Words and numbers in journalism: How to tell when your story needs data

I’m not convinced that journalists are always aware when they should be thinking about numbers. Usually, by training and habit, they are thinking about words. But there are deep relationships between words and numbers in our everyday language, if you stop to think about them.

A quantity is an amount, something that can be compared, measured or counted — in short, a number. It’s an ancient idea, so ancient that it is deeply embedded in every human language. Words like “less” and “every” are obviously quantitative, but so are more complex concepts like “trend” and “significant.” Quantitative thinking starts with recognizing when someone is talking about quantities.

Consider this sentence from the article Anti-Intellectualism is Killing America which appeared in Psychology Today:

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value.

This is pure cultural critique, and it can be interpreted many different ways. To start with, I don’t know of standard and precise meanings for “critical thinking” and “cultural value.” We could also read this paragraph as a rant, an exaggeration for effect, or an account of the author’s personal experience. Maybe it’s art. But journalism is traditionally understood as “non-fiction,” and there is an empirical and quantitative claim at the heart of this language.

“Critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value” is an empirical statement because it speaks about something that is happening in the world with observable consequences. It is, in principle, a statement that can be tested against history. This gives us a basis for saying whether it’s true or false.

It’s quantitative because the word “abandoned” speaks about comparing amounts at two different times: something that we never had cannot be abandoned. At each point in time we need to decide whether or not “critical thinking” is a “cultural value.” This is in principle a yes or no question. A more realistic answer might involve shades of gray based on the number of people and institutions who are embodying the value of critical thinking, or perhaps how many acts of critical thinking are occurring. Of course “critical thinking” is not an easy thing to pin down, but if we choose any definition at all we are literally deciding which things “count” as critical thinking.

One way or another, testing this claim demands that we count something at two different points in time, and look for a big drop in the number. Compare this with the evidence provided:

  • a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell”
  • the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax
  • almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president

The first two pieces of evidence seem to me more anti-science than anti-critical thinking, but let’s suppose our definitions allow it. The real problem is that these are anecdotes – which is just a judgmental word for “examples.” Anecdotes make poor evidence when it’s just as easy to come up with examples on the other side. Yeah, someone brought a snowball into Congress to argue against climate change, but also the EPA decided to start regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The issue is one of generalization: we can’t draw conclusions about the state of an entire culture from just a few specific examples. Generalization is tricky at the best of times, but it’s much easier when you can count or measure the entirety of something. Instead we have only scattered facts, and no information about whether these cases are representative of the whole.

Or, as in historian G. Kitson Clark’s famous advice about generalization:

Do not guess; try to count. And if you cannot count, admit that you are guessing.

The fact that “one in three citizens can’t name the vice president” is closer to the sort of evidence we need. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, whether being able to name the vice president is really a good indication that “critical thinking” is a “cultural value.” This statement is still stronger than the first two examples because it generalizes in a way that individual examples cannot: it makes a claim about all U.S. citizens. It doesn’t matter how many people I can name who know who the vice president is, because we know (by counting) that there are 100 million who cannot. But this still only addresses one point in time. Were things better before? Was there any point in history where more than two thirds of the population could name the vice-president? We don’t know.

In short, the evidence in this paragraph is fundamentally not the right type. The word “abandoned” has embedded quantitative concepts that are not being properly handled. We need something tested or measured or counted across the entire culture at two different points in time, and we don’t have that.

Very many words have quantitative aspects. Words like “all” “every” “none” and “some” are so explicitly quantitative that they’re called “quantifiers” in mathematics. Comparisons like “more” and “fewer” are explicitly about counting, but much richer words like “better” and “worse” also require counting or measuring at least two things. There are words that compare different points in time, like “trend” “progress” and “abandoned.” There are words that imply magnitudes such as “few” “gargantuan” and “scant.” A series of Greek philosophers, long before Christ, showed that the logic of “if” “then” “and” “or” and “not” could be captured symbolically. To be sure, all of these words have meanings and resonances far beyond the mathematical. But they lose their central meaning if the quantitative core is ignored.

The relation between words and numbers is of fundamental importance in journalism. It tells you when you need to get quantitative. It’s essential for planning data journalism work and for communicating the results. It’s the heart of the data journalist’s job, really. The first step is to become aware of when quantitative concepts are being used in everyday language.


The Editorial Product

(This post first appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab)

The traditional goal of news is to say what just happened. That’s sort of what “news” means. But there are many more types of nonfiction information services, and many possibilities that few have yet explored.

I want to take two steps back from journalism, to see where it fits in the broader information landscape and try to imagine new things. First is the shift from content to product. A news source is more than the stories it produces; it’s also the process of deciding what to cover, the delivery system, and the user experience. Second, we need to include algorithms. Every time programmers write code to handle information, they are making editorial choices.

Imagine all the wildly different services you could deliver with a building full of writers and developers. It’s a category I’ve started calling editorial products.

In this frame, journalism is just one part of a broader information ecosystem that includes everything from wire services to Wikipedia to search engines. All of these products serve needs for factual information, and they all use some combination of professionals, participants, and software to produce and deliver it to users — the reporter plus the crowd and the algorithm. Here are six editorial products that journalists and others already produce, and six more that they could.

Some editorial products we already have

Record what just happened. This is the classic role of journalism. This is what the city reporter rushes out to cover, what the wire service specializes in, the role that a journalist plays in every breaking story. It’s the fundamental factual basis on which everything else depends. And my sense is we usually have enough of this. I know that people will disagree, saying there is much that is important that is not covered, but I want to distinguish between reporting a story and drawing attention to it. The next time you feel a story is being ignored, try doing a search in Google News. Almost always I find that some mainstream organization has covered it, even if it was never front-page. This is basic and valuable.

Locate pre-existing information. This is a traditional role of researchers and librarians, and now search engines. Even when the product is powered entirely by software, this is most definitely an editorial role, because the creation of an information retrieval algorithm requires careful judgement about what a “good” result is. All search engines are editorial products, as Google’s Matt Cutts has said: “In some sense when people come to Google, that’s exactly what they’re asking for — our editorial judgment. They’re expressed via algorithms.”

Filter the information tsunami. This is the act which produces your trusted information feed, whether that’s Facebook’s News Feed or Politico’s morning emails or Google News. It’s here that we can most productively complain that something “wasn’t covered.” Filtering depends upon aggregation and curation, because no one organization can produce original reporting on everything. Most filtering products also lean heavily on software, because human effort can’t match the scope of a web crawler, nor can a human editor prepare personalized headlines for millions of users. As with search engines, information filtering algorithms are both mathematical and editorial objects, and the best products use clever combinations of machines and people.

Give me background on this topic. This is also about locating pre-existing information, but in a summary or tutorial form. Because there are more complex issues than anyone can follow, most news is going to be about things that you don’t know much about. This has been called the context problem for news, and there have been many experiments in solving it. There are now entire sites devoted to explanatory journalism, such as Vox, but the 800-pound gorilla of getting up to speed is Wikipedia. So far, no other product can match Wikipedia’s scope, cost of production, or authority.

Expose wrongdoing. This is the classic role of investigative journalism, which fits within a whole ecosystem of accountability. Every government transparency initiative and every open data nonprofit aspires to support this goal, but transparency is not enough. Democracy needs people who are committed to exposing corruption, crime, and abuse. Sometimes this requires inside sources and secret documents, but accountability can also be about drawing attention to little-noted facts. But it is always about scandal, what has been called “the journalism of outrage.” This makes it powerless in the face of huge systemic issues without a clear locus of wrongdoing. Investigative journalism is vital, but only one part of the broad intersection between information and power.

Debunk rumors and lies. In this fairly new category, we have products like Politifact, which checks what politicians say, Emergent.info, which tracks the spread of rumors, and the venerable Snopes. It’s a little strange to me that the news media of old weren’t much into debunking, but I guess they thought “publish only true things” was sufficient. Clearly, truth-testing has since become a valuable public service, and journalists have learned to pay more attention.

Some editorial products that don’t exist yet

What can I do about it? More and more, this is the only beat I care to cover. Accurate news is essential to know the world, but reports of what just happened do not tell you what can be done about it, at a personal level. I don’t believe that citizens have become apathetic; I believe we are overwhelmed in the face of large and complex problems where it is hard to know where to start. We already know that stories that include solutions are more engaging. The main problem is one of plausible effectiveness: If you have ten dollars or ten hours to donate, where should you put your resources? Not every problem can be helped by large numbers of small actions — but some can. You could build a whole product around the question of what the reader could do.

A moderated place for difficult discussions. Traditionally, journalism has tried to present an objective truth that would be seen as legitimate by everyone. I’m not convinced that truth always works this way, and I’m sure that no institution today has this sort of argument-settling authority. But I do see a need for unifying narratives. Americans are more polarized than they’ve been in decades, and we fight online about everything from catcalls to tax rates. Perhaps there is a need for a safe place to talk, to know the other, with real human moderators gently tending the discussion and discouraging the trolls. When everyone can talk, the public sphere needs fewer authorities and more moderators. To me, seems a natural role for journalism.

Personalized news that isn’t sort of terrible. It seems obvious that different people need different news (if I do say so myself) and this requires algorithmic recommendation to scale, but the results have often been unimpressive — as anyone who has complained about the Facebook News Feed knows. I’ve spent a lot of time with recommendation algorithms and I’ve come to believe that this is fundamentally a user interface design challenge: How do you tell the computer what you want to see? Optimizing for clicks and likes inevitably degenerates into clickbait and likebait. Other systems require you to choose subjects in advance or people to follow, but none of these is really satisfying, and I still don’t have a “mute” button to tune out Kim Kardashian. I’m holding my breath for an interaction design breakthrough, some elegant way to create the perfect personal channel.

The online town hall. Democracy is supposed to be participatory; voting is not enough, but there is no scalable communication channel between citizens and government. So how does your voice get heard? And how do you hear the voices of other people — and how does a civil servant make sense of any of this deluge? There’s a hard problem here: We don’t have good models for a “conversation” that might include millions of people. I’m imagining something like a cross between Reddit and civic-listening platform PopVox. This too would require thoughtful moderation.

Systematic government coverage. Journalism has long looked for waste and corruption. But how many stories do you read about the Bureau of Land Management? Or the Office of Thrift Supervision, which should have been monitoring the financial industry before the crash? Sometimes it seems like journalists pull their subjects out of a hat. If we’re serious about the notion of an independent check on government, we need to get systematic about it. No one reports department by department, bureau by bureau, with robot reporters scrutinizing every single open data feed. Sound boring? It might be. But maybe that just means current accountability journalism is badly skewed by the demands of entertainment.

Choose-your-own-adventure reporting. Story creation could be interactive. There have been crowdfunding platforms such as Spot.us and Beacon, but nothing that operates on quite the level of granularity and speed envisioned by Jay Rosen’s explainthis.org, where users type in questions for journalists to answer. There are thousands of variations on the idea of having the users direct the reporting, everything from demand-driven production to a quiz after each story that says, “what should we report on next?” The point is to put journalists and users in an interactive loop. Good reporters listen anyway, but I want something stronger, a sort of contract with the audience where they know exactly how to be heard. For example: “Our reporter will investigate the top-voted question each week.”

What’s editorial, anyway?

I’ve used the word “editorial” to sidestep discussion of what “news” or “journalism” is. To ask that question misses the point of what it does. And there has been a strange lack of innovation here. Silicon Valley has never been afraid of wild ideas, but the tech world is allergic to any service which requires a lot of humans to deliver. That doesn’t scale, or so the thinking goes. Meanwhile, the journalism world has evolved and finally embraced software and new story forms. Yet the espoused goals of journalism — the fundamental services that journalists provide — seem virtually unchanged. That’s a pity, because there are so many different, useful things you can do by applying humans plus machines to nonfiction information production. We’ve barely scratched the surface.

Job: Help us learn how teaching works by visualizing millions of syllabi

Overview is an open-source document analysis and visualization system originally developed at the Associated Press for investigative journalists. It’s been used to report some of the biggest investigative stories of the last few years. We’re looking for a developer to extend the software to analyze millions of scraped syllabi for the Open Syllabus Project.

You will help us put 2 million scraped syllabi online, do natural language processing to extract citations from each syllabus, and build visualizations to do citation analysis. We want to see what people are actually teaching for each subject, and how this changes over time, and make this type of analysis widely available to researchers. We’re looking for someone to build out Overview to support this, growing our team from three to four people. This is an ideal job for a programmer with visualization, natural language processing, digital humanities or data journalism experience.

The project is Scala on the back and Coffeescript on the front, but you’ll more often be writing plugins in Javascript and doing data pre-processing in whatever works for you. We’re looking for a full stack engineer who can extend the back end infrastructure to process the syllabi, then build the UI to make all this data accessible to users. You’ll be working within a small team of professionals who will quickly get you up to speed on the core codebase and the plugin API you will use to create visualizations. Everything you write will be released under the AGPL open source license.

This is a six-month contract position to begin with. We hope to extend that, and we’d be especially excited to find someone who wants to grow into a larger role within our small team. We’re a distributed team based out of NYC, remote friendly, flexible hours.

Contact me here if interested.

How can I help?

What’s the best simple action you can take to address a particular social problem?

I wish there was somewhere that reviewed attempts to solve social problems, everything from activist campaigns to government programs. You’d go to this site, look up “homelessness” or “education” or “Asian tsunami” or “criminal justice reform” and get a recommendation for the most effective thing you could do right now, and if possible a button to do it or at least sign up to do itThe actions would be intentionally lightweight, like donating $10 or ten minutes of your time or pledging to vote a certain way. Think of a sort of Consumer Reports for social campaigns.

I’ve been calling this hypothetical civic information/action organization “How Can I Help?” because that’s the question it seeks to answer.

This is an ambitious idea, but there are working models to draw from. GiveWell is an organization whose sole purpose is to rate charities. They answer the question, “where should I give my small donation to do the maximum amount of good?” Of course this depends on what “good” means, but GiveWell has been careful in choosing and communicating their values. In fact the organization is a model of thoughtful and transparent research, with one of my very favorite blogs and a top-level “mistakes” section.

I want to expand on this idea. GiveWell makes only two or three recommendations, typically in the area of global health. But there’s also a good argument for taking care of the people and places where we live. What we should care about is a complicated question, and has no objective answer. But if you’re willing to say that something specific should change, then you can start to ask seriously how to get there.

How Can I Help wouldn’t need to dream up new solutions. Lots of organizations are already working on all sorts of problems, bringing forth a flood of reports and campaigns and proposals. But you and I don’t necessarily know about all of the proposals and attempts and actors around any particular issue. The difficult problem from the user’s point of view is not finding information about possible solutions, but selecting between them in an intelligent way. This follows a now-standard online media pattern: the aggregator. It’s the same logic that drives Yelp, Google News, and Rotten Tomatoes.

So: Imagine a site that continually reviewed the huge range of proposals from the huge range of actors who might seek to address any particular social ill, and maintained a few top recommendations for each cause.


Lightweight civic action

I think it’s important that the recommended actions be very lightweight.  I’m inspired in this by two recent posts on civic engagement. Anthea Watson Strong focuses on the personal costs and benefits of any kind of political action. She argues that if we want a lot of people to be involved, we either have to make it very cheap and easy for them to engage or else give them some expectation of a big payoff. Ethan Zuckerman divides civic action along two axes: thin to thick, and symbolic to impactful. In that language, what I’m proposing is in the thin and impactful quadrant.

I’m focussing on “thin” or low cost actions because I feel the opportunities for “thick” engagement are well covered. The whole Internet is just dying to give you information on whatever concerns you, and significant causes often have dozens of organizations who would love you to get involved. And I’ve focussed on “impactful” because, again, the Internet is already really good at symbolic or expressive campaigns like turning your avatar green or sharing a video. Expressing oneself is important, and has consequences — it’s how we learn that we are not alone, and it can focus public attention or create new language (Occupy Wall Street “did” nothing, but now we all know what “the 1%” means.) But if you’re after more concrete results, it’s not enough that your time and money go to a good cause; we need resources flowing to efficient and effective causes. This is especially important if you believe that most efforts to help are ineffective, as I do.

Figuring out where an individual could actually do some good with a small donation of time or money is not easy. It requires asking questions about the effectiveness of many different possible solutions, of course, but you also have to ask who is already working in that space, what they’re doing, and what the bottlenecks are. Raising money won’t help if lack of money isn’t the thing holding back progress.

So the question that this hypothetical organization must answer is “What can anyone do right now that is both easy and plausibly effective?” This is not an easy thing to answer, nor is there a guaranteed solution: for any particular issue there may be no clear way for an individual to contribute without getting deeply involved, and that’s a valuable answer too. And merely knowing the answer isn’t enough: the organization must communicate it, show all of the analysis that led to it, and continually update that analysis as learning happens and as new opportunities arise. Producing good recommendations for civic action is a major ongoing research and communication task.


Don’t be authoritarian

Offering easy, vetted ways to contribute to social change is an ambitious goal. Maybe even an audacious goal.  For a start, it’s not at all obvious what a “social problem” is. And why should anyone believe a self-appointed authority? These issues make me think that How Can I Help needs to be more plural and participatory than the typical media organization.

First of all, social problems don’t define themselves. There isn’t some obvious master list of what’s wrong with a community or a country, and not everyone will agree on whether any particular thing is a problem. In many cases, deciding on the problem is the problem.

Consider someone who comes to How Can I Help and searches for “taxes are too high.” Should they learn the name of the advocacy organization that most effectively lobbies for lower taxes? Or is the problem really something else? Perhaps this person is having money problems, so better wages or cheaper health insurance would be just as good to them. Maybe this person feels that the government is wasting public money, so what they really want is accountability and efficiency. Or maybe they have specific ideas about the scope of government, and the things that should and should not be collectivized. Similarly, do we understand the huge increase in America’s prison population to be about poverty, racist policing practices, or farcical drug laws?

It may not be possible to frame a problem definitively, but it should be possible to figure out what assumptions the answer depends on. In trying to solve any complex problem you’ll need answers to prior questions, many of which cannot be definitely decided. Some prior questions will be empirical questions where the necessary information is just not available, while others will be questions of values where there is no general agreement. Instead of arbitrarily picking one scenario, it should be possible to document how different answers to these unknowns lead to different courses of action.

But who should define these alternate framings, and who gets to influence the final recommendations? You could do How Can I Help as a traditional media organization,  by hiring a small number of smart people to research and write. But involving users in the process has multiple benefits.

First, you might get better answers. Diversity is helpful for finding good solutions and even more important for defining problems. There is emerging evidence that crowds beat experts for political prediction problems — and recommending an effective course of action is most definitely a prediction problem. You’re predicting that the recommended action will have a better effect than all available alternatives.

Participation is also important for scaling. If this model of reviewing and recommending actions works, people might want not want to wait for paid staff to get around to their issue. Maybe the process that generates this type of knowledge could be made self-serve, something that a group could apply. I’ve written before on the need to leverage participation in journalism if we want a lot of journalism to be done, which means it’s not only an egalitarian concern but a business model issue. Unfortunately, participatory journalism has proved difficult to systematize.

But the best reason for participation is that it’s not enough to produce good answers. People have to trust that they are good. How Can I Help must generate not only knowledge but legitimacy, and there is no better legitimacy than the sense of ownership. There are places on the internet where the user community feels like it’s theirs, where the administrators tread lightly and take fairness seriously. We all know when someone is playing dictator; it’s important to get the platform’s embedded constitutional principles right.

There is a balance to be found here. GiveWell is a mostly closed institution and doesn’t have to suffer trolls, but it is vulnerable to the charge that it’s just a bunch of technocrats telling us what’s best. Reddit is a mostly open model with millions of users who love and defend the space they have created, but it doesn’t generally produce sophisticated research. There is a huge unexplored space of design variations between open and closed.


Connecting information to action

Like many people, I got into journalism because I wanted to make a difference in the world. It’s clearly important to have accurate, timely reports of what’s happening, but modern hopes for journalism go well beyond mere information. When we talk about trying to measure the effects of journalism or concepts like solution journalism, we’re talking about making change in society. But journalism isn’t really set up to do this. There is a huge taboo against becoming too specific or effective, lest a news organization be seen as “activist” or “taking sides.” (I’m not necessarily saying this is wrong, just that it structurally precludes certain things.)

Other endeavors are unabashedly all about change: activist and advocacy organizations, charities and philanthropies, the NGO and development worlds — not to mention government social programs. Many of these organizations also produce information. But they go beyond mere information because they try to get people to do some specific thing, whether that’s “sign a petition” or “donate money” or “show up and help us dig trenches.” Action is powerful. But these these sorts of organizations might not be the most trustworthy sources of information, because they’ve already committed to a solution. There’s a basic conflict of interest here. You know they’re trying to sell you something.

So journalists are charged with producing accurate information yet they are reluctant to recommend specific actions. Meanwhile, activists and advocates are all about action but the information they produce may not be trustworthy. There is a huge disconnect here! How do we connect trustworthy information to informed action?

The core concept of How Can I Help —  an independent review of everyone who claims to be working on a problem and the effectiveness of their proposed solutions — is one possible response to this dilemma. I don’t know if it counts as journalism or advocacy or what, but I don’t particularly care (see also Adrian Holovaty’s classic answer to “is data journalism?”)

Now that I’ve started thinking of the interplay between information and action, many other problems with journalism seem clearer. I’ve always been frustrated at the way investigative journalists choose which stories to cover. News organizations tend to put resources into issues that are both little known and highly offensive. A journalist who goes deeply into climate change is not producing “news” because everybody already knows about the problem, while a great story that moves no one gets no attention, has no effect, and silently disappears. This model is broken. The dual frame of “our job is to bring new information to light” plus “it is someone else’s responsibility to decide what to do” prevents journalism from directly addressing the most obvious, pressing, ongoing issues.

Without information we cannot know what to do. Without action we do nothing. I am interested in connecting the two, and I think it may take new kinds of organizations to do that.


What I learned at Build Peace, the first conference for technology and conflict resolution

The organizers of Build Peace tell me it was the first conference specifically on peace and technology, and they should know. I don’t know the peace building field very well, but I could see that some of its leading lights were in attendance. I learned quite a bit, and I am very glad I went.

I have to start by saying I don’t think “technology for peace” is a sure win. My understanding is that peace building is incredibly difficult work, and rarely truly successful, and I don’t see why technology necessarily changes that. Yet I am also a technologist and I presented some of my own data-driven peace work at the conference. Clearly I believe it might be good for something.

There is a great need for conversations between capable conflict resolution workers and thoughtful technologists — hence this conference. Here are some of the things I think I learned.


Try existing social networking platforms first 

In the 5-minute long ignite talks I watched speaker after speaker present their work on “online discussion platforms,” “spaces for dialog,” and “peaceful online interaction.” Increasingly, I was bothered by a simple question: what do existing social media platforms lack for peace-building uses?

On the assumption that cross-cultural dialogue is key to peace (more on that below) the Internet seems to hold infinite potential, if we can just get people talking to each other the right way. This simple logic drives the explosion of online experiments. Which is great. But I rarely heard anyone talking about what makes one platform better than another — and if we don’t know what a peaceful platform should look like, why not just use Facebook?

This is what The Peace Factory does. The concept began with a Facebook page called Israel Loves Iran and quickly spawned other “X loves Y” pages which have reached millions of people. It progressed to the Friend Me 4 PEACE program which encourages people to friend someone from “the other side.”

Founder Ronie Edry described the logic:

People ask me, “Why would I ‘friend’ someone from Ramallah? What would I say?” Nothing. But you’ll see their stupid selfies in your feed.

Will selfies bring peace? I don’t know. They do seem humanizing, which is probably important. Also there is a natural escalation channel on Facebook, towards greater interaction and engagement. But what I really like about this work is that the experiment is cheap and easy to replicate.

It has become a staple of the crisis mapping community that crowdsourced crisis response must rely on already-deployed technology, not on crisis-specific apps. No one is going to install your app when the network is down and they can’t find their family. Similarly, do you really want to be in the position of convincing people involved in a civil war that they should switch social networks? My sense is, let’s find out where Facebook etc. fall short as a peace platform, before we go attempting to build an alternative — and get masses of people to use it, which is even harder than building it!


Do No Harm

One of the most significant things I learned about is the existence of a Do No Harm movement within peace and conflict work. This seems like a basic principle when working in a dangerous area, but its articulation is surprisingly young. I was referred by multiple people to the 1999 book by Mary B. Anderson. The book has spawned a sub-field both academic and practical.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t claim to understand the details. But the powerful idea that well-intentioned peace builders might make matters worse will stay with me.


Online interaction done right

Waidehi Gilbert-Gokhale of Soliya gave one of the most impressive presentations at the conference. Like a lot of other projects, Soliya aims to build peace through online discussion. Unlike a lot of other projects, Soliya can articulate why conversation alone is not enough. In Gilbert-Gokhale’s words: “unmoderated chat polarizes.” Here she is referencing a wide body of work that shows that bringing people with conflicting opinions together to talk can actually reinforce pre-existing divisive beliefs, not moderate them.


Soliya sees their online cross-cultural interactions as a new form of “exchange” program and even calls their new platform Exchange 2.0. Online interactions typically take place in a school setting, which gives teachers the chance to moderate and guide the discussion.

Most interestingly, Soliya seems serious about knowing whether any of this works — aka evaluation. Gilbert-Gokhale said,

The biggest thing we have to do is run control groups. Without that we have no validity to our findings.

And I love her for saying that. To me, this emphasis on evaluation seems way ahead of everyone else doing dialog programs — even though Soliya’s evaluations to date don’t seem to include a control group. Soliya also has produced is a lengthy 2009 report “covering the past 60 years of research into the impact of media on attitudes and behavior.” Certainly worth checking out!

That report also includes some very interesting neuro-imaging studies of conflict by Emile Bruneua of MIT, who also spoke at the conference. Brunuea has shown that our brains react differently when considering the suffering of members of an in-group versus an out-group. This is remarkable; however I have not included the pretty brain scan images because I know that brain scan images are very persuasive, whereas this work is very young. It’s a promising line of research, but it has not been reproduced by other researchers and it’s not clear how you might use it in the field. Evaluation of peace work is never simple.


Measurement and evaluation are key

I suspect that most peace building efforts don’t end up helping very much, and all the experienced peace workers I’ve spoken to agree. If this seems harsh, consider that there are good reasons to believe that much international aid is ineffective, and quite plausibly that a wide range of non-profit work in general is ineffective. Preventing or resolving violent conflict is probably even harder than those things.

There seems to be very little solid evidence that conflict resolution work does any good at all — certainly not anything up to the standards of a controlled study, because you can’t really do a controlled study in conflict areas. You go in and try to stop the violence because not attempting to stop it would be unethical (assuming, of course, you Do No Harm.) Then the violence diminishes or it does not. But there is no counterfactual to compare against. That is, we don’t know what would have happened had we done nothing.

It was my favorite session, and well-attended too, though much of the younger, hipper set seemed to be elsewhere. That saddens me. If we can’t figure out what works and what doesn’t we have nothing at all. If we can figure out how to do good evaluation then we can learn.

I came away with several big ideas from the evaluation working group.

First, control groups might be nice but qualitative explanations count! Say you held a bunch of mediation sessions between community leaders in different communities. Then the conflict seemed to settle down. You theorize that it was your work organizing these meetings that caused things to get better. Are you right?

Sometimes people who practice ethnography and other qualitative research methods get into arguments with data people about what can be learned from only one specific case, only one historical experience. I experienced this at the conference in the conversations around metrics and data. Personally I believe that the well developed theory of causation says you can’t know the magnitude of a causal effect unless you have lots of cases, divided between control and non-control groups. But obviously being in the time and place of a conflict and trying to shape it can teach you something deep about what happened. The question is, what?

I learned during this session that there’s a whole body of knowledge about this kind of single-case causation analysis under the name of process tracing. For example, you need to test your proposed explanations against historical facts, and certain types of tests provide more evidence than others, and in fact there’s a whole theory of case study selection and inference. See also analysis of competing hypotheses, developed in intelligence work, which I now see as closely related. Process tracing won’t get you results equivalent to a large number of controlled cases, but you can get immensely valuable knowledge anyway, and it will be even better than statistical analysis in certain ways.

But suppose you really need the kind of evidence that only a controlled study can provide, such as estimates of the magnitude of your effect (also estimates of the uncertainty in your estimates, which can be just as important.) I learned that there are several different controlled designs that might work in peace building. Instead of comparing against doing nothing, you could compare against doing something else. You can do the same thing in different places (say, different villages) at different times, and look for a time correlation, which is called a stepped wedge design. Or you do the program only in places where some metric of need is above a certain threshold, which is called a regression discontinuity design.

Effectiveness is important for many reasons, one of which is that there are many more things that could be done than there is funding to do them. So someone has to make hard choices, and effectiveness has to be a key factor.

But the biggest idea I took from the measurement workshop is that even this seemingly airtight logic is suspect, because peace programs so very often end up doing something completely different from what they set out to do! The reality of conflict assures that. It does no good to charge in with an evaluation strategy that measures the wrong thing… and maybe you can only know if you’re measuring the right thing after you’ve started the project.

In other words, learning on the ground might (and probably should) convince you that your goal should change. I was delighted to discover that this idea of questioning your goals as you move toward them has a name: double-loop learning.


Open and closed, the crowd and the authorities

There was a fundamental tension at the conference between open and closed approaches to peace. If you like, there were two narratives about how projects were constructed. Some speakers presented about explicitly open projects (“Peace is everyone’s business: Mass SMS to prevent violence.”) Other projects involved a small group of outsiders working with existing authorities (“Elections data for the people in transitioning MENA countries.”) And more than a few projects have chosen to keep their data completely private, to prevent their human sources from coming to harm.

Is the future of technology-enabled peace building open or closed? I think both. There is great potential for open, flattened, peer-to-peer projects because ultimately it is people who must be at peace, not their governments. But not all processes can include all people, for some very good reasons. Even a “consensus” processes almost always has to exclude someone, either for logistical reasons or to deal with spoilers. Quinn Norton’s scathing dissection of Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly is a beautiful example of the failure of an open system.

Because the [General Assembly] had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators.

Of course I’m not arguing that we are currently at ideal levels of openness, either for peace building projects or anything else. Just that the ideal is some careful hybrid.


Visualizing Polarization

I have done a little bit of work on data-driven ways to understand conflict, which stems from my interest in visualizing communities. It’s possible to see the political divisions of the U.S. population in many different types of data: political book sales, who talks to who on Twitter, geographical voting patterns, and more. My own contribution to this is an interactive visualization of the gun control debate on Twitter from one week in February 2013, published in The Atlantic. In that visualization, which shows “people who Tweeted this link also tweeted that link,” you can clearly see that there are two poles of thought on the matter, led by (for this particular week of Twitter conversation) the White House on one side and The Blaze on the other.

Here are the slides I showed at the beginning of the session, which became a very lively group discussion (yay!)

Polarization Build Peace 2014
Click to see my slides for this session

It’s striking to me that conflict dynamics show up so clearly in big data visualization… but I’m really not sure how helpful that is, if your concern is peace. Yes, plots like these could help in conflict analysis, but anyone who’s actually paying attention to a conflict already knows who the sides are. A more interesting possibility is a time-based analysis where you animate these association patterns through time, to see if anything is changing. This type of network analysis could also be used just as marketers use it, to identify influential people and groups for the purposes of media planning.

Various people including myself suggested that maybe peace builders should look at these networks to find people who bridge between the sides. But Ethan Zuckerman made a very interesting counter-suggestion: maybe we need to look outside of the conflict divisions entirely, to find completely unrelated identities that many people can agree on. He pointed to the Harry Potter Alliance, which was founded to address the conflict in Sudan.

Location data might help us to find bridging spaces, literally spaces in the physical world. Mobile phone companies have location history for each subscriber, so it should be possible to figure out a) which “side” each person is on by where they travel and who they associate with and b) where people from the two sides come together. What if we discover that otherwise mortal enemies drink in the same bar every Friday night? Is that useful? Does it violate privacy in that creepy location-data way if we just know the name of the bar, not the names of the people who go there? I have no answers.

I am awed by the potential for data in peace work, but I am also very cautious. Technologists tend to get lost in technological fantasies, while peace workers may not have the technical imagination to see what is possible. If my experience bringing computer science to journalism is at all typical, then we have lot of work to do to bridge this gap.


A young field with a lot to learn

I’ve been hanging around  journalism innovation and crisis mapping and ICT4D and related things for six years now, which is (surprisingly?) long enough to see several generations of projects come and go. I feel like peace technology is currently making some of the classic mistakes: people are making without considering what already exists, technologists with no knowledge of peace building are going to suck at understanding user needs, and there’s not really any talk of tech project sustainability.

But I am also elated. This conference was a unique confluence of enthusiasm, expertise, and experiments. It has made me optimistic that if there there is a role for technology and technologists in peace building, we will find it. It will probably take a few more years for all of it to settle down into useful practices. I certainly came away with some things to try — and I’d go on that data scientist conflict zone exchange program in a heartbeat. Or at least back to Build Peace next year.


Questions about the NYPD I cannot answer

Recently, the NYPD started a Twitter hashtag campaign, and it backfired.

Several of my friends — actual, real life good friends — shared this story on Facebook in a, let’s say, somewhat triumphant mood. And I wasn’t sure what to think. This is what I wrote.

I’m having trouble understanding what all this signifies. Here’s what I come up with that I am sure about:

I’m having trouble understanding what all this signifies. Here’s what I come up with that I am sure about:

  • my friends do not like cops
  • clearly there are other people who do not like cops
  • people who do not like cops are either more common on Twitter or more vocal than those who like them
  • the NYPD sure have beaten up a lot of people

But, these are the questions I remain unable to answer:

  • I think we probably want a police force that engages with people on social media. How should they have engaged?
  • Were any of these beatings “proportionate?” This is horrible language, I know, but give it a pass for a moment.
  • Is any beating ever proportionate? How could we even know the answer to this in principle, let alone in specific cases?
  • What is the overall record of the NYPD? Is this a question that even has meaning given the multidimensional nature of the problem? Can the answer be anything other than “terrible” if there are incidents like these?
  • What would I do if I was king of the NYPD?
  • Will my friends perceive this post as “defending the cops”? Will there be social sanctions of some sort for expressing these ideas? Is my echo chamber just as pernicious as the echo chambers of those that belong to my perceived “other”?

– Yours in sadness and inquiry.

The post has not received any “likes.”

Peace, Conflict, and Data

A talk I gave at the IPSI Bologna Symposium on conflict resolution. Slides here.

We might be able to do better at conflict resolution — making peace in violent conflicts — with the help of good data analysis. There have long been data sets about war and violent conflict at the state level, but we now have much more.

There are now extraordinarily detailed, open-source event data streams that can be used for violence prediction. Conflict “microdata” from social media and communications records can be used to visualize the divisions in society. I also suggest a long term program of conflict data collection to learn, over many cases, what works in conflict resolution and what doesn’t.

We’re really just at the beginning of all of this. There are huge issues around data collection, interpretation, privacy, security, and politics. But the potential is too great to ignore.

Update: two excellent resources have come to my attention in the days since I gave this talk (which is, of course, part of why I give talks.)

First, see the International Peace Institute’s paper on Big Data for Conflict Prevention. This paper was co-authored by Patrick Meier, who has been deeply involved in the crisis mapping work I mentioned in my talk.

But even more awesome, Erica Chenoweth has done exactly the sort of data-driven case-control study I was contemplating in my talk, and shown that non-violent political resistance succeeds twice as often as armed resistance. Her data set, the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Data Project, also shows that non-violence is much more likely to lead to good democracies five years later, and that a movement that can recruit 10% of the population is almost guaranteed to succeed.

I highly recommend her talk.

Recent work

I realize I haven’t been posting here for some time. That’s because I’ve been posting elsewhere! Here’s some of what I’ve been up to, mostly in the last six months or so:

Good old-fashioned journalism:

Writing about journalism, for the Nieman Journalism Lab:
Work at the intersection of data and journalism:

So, yeah, I’ve been busy.


Journalism is more than one thing

There’s a craving in the air for a definitive statement on what journalism is, something to rally around as everything changes. But I want to do the opposite. I want to explode journalism, to break it apart into its atomic acts. I’m beginning to suspect that taking it apart is the only way we can put it all back together again.

In the endless debate about what the “future of journalism” holds, “journalism” doesn’t have a very clear meaning. We’re in the midst of hot arguments over who is a journalistwhether social media is journalismwhether data is journalism, whether cherished tenets like objectivity are necessary for journalism. As the print advertising model that funded the bulk of working journalists collapses and forces transformation, it’s pressing to know what is worth preserving, or building anew.

After decades where “journalism is what journalists do” was good enough, there is a sudden a bloom of definitions. Some claim that “original reporting” is the core, deliberately excluding curation, aggregation, and analysis. Others say “investigative reporting” is the thing that counts, while a recent FCC report uses the term “accountability journalism” liberally. These are all efforts to define some key journalistic act, some central thing we can rally around.

I don’t think I could tell you what the true core of journalism is. But I think I have a pretty good idea of what journalists actually do. It’s a lot of things, all of them valuable, none of them the exclusive province of the professional. Journalists go to the scene and write or narrate or shoot what is happening. They do months-long investigations and publish stories that hold power accountable. They ask pointed questions of authorities. They read public records and bring obscure but relevant facts to light. All of this is very traditional, very comfortable newswork.

But journalists do all sorts of other things too. They use their powerful communication channels to bring attention to issues that they didn’t, themselves, first report. They curate and filter the noise of the Internet. They assemble all of the relevant articles in one place. They explain complicated subjects. They liveblog. They retweet the revolution. And even in the age of the Internet, there is value to being nothing more than a reliable conduit for bits; just pointing a camera at the news — and keeping it live no matter what — is an important journalistic act.

There’s more. Journalists verify facts and set the record straight when politicians spin. (You’d think this would be uncontroversial among journalists, but it’s not.) They provide a place for public discussion, or moderate such a place. And even though magazine journalism can be of a very different kind, like Hunter S. Thompson writing for The Atlantic, we still call it journalism. Meanwhile, newspaper journalists write an enormous number of interpretive pieces, a much larger fraction than is normally appreciated. The stereotypical “what just happened” report has become less and less common throughout the last 100 years, and fully 40 percent of front page stories are now analytical or interpretive, according to an excellent piece of forthcoming research. And, of course, there are the data journalists to cope with the huge rise in the availability and value of data.

Can we really say which of these is the “true” journalism?

I think it depends hugely on the context. If some important aspect of the present has never been represented anywhere else, then yes, original reporting is the key. But maybe what the public needs is already in a document somewhere, and just posting a link to it on a widely viewed channel is all that is needed. At the other end of the spectrum, verifying the most basic, on-the-ground facts be can challenge enough. I saw the process that the AP went through to confirm Gadhafi’s death, and it was a tricky undertaking in the middle of a conflict zone. In other cases, the missing piece might not require any new reporting at all, just a brilliant summary that pulls together all the loose threads.

There are a lot of different roles to play in the digital public sphere. A journalist might step into any or all of these roles. So might anyone else, as we are gradually figuring out.

But this, this broad view of all of the various important things that a journalist might do, this is not how the profession sees itself. And it’s not how newsrooms are built. “I’ll do a story” is a marvelous hammer, but it often leads to enormous duplication of effort and doesn’t necessarily best serve the user. Meanwhile, all the boundaries are in flux. Sources can reach the audience directly, and what we used to call “technology” companies now do many of the things above. Couple this with the massive, beautiful surge of participatory media creation, and it’s no longer clear where to draw the lines.

But that’s okay. Even now, news organizations do a huge number of different things, a sort of package service. Tomorrow, that might be a different package. Each of the acts that make up journalism might best be done inside or outside the newsroom, by professionals or amateurs or partners or specialists. It all depends upon the economics of the ecosystem and, ultimately, the needs of the users. Journalism is many good things, but it’s going to be a different set of good things in each time, place, and circumstance.

(originally published at Nieman Journalism Lab)

The hard part of solution journalism is agreeing on the problems

The only editorial mantra that ever made any sense to me comes from the Voice of San Diego new reporter guidelines: “Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.” It’s been said that the role of journalism is to inform, but informing seems like a means, not an end, and I believe that a better world is  the ultimate goal for journalism. The ambitious idea of solution journalism is to concentrate reporting on what could be improved and how, not just what is wrong. There are a small number of people practicing this today, such as David Bornstein who writes the New York Times’ “fixes” column, and Dowser.org.

But “things can always be better” is a supremely difficult phrase. It appeals to our hopes, while it hides our disagreements and our ignorance. Before we can come up with solutions, we have to agree on what the problems are. This is harder than it sounds; you can’t just sit down and make a list like “unemployment, education, crime, homelessness, global warming…” and get to reporting. People are going to disagree not only about priorities, but about how to best to understand a problem, and even about whether or not certain things are problems. Dealing in solutions also tends to move the journalist from informer to advocate, which is tricky territory.

I think there’s a way to do solution journalism that deals with these difficulties, but first we have to understand why this is so hard.

What’s a social problem?
In my time as a journalist I’ve seen a lot of bitter complaining that some particular issue is under-covered. Often, there is merit to the complaints. But let’s take the larger view and ask how we should decide which problems are deserving of attention, and how much. How do we weigh homelessness versus crime, or compare it to failing schools, onerous taxes, corrupt financiers, AIDS, unemployment, and global warming? How do we rate the local against the global? How do we weigh one endangered species against another? (In practice, very inconsistently.)

Sociologists have understood for some time that social problems are “products of a process of collective definition,” as Stephen Hilgartner and Charles Bosk put it in 1988. “After all,” they wrote,

there are many situations in society that could be perceived as social problems but are not so defined. A theory that views social problems as mere reflections of objective conditions cannot explain why some conditions are defined as problems, demanding a great deal of societal attention, whereas others, equally harmful or dangerous, are not. … The extent of the harm in these cases cannot, in itself, explain these differences, and it is not enough to say that some of these situations become problems because they are more “important.” All of these issues are important — or at least capable of being seen as such.

“Social problems” are real, but they are not like trees and planets and atoms, things “out there” in the universe that will be discovered the same way by anyone who looks. Although there are surely things wrong in the world, the process that transforms real-world conditions into the “issues” of any particular time and place, the issues that journalists “should” be writing about, is social and subjective. This was one of the lessons of the social constructionists in the 1970s. Meanwhile, it was the architect, engineer, and urban planner Horst Rittel who gave us a way to think and talk about problems that are real, but extraordinarily hard to pin down.

Wicked problems
A “wicked problem” is one where defining the problem is part of the problem. Suppose we’re concerned about homelessness. All right, the problem is that there are people on the streets. Why is that? Maybe they lack any employable skills, and the true difficulty lies with the education system. Or maybe they’re mentally ill, in which case health care could be the root problem. Or, maybe we need to look broader. Perhaps something is wrong with the way that we are managing our economy, so that too many people are plunged into poverty. And if we notice that many homeless people are women, or black, perhaps this is an issue with systemic discrimination of one kind of another. The whole thing is a massive tangle of cause and effect.

In a brilliant 1973 essay, Rittel saw that top-down, institutional solutions to social problems based on “objective” criteria simply wouldn’t work, because there is no one clear “right” way to define a problem, let alone solve it.

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of those problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity. … Goal-finding is turning out to be an extraordinarily obstinate task.

Rittel goes on eloquently about the features that wicked problems share. Jay Rosen has a good summary:

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

Trained in cybernetics, an early mathematical form of systems theory, Rittel thought in networks of cause and effect and saw how all of society operates as an irreducible whole. But he was also deeply involved in the practical realities of social undertakings as an architect, designer, and civic planner, and he appreciated the reality of our pluralistic cultures. The result is a very nuanced argument that social problems cannot be grasped in “objective” terms. In most cases there is no obviously right conception of a problem, and no single “correct” solution. Instead, Rittel became interested the process of “design.”

Designing society
Rittel researched, practiced, and wrote on the subject of design, which he said was about planning a path from what “is” to what “ought” to be. Rather than a linear method, he saw design as an iterative process of imagining future worlds and investigating the tools available to reach them from the actual present. In “The Reasoning of Designers” he wrote,

A design problem keeps changing while it is treated, because the understanding of what ought to be accomplished, and how it might be accomplished is continually shifting. Learning what the problem is IS the problem.

Such a design process is flexible and amorphous enough to attack the wicked problems of society. But it is necessarily a subjective process, dependent on the background assumptions and values of the designer, and also necessarily a political process because design, especially social planning, affects many lives.

No plan has ever been beneficial to everybody. Therefore, many persons with varying, often contradictory interests and ideas are or want to be involved in plan-making. The resulting plans are usually compromises resulting from negotiation and the application of power. The designer is party in these processes; he takes sides. Designing entails political commitment — although many experts would rather see themselves as neutral, impartial, benevolent experts who serve the abstraction of “the common good.”

Rittel saw many parallels between design and discussion. In fact he saw design as “a process of argumentation” and asked how people could engage in productive discussions to come up with good plans. There are strong parallels here to the concept of deliberative democracy, and the idea that journalism “must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise” (according to the Elements of Journalism.)

The role of the solution journalist
A journalist is not an urban planner, a teacher, an economist, a police captain, or an epidemiologist. We already have those people in society, so I don’t know why we would imagine that journalists are supposed to invent good plans. Even the idea of journalists merely promoting particular solutions flies in the face of the orthodoxy that says journalism exists to inform, not to advise or act. Personally, I find the idea of total journalistic detachment to be nonsensical; if journalism has no effect, then it simply does not work. But neither do I think that journalists have any particular legitimacy to decide for everyone else. Chris Anderson nails this point when he asks,

by what right, and on what grounds, do journalists claim the authority to offer solutions to any particularly difficult problem? Journalists are neither elected, nor particularly accountable, nor all that expert in anything in particular.

I answer this by saying that I don’t want the journalist to offer solutions. The solution journalist ought to be well informed, certainly, and perhaps they ought to report and write on possible solutions to social problems, but I dont think that’s their primary responsibility. Rather, I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future.

This is the moderator’s role. There is wide scope here, beyond the daily nuts and bolts of moderating a networked discussion (for which there are already a great variety of models.) It would be very valuable if the journalist continually curated links that describe both potential issues and potential solutions within the community. It would be crucial to include a variety of voices in this discussion, or the conclusions may not be representative; I like John Dewey’s definition of a public as a group of people affected by some issue. And the journalist could step in at key moments to clarify basic points of fact, either by citing authoritative references or by doing some reporting. The point is to have a healthy discussion about just what are the most pressing public problems — and the possible solutions. “Healthy” might mean many things, such as reality-based, respectful, and productive. Deciding what kind of discussion we want to have and how best to go about having it is itself a wonderful design problem!

There is a great deal of room here for experimentation with software and process. As early as 1970 Rittel designed what we would now call “social software” to facilitate discussions, building his “issue-based information system” for government planning departments. But we know very little about how to make discussion systems work at web scale. We have a few tantalizing examples — the Slashdots, Wikipedias, and Reddits of the world — but no general principles. Meanwhile, we are just beginning to ask about the very human process of tending to an online community. What is the most effective and the fairest way to deal with trolls, crazies, and other spoilers? How do we make the hard decisions about excluding people? How can the users best contribute to the process? What is the right combination of norms, rules, and code? Unfortunately, we are going to have to learn how to do this differently for different sizes of groups. A neighborhood, a city, a country and a planet will all require different approaches, because social interactions do not scale cleanly (see, e.g., Dunbar’s number.)

So there is software, and there is process, and there are people bound up together who will see different aspects of their shared condition. Sometimes they will disagree violently about the truest representation and the worthiest goal. Perhaps the work of solution journalism is not to propose solutions, but to help a community come to a shared understanding of what its major problems are, which is the first and possibly hardest step in solving them.