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Knight-Mozilla Learning Lab: Week 2

July 25th, 2011

This week in the Mozilla News Lab our lecturers were Chris Heillman, John Resig and Jesse James Garret.

Chris gave us an overview of the power of HTML5 and brought with him a torrent of references to relevant projects, tools and guides which I will be poring over for weeks to come. He expressed to us the importance of openness, a concept at the core of the Mozilla manifesto and one he adheres to himself; everything he does is open-source, even his lecture slides. This gives those interested in his work the power to spread his ideas further than his voice would carry them on its own.

The News Tree also has a manifesto of sorts: its guiding principles are clarity, neutrality and traceability. I think there is room for openness here too.

Ideally this tool will be taken and re-purposed by others for uses I never dreamed of. Now, I don’t believe viral appeal can be infallibly baked-in and it’s foolhardy to pin all your hopes on this alone, but by keeping openness in mind at all stages of the process I can support it as far as possible.

The core of any visualisation is the data. The News Tree sorts chronologically and differentiates with meta-data/metrics like reliability. Reliability is subjective: Personally I think of the BBC and the Guardian as good examples, while the late News of the World was undoubtedly at the near-opposite end of the spectrum. Others will clearly have their own preferences.

Could HTML5’s local storage allow the retention of a user’s preferences, making them accessible across News Trees no matter where they are hosted? For example, if the user trusts articles from an outlet with a marked political leaning, articles from an ‘opposing’ outlet can be mixed in to give balance. If the Tree is hosted by such an outlet, they sacrifice some authorial control in order to maintain that balance. (I seem to be advocating the movement of data away from the cloud here, which is remarkable.)

All the while we must be wary of the effects the algorithms of Google, Facebook and their peers, which some view as dangerous because they show us what they think we want to see, perhaps at the expense of balance.

John is the creator of jQuery, a javascript library which makes impressive pieces of web animation and interaction a piece of cake to code. Having discovered this tool last year and progressed by virtue of its simplicity and straightforward documentation, I was not surprised to hear him restate the importance of these values in software development. He also emphasised how important it is to stay in touch with your users not only in your dedicated forums but by reaching out to them directly via Twitter etc. This is crucial for the feedback/iteration loop, but also builds a dedicated, involved community who will promote your work for love, not money.

If the News Tree is to grow in the way I hope, an engaged community will be vital.