CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.

 

Enable Your Audience to Give Feedback to their Elected Officials From Your Site

MyRepresentatives Feedback Before & After Slide v2Thanks to Joey Brown, Bryan Glazer & Sunlight Labs you’ll be able to soon:

  • Instantly find and give feedback to your state and federal elected officials all across the United States
  • Embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button in your site or blog, so whether you’re a news organization, non-profit or advocacy organization, you can make it easy for your audience to get engaged.

The goal is to transform journalism from just presenting information to providing civic engagement tools that make it easy for readers/viewers to take action. After all, isn’t the whole point of journalism to help drive change?

With MyRepresentatives you can embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button on your site, just like you do links to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re done!

Best of all it’s free! The entire site has been developed as an after-hours non-partisan public-service project, but that doesn’t mean we won’t accept donations.

So stay tuned! And feel free to contact us for more details about how you can integrate MyRepresentatives into your site.

Wall Street Journal Crushes NY Times in Battle for my Family’s Hearts and Minds

I hate to say it but the Old Gray Lady needs a major face lift if it’s going to be welcome in my home again.

We’d been getting the Wall Street Journal for the last few years, until we received a gift subscription to the New York Times so we let our subscription to the Journal lapse. My wife and  teenage daughters really enjoyed the Journal’s inviting layout, easy-to-read articles and especially the Market Place, Personal Journal and all the Weekend Extra sections, but I loved the NY Times articles on the Web and was looking forward to receiving the entire paper.

So after three months of the New York Times, our family unanimously agrees, the Times is out and the Wall Street Journal is coming back to our driveway.

While the WSJ still has a focus on business and Wall Street in particular, it didn’t feel like it was written just for Wall Street Insiders. There were articles on politics, international affairs, science, family, education, relationships, etc… that were easy to read and of interest to the family.

On any given day there were always more than a few articles that interested adults and teenagers alike. While the Journal  may not have as much written content as the NY Times, the layout was a lot more user friendly for a busy family always on the go. So at the end of the week, you actually learned more even if there was less actual text/content.

The NY Times on the other hand seemed like a big gray mass of text with an overwhelming number of articles and even worse, an intense focus on the New York arts and culture scene, about as a relevant to a Memphian as Memphis city politics are to New Yorkers.

While it featured some great articles, the total amount of text was too much to read and the stories too hard to find. Everything was so buried in a sea of words that even though our family is very internationally focused (One spouse is from Europe. I’m half Argentine. One daughter wants to be a diplomat, etc…) the length of the articles made it difficult to find the time to read.

Instead of being able to quickly ingest an article or two over breakfast before dashing out the door, you needed to plan on setting aside time for a three-course meal to digest articles in the Times. Rather than being an enjoyable Sunday read, going through it was viewed as kind of a chore, and mostly abandoned by everyone except for myself – a former reporter and intense news junkie.

When I was a reporter at the Orange County Register we used to grouse about the travesty of having to write more condensed articles and having our articles chopped to fit the papers easy-to-read design guidelines. After I left and started editing/designing publications,  I discovered the importance of design. And now as a busy dad and marketer, I’ve come to appreciate good design even more, which is why one reason why I appreciated the Journal, and why I’m even more surprised that the Times hasn’t focused more on making their content more accessible.

Another part of the problem is the “New York” in the New York Times. While many, daresay most of us, outside of New York embrace the brand for its ongoing history of great journalism – especially its coverage of national and international events – most of us don’t really care about New York, and find the intense parochialism, off putting.

On the Web, it’s less of an issue, as it’s very easy to skip the New York components and dive into the areas of interest, but in the paper form, it’s very distracting. And while we’re all Webheads, nothing beats bringing a good-old fashioned paper to the bathroom or for sharing articles and commentary with family around the breakfast table.

Now that our gift subscription to the Times has run out, we’ve re-upped our subscription to the WSJ and are looking forward to relaxing with the paper instead of working through the paper.

News Organizations: We want insights not just people’s opinions

To the Commercial Appeal & other Memphis-area news organizations,

Now is your chance to rise above and help us Shelby County residents better understand some of the momentous choices we are about to make, but it will require moving beyond the traditional reporting and writing of the past to actual analysis & presentation of information.

Us residents of Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville are about to vote on creating new school districts but without having any of the tools required to really understand the impacts of our decisions. And your text-based reporting doesn’t really illustrate or explain what the impacts of the different scenarios really are.

If you and the rest of the news organizations really want to thrive in an interactive world, then it’s time to move beyond just writing and adopt new tools  - like GIS/ computerized mapping, which can give us readers the ability to visually see how different options will impact us.

Depending upon how the new municipal school boundaries are drawn, e.g. if they only include students within the municipality, you will have dramatic fluctuations school populations – either increasing or decreasing – and therefore the potential revenue and staff available at the school.

For example, we love Riverdale Elementary, our neighborhood school, but as far as I can tell the majority of the school kids actually come from the Cordova area outside of Germantown city limits. If a new municipal school district was too be launched then my assumption is all the kids from Cordova would be excluded and attendance   would plummet. Instead of overcrowding, we’d be faced with empty classrooms and firing teachers.

However, these are all guesstimates as I don’t have the tools to easily calculate the different scenarios. Instead, I get to read articles from different stakeholders sharing general opinions but without really getting insight into the cold hard numbers or what new boundary changes will mean to me.

It’s as if I turned on the TV news to find out the details of a dangerous storm heading our way so I could decide whether my family should take shelter in the closet or not – and instead of a meteorologist giving me detailed visual information about the storm track and intensity, reporters with no meteorological training were interviewing various “experts” about the storm.

“Yes, it’s going to be a dangerous storm,” exclaims expert one.

“Well it shouldn’t really be that bad unless you’re in the impacted areas,” explains expert two.

“There you have it, it will be a stormy night,” explains the reporter.

Meanwhile, what people like me, have come to expect is a trained expert using advanced analysis/visualization tools showing us the intensity and storm track so we can make potentially life or death decisions. (For those of you outside of tornado country, check out this clip of the play-by-play analysis of a severe storm to see what I mean.)

Because I have a GIS background, I could potentially conduct the analysis but that’s what I’m looking to you for as I have a full time job and kids. That’s why I subscribe, or don’t, to the Commercial Appeal or turn to other local news sources.

The reality is that if I want to buy a car, house or furniture, I’m going to look on Craig’s List, but when it comes to understanding what’s going on with my city, county and schools I look to news organizations, but you need to provide me the information I want and need in order for me to shell out my hard-earned money for a subscription.

The good news is that the technology has become much cheaper and easier to learn and use – so someone with some curiosity and basic spreadsheet skills can quickly move from just reporting to analysis.

And if you don’t have the skill sets internally, partner with the university or people like me who do. Whatever you do, don’t continue doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results – your business and your community need you  to do better.

Sincerely,

Kevin Mireles

Green Fried Rice & a Shamrock Piñata on St. Patrick’s Day or Why I love America!

It’s hard to believe it’s been sixteen years since that fateful St. Patrick’s Day party at my place in Santa Ana when I hooked up with my wife.

Since my roommate was Vietnamese and I’m an undercover Hispanic we celebrated this Irish holiday in a 100% American way with green fried rice, a Shamrock piñata, Guinness, Irish whiskey and a multicultural and multicolored group of friends.

Not everyone was as enthused about this cultural miscegenation. My roommate’s Irish-American boyfriend just kept muttering between swigs of Irish whisky, “My grandfather must be turning over in his grave,” as we ate our fried rice and took turns whacking the pinata.

But that’s what I love about America. Where else can you celebrate an Irish Catholic holiday with an Asian and Mexican twist? Nowhere! And that’s why where others are dismayed at the sights and sounds of other countries in their own front yards, I see the strength and vitality that will be critical to our success in this global economy.

After all, I’m a cultural mutt. My kids are mutts. My dog’s a mutt. And that’s what makes America great – the mashups of people and cultures that create new versions of old traditions – especially food!

Lets face it the “traditional” American diet is pretty boring. I remember the days when even in LA my mom would have to drive cross town to get fresh raviolis and empanadas. And the concept of eating raw fish with rice and seaweed was virtually unheard of –  at least in my household. Instead, being a good Mexican-Argentine-American family we’d have much more traditional food, like bacon, eggs, waffles and beans or steak and beans or beans and empanadas…. you get the picture.

Back then, your choice of bread was white Wonder bread or if you wanted something with a little fiber  there was Roman Meal bread in the yellow and orange bag  - and that’s it. Now walk into a  supermarket in any major city and there’s tofu, tortillas, sushi and Sriracha  Sauce next to the Greek yogurt and Gruyere cheese.

Even beyond that, the dirty little secret of our information age is that it’s primarily powered by South Asian immigrants and others from around the globe with the talent, education and drive required to thrive in a code-driven economy.

And where would I be without this global society? Nowhere  as I’m a Paucho; the mix of an Argentinian Gaucho and a Mexican-American Pocho.

Worse yet, I’d never have met my French wife and learned about the joys of home-made whipped cream. Growing up I thought it just came out of a can and had no idea just how good it could be! Or how easy it is to make! I’d know nothing of tarts, the joys of cheese or the proper way to eat mussels – that’s with another mussel shell of course!

My kids wouldn’t be bilingual – now working toward trilinguality – and most of all I wouldn’t have my partner, the woman I love, the femme I fight with, the mother of my kids, who watches my back, tells me the things I don’t want to hear, holds me tight when I need a hug – my petite hummingbird who flits from task to task and declares on a daily basis, “I can’t understand why I’m so tired” despite waking at 5:30 a.m., rarely stopping, never sitting, helping cranky kids with homework, planting gardens, cleaning, installing kitchen tiles, cooking home-made meals, dashing to and fro for good deals and kids activities.

And I might not have her in my life if it weren’t for celebrating an Irish saint’s birthday nearly 1,700 years later here in America – home of the free, the brave and the mutts.

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Why Grassroutes.us Represents the Future of Civic Engagement

Over the years I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make civic engagement easy & ubiquitous which is why when I saw Grassroutes.us instant feedback app I was both awed and bummed.

Awed because they nailed the key components to making finding & engaging your congressional representatives easy. Bummed because they beat me to it.

Today, if you read an article or go to a Website and are inspired to engage your representative, you then have to go somewhere else to figure out who your represetatives are and then find their contact information. And then you have to go to three different places, your two senators’ and congressman’s sites, to give your feedback. Grassroutes eliminates that. They’ve built a super simple app you can drop into your site so someone can read something, and then instantly engage right from your page. Their app uses your IP address to identify and display your rep with their Twitter, Facebook, email & phone info so instead of taking 5-10-15 minutes to engage, you can do it in 15 seconds.

And by making it a simple widget you can drop into your site with no programming required, every advocacy group in America will be able to not only tell their audience why they should get involved but provide the civic engagement tools required.

One of the lessons I’ve learned as the founder of MyRepresentatives.com, a site that enables you to easily find and engage all your elected officials in the Memphis area, is that any time you require people to go elsewhere that the probability of them doing that drops dramatically – so having something that can be easily embedded and used where people already are is critical.

Ultimately, this same basic functionality needs to be tied to a global database of all your elected officials so people can instantly engage their state and local officials as well. This is a significantly larger challenge, particularly at the local level because there is no single repository of local city, county and school board electoral districts. The census Tiger files provide state, county, city & school boundary information but don’t provide electoral district information within a county, city or school district. Here in Memphis we had to gather that information from multiple different sources which was quite challenging.

Regardless, my hat’s off to the Grassroutes team for creating a kick-ass offering. You can see just how easy it is to use by taking a few moments to contact your congressional representatives and tell them to vote for the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act will help kids who through no fault are here illegally. As someone who has worked closely with many undocumented children, they view themselves as 100% American – just without papers – as this is the only country they’ve ever really known. And more importantly, it’s the country they love and want to contribute to. These DREAM Act will give them that chance so tell your representatives to vote for the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislation ‒ pioneered by Sen. Orin Hatch [R-UT] and Sen. Richard Durbin [D-IL] will give these kids a path to citizenship and enable the US to benefit from their talent. Under the provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.

Contact your representatives and tell them to vote for the DREAM Act