Class pairs journalism, computer science students to develop projects

Nine teams of students from Medill and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as other schools at Northwestern, spent the fall quarter creating innovative products that combine principles of journalism and technology in the Collaborative Innovation in Journalism and Technology class.

On Wednesday, Dec. 4, students showed off their creations, designed to aid journalists in simplifying their work processes, but also useful to a larger audience. The ideas capitalize on different platforms for delivering data, even venturing into the uncharted territory of designing an application for Google Glass.

Rich Gordon, Medill professor and director of digital innovation, taught the class, along with McCormick associate professor Larry Birnbaum.  Gordon said the class, which has been running since 2009, ideally pairs students with compatible skills.

“There is kind of a magic that happens when you put journalism and computer science students together, give them an interesting problem and have them collaborate,” Gordon said.

The projects presented were as follows:

  • Spectacle uses Google Glass to enhance a user’s experience with their environment. Places in the vicinity of the user can be explored in three different ways: using a place’s official description, reading comments from social media tagged to the location and leaving a comment based on personal experience.
  • Baby Steps analyzes what parents and medical professionals are posting online to collect data for Pathways, a not-for-profit organization that provides information to promote healthy sensory, motor and communication development in children.
  • twConnect compares different Twitter users and finds what they have in common. The results of common keywords, users followed and similar posts paint a picture of the users’ similarity.
  • Buzz shows what pop culture topics are trending in specific cities. Using information from websites that cover pop culture, information is pulled to compare which musicians, movies and other topics in media are most “buzzed” about in certain locations. A screen displays the pop culture “icons” in a visually rich way, giving users a simple way to explore topics.
  • Tweet Beat capitalizes on Twitter’s place as a source of news and helps journalists cultivate a network of similar contacts. Breaking Twitter down into an easier to navigate network can give journalists the tools to find the right sources for stories.
  • Data Track mines information contained in official government documents to find trends and patterns that tell stories. The team worked with Chicago Transit Authority ridership statistics, but the same principles can be applied to other types of data.
  • Cine Cast gives a prediction on the future success or failure of a movie depending on a number of factors including who the leading actors are, the movie’s genre and if the movie is based on a popular series. Information from previously successful films is used to fuel the results, which are not foolproof, but do offer close-to-accurate prediction rates.
  • NewsTube is a smarter way to search for videos on news stories on YouTube. Instead of receiving muddled results with unclear sources, NewsTube returns videos under categories, so results are clearly marked by who made them. Users can see if a video comes from a credible source or not, before watching.
  • Op Shop eliminates ambiguity and simplifies search results when trying to learn about certain issues in the news. What members of Congress have actually said is used to compose a spectrum of opinions on an issue, so news sources can be properly interpreted.

The support of the Knight Foundation and the McCormick Foundation not only make the class possible, but also offer a viable future for the created projects.

“The class is really connected in a variety of ways to the mission of the Knight Lab, which is to develop news software tools for journalists, publishers and consumers,” Gordon said. “It would be possible to do these classes without the lab, but it would mean most likely that few projects would have the potential to go on and become real.”

Once the class is over, students have the opportunity to continue working on their projects with the Knight Lab. Projects from previous classes, like Twxplorer and Neighborhood Buzz, have come to fruition through the partnership.

Having a place like the Knight Lab to develop these projects allows the ideas to evolve into products that can become something entirely new and useful.

“There are some cases where the idea at the end is very close to something that we envisioned at the beginning,” Gordon said. “But it’s more common for it to take some unexpected directions. That’s exactly what we want.”