

Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and NPR’s Code Switch mentioned as good examples of well-policed and thoughtful comment boards. Coates spends a lot of time there, NPR is quick to ban comments but always says exactly why.

Yahoo: Has invited trolls to create content for their site and let them see, subtly, how it feels, to get comments that are super critical

Cagle editorial cartoon site: what about dealing with institutional trolls? In response to a controversial cartoon, subject asked his supporters to flame Cagle, which got 10,000 comments, about 3,000 death threats.

Yahoo: Suspects that most of us have institutional trolls, but we may not know it because they don’t represent themselves that way.

Wendi C. Thomas, The Commercial Appeal


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