Tag Archives: MozNewsLab

The News Tree: Software Product Proposal



All News Trees begin life as a blank canvas

To grow a news tree, the user must provide an ‘acorn’ (a document, link or other piece of media which can be mined for information) or use the built-in tools to find one. With HTML5 we can accept pasted links or files dragged from the desktop, making it easy to get started.

The user can add sources of their own or search for new acorns

Narrowing the search to a particular region and period of time allows us to pinpoint primary sources – invaluable to a well-rounded story. If the user does not provide these details the system will try to retrieve it from the supplied source.

Trees are born from acorns

The user can build a tree entirely from their own sources (for example, to demonstrate the core elements of a story, or highlight a particular viewpoint) or use the branch tool to find a myriad of sources before pruning their tree down to size.

'Add source', 'prune' and 'branch' (the verb!)

There are three simple controls available to the user: + opens the add source dialog, enables pruning mode where branches or comments can be removed, and the branch tool forces growth in a branch or acorn, drawing more sources around it.

This acorn has branched three relevant sources

Behind the Scenes

Sources are gathered in a number of ways.

First of all, data is parsed from existing sources or the user’s search query. This information is used to seek sources directly from a central list of outlets (very diverse, but not exhaustive: BBC, Twitter, WhiteHouse.gov, think tanks etc) via their own search tools or APIs. With an established net of sources, digital trails like blog trackbacks, direct replies, comments and mentions on other sites are followed to trace a second batch of sources. This technique can be repeated to gather a very wide range of sources.

Sources are rated by relevance (measured by matching keywords, shared branches etc) and reliability (with metrics like Technorati rankings). Typically only recognised sources which most closely match those on the tree will be added, but social media commentary and occasional ‘wildcards’ are included in pursuit of balance.

Metrics and metadata directly influence the appearance of objects in the visualisation.

Developers and designers would work closely with researchers and journalists to gather heuristics and build a library of reliable first sources in order to refine the search algorithm.

Through custom CSS stylesheets, trees can be adapted for branding purposes, personal preference or disability. Trees can be embedded anywhere that allows direct HTML manipulation, and hosted at a central domain.

Business Brief

The News Tree brings benefits to all corners of the newsroom – saving time, effort and frustration – and augments rather than replaces existing infrastructure.

Interaction Designers

Shazna Nessa told us that staff in interaction departments of large news outlets must always be prepared to drop their scheduled work and prioritise visualisations for breaking news items. Though by no means a replacement for a bespoke solution, by feeding in select sources a small news tree can be quickly constructed and embedded. This bonsai news tree serves to communicate the foundation of the story in lieu of the final visualisation.

Researchers and Analysts

Larger newsrooms have dedicated, internal staff whose role is to conduct research and prepare briefs for journalists. Not only does a News Tree simplify and speed up the task of seeking out sources (particularly via social media), those trees can be pruned (or a new tree started) to create an interactive primer on a story – more engaging than any text brief.

Journalists and Reporters

In the field or in the newsroom, mobile or desktop, staff can create and manage collaborative resource libraries, save sources for later perusal and build story ‘sketches’ before putting pen to paper.

I.T. Staff

Newsrooms by their nature don’t require the highest spec computers, their primary uses being word processing and internet browsing. By building the News Tree open-source and in-browser, based on standards like HTML5, we ensure that even the most decrepit machines in the smallest newsrooms will be able to run the tool, with no dedicated software to install or maintain. By maintaining a user-centred approach to design, we also ease the transition of the technologically unenlightened into the world of social media.

Perhaps most crucially, the News Tree is a free, customisable, open-source tool, meaning its users are able and encouraged to find new applications not foreseen by its creators.


Automated news aggregation tools like Google NewsTattler and Meltwater perform a similar role in collecting and filtering scattered sources. However, not all of these solutions are free or open-source, and none have the same level of visualisation found on a News Tree. By moving away from text-based browsing we take advantage of the visually orientated human mind, presenting a broad overview which enables swathes of sources to be rapidly scanned by eye.

Crowd-sourced tools like Reddit are extremely powerful, if fickle. For this reason the News Tree is not solely automated. The user can grow their tree automatically, or build it exclusively from their own sources.

Open Issues

The News Tree was conceived as a way to bypass curation through automation, but it has turned out as a tool in which automation is used sparingly, if at all. As with all tools, it is up to the user to wield it responsibly.

It’s very easy to write about the effectiveness of a hypothetical algorithm. Of course, creating the back-end for the News Tree will require a great deal of user research and close collaboration with developers.

The simplified style of tree used here reflects the need to develop the rating system further.

Burt Herman warned us of letting our projects become Swiss Army knives, but we were also told to “think big and bold”. I think I’ve struck a good balance.





For their invaluable feedback:

Michael Aitken, Sports Writer
Louisa Brooke, Foreign Affairs Analyst, BBC
Jonathan Duffy, Planning and Production Editor, BBC
Rhona Grieve, Special Events, BBC
Jamie MacDonald, News Reporter, Evening Express
Matthew Rhodes, Special Events, BBC

For helping me develop the idea:

Ross Forrest
Linsey MacIntosh
Chris McNicholl
Shaun McWhinnie
Lynsey Smith
Michail Vanis

Map image credit: madmaxpayne

Learning Lab week 3

Our lecturers in the Mozilla News Lab this week were Shazna Nessa, Director of Interactive at Associated Press, Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online at Al Jazeera English and Oliver Reichenstein of Information Architects.

Mohamed’s insights into adoption of new technology in the newsroom and the ways the web has affected not only consumption but production of news media gave me much food for thought. The News Tree was initially conceived as a tool for consumers (normal people) to quickly get up to speed on an evolving story, but I thought that it would also be useful to journalists charged with writing or researching a certain story, where the Tree would act as a jumping-off point for locating fruitful sources, gauging public opinion and determining further avenues of research.

I recently got in touch with a relative, known for his writing in the Scotsman, to seek feedback on my project. He thought it was “a cool idea” but describes himself as a member of “the dinosaur school of journalism” who believe good-old-fashioned talking to people is much more productive than using search engines and other digital tools to generate stories. Similarly, Mohammed recounted Al Jazeera’s scrapped plans for a citizen media portal and declared that he too prefers to conduct his own research rather than rely on submissions or automated source aggregation tools, which often simply return too much data to be of use.

Fox News interviews engineers
It's not surprising journalists prefer to conduct their own research rather than rely on content encountered on the web, particularly if they did not discover it themselves

In week one I wondered if the real power of my tool would lie “not in the wild tangle [of information] but in the pruned or grafted specimens its users will create and share”.

Rather than relying on data-scrapers and search algorithms to locate every source possible, the News Tree could grow (perhaps solely) from the submissions of teammates, the news room, or even the whole organisation. Staff would drop into the pot relevant sources or media they encountered or created, as a URL or file. The system would plot the item on the tree, showing any links to other items already present, author or submitter, chronological location etc.

The user locates a source they wish to share
They add it to the tree by copy-and-pasting, or clicking-and-dragging
The Tree draws links with existing content based on metadata

With HTML5 we can drag-and-drop files (ala DropMocks) and by simply using URLs and files we mostly sidestep two problems:

  • Lack of technological expertise in newsroom staff; anyone who can copy and paste can contribute.
  • Constantly changing APIs and feature sets of third-party tools, which may cripple or break aggregation software (mentioned by Mohamed).
This could also tackle Shazna’s problem where breaking news requires rapidly developed visualisations. The News Tree could stand in in the interim.

In theory all of the content would be peer-reviewed and trustworthy, having survived the scrutiny of the journalist. Editorial control remains intact and a collaborative, communal index of sources is born – which, by virtue of its visual nature, outshines any mere list of links.

Photograph credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Learning Lab Week 2

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.

Learning Lab Week 1

In all of the lectures I attended this week (with Aza Raskin, Burt Herman and Amanda Cox) a few messages were reinforced in my mind:

  • Don’t be precious about your ideas
  • Just build it
  • Seek feedback, iterate
  • Keep doing things

(I could write much more on these alone, but that will have to wait.)

These concepts are not new but are evidently at the core of what makes these people successful, so I’m grateful for having them refreshed in my mind. I can apply these simple principles not only to my Knight-Mozilla project but also to my personal and professional work.

It’s also worth restating for my own sake Phillip‘s assurance that we should worry about what’s possible, not what we can build ourselves. It is very clear that I must create some kind of demo or prototype of my idea over the course of the learning lab, be it in a new tool I’ve been made aware of like Protovis or NodeBox, or even simple animation with still images in a PDF. Anything that effectively communicates the concept.

Amanda’s lecture is most directly relevant to the idea I submitted to the MoJo Beyond Comment Threads challenge: the News Tree Visualisation Tool. This tool would act as a complete-as-possible overview of the evolution of a news item, from the first press release or muddled report to the final reply in a dying comment thread, perhaps years later. This overview could then be utilised to familarise oneself with the story, find and participate in active discussions and seek out conflicting reportage or points of view. The age, reliability and importance of each article or comment would be reflected on the tree, amongst other metrics.

I found myself wondering if it would be more useful as a visualisation or a tool; can it be both and still be effective in both arenas?

Amanda explicitly stated that annotation and editing are critical for a successful visualisation. The News Tree concept arose from a conversation on the topic of gatekeepers or Mavens acting as filters on the media we consume, how they can be both useful and harmful, and how they could be bypassed by citizen curation. I still lean towards a system which seeks new branches and trails without curation or bias, but perhaps the true strength of this tool will lie not in the wild tangle I had envisioned, but in the pruned or grafted specimens its users will create and share.

By pointing out the relative strength of refined, static print visualisations versus interactive examples, Amanda also awoke me to the concern that such a tool could be overwhelming for the user. It is therefore my responsibility as designer to present it in such a way that complexity is minimised and ease-of-use brought to the forefront. Which, as I always say I value simplicity and thoughtfulness above all, is the perfect place for me to focus.