Medill, McCormick students combine talents to create innovative projects

This fall, undergraduates in the Innovation in Journalism and Technology class created six interactive projects that aim to help solve various real-world media problems. The class, made up of journalism students from Medill and computer science students from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, hosted a final projects presentation in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

With only 10 weeks to create the interactive projects, students had to develop their ideas and make them into viable products in a constrained time period. Jeremy Gilbert, assistant professor at Medill and one of the instructors of the class, said that even with the limitations, the students dreamt big with their ideas.

“We want the students to make something that works and is really useful,” Gilbert said. “The time is short, but the ambitions are grand.”

Gilbert and Larry Birnbaum, associate professor at McCormick and co-teacher of the class, brainstormed possible projects and paired the students based on their skill levels and abilities. A student with a design background would be paired with a student who is proficient in coding languages, for example, to create a project that is both functional and attractive.

With a constantly changing media landscape, students have an advantage if they can adapt and learn how to marry technology with journalism seamlessly. The class allowed students to explore how they can blend their abilities with others in order to make a more dynamic product.

“Technological skills can be utilized to tell stories in new ways that are more interesting and more accessible for users,” said Sarah Adler, a Medill senior and part of the Neighborhood Buzz project team. “It was great to see how the variety of skill sets in my group allowed us to work together, with each of us taking on different aspects of our project to create a usable product in a quarter.”

The six projects created by the class were:

Stakeholder Tweetback takes articles and provides a link to the Twitter profiles of key figures -- or stakeholders – mentioned in the story, as well as showcases tweets about the topic discussed in the article. Stakeholders without a Twitter handle can be featured with their company or department Twitter profiles. This means that readers can get more information about both sources and topics discussed in a story, rather than having to be limited to what content is published in the story.

Incontext is a publishing tool that sends additional content to readers when they are reading news stories. Text in the articles is linked to other recent stories, so readers have full context of the topic they are trying to learn about.

Arbitrak highlights key phrases in political stories and provides more information. Readers are able to instantly find out if an unknown phrase has a certain political bent and what the phrase actually means. Arbitrak can be turned on directly from a web browser as a reader is going through an article. Users have the ability to submit their own suggestions to the database.

Virtual Abby reimagines the advice columnist. Using years and years of responses from Dear Abby, the prominent and longstanding syndicated advice column written under the pseudonym Abigail Van Buren, the students created a database of responses and a Twitter account that can receive advice requests. The requests are matched with a related column from the database and advice seekers get a tweet with a link to the column.

Wild Guide is a virtual tour guide of the Northwestern campus. Working with a cell phone’s camera, the app identifies the buildings and landmarks nearby and gives the user more information on their surroundings. User-submitted information builds on pre-stored information. The app is currently available in the Android market.

Neighborhood Buzz creates a clearer view of city neighborhoods and gauges what topics citizens care about. By compiling tweets from different parts of Chicago, the app creates a clickable heat map of the city. Zooming into specific neighborhoods lets the user see, for example, that people in Lincoln Park enjoy tweeting about food, while people near O’Hare International Airport tweet about transportation.

Gilbert said this quarter’s class exceeded his and Birnbaum’s expectations.

“When we pick these problems and decide on teams, we have ideas of how they’ll end up,” Gilbert said. “The students this quarter took the projects to a different place than what we imagined. It was even better than I expected.”

The experience of working on the projects even helped some students refocus their future career outlook. Matthew Zampa, who worked on the Virtual Abby project, said he decided to declare a double major in computer science and journalism halfway through the course.