Innovative ways to tell stories with the help of computing were discussed at a research seminar held at Hong Kong University on Friday, March 18, 2011.

JMSC and Dept of Computer Science Research Seminar

A panel of journalists and computer experts shared their research projects on computational journalism, a new form of journalism that uses software, databases and algorithms to extract information for reporting.

The event, organised by the JMSC and the Department of Computer Science, highlighted the opportunities and challenges presented by the marriage between computers and journalism. Yuen-Ying Chan, an award-winning journalist and Director of Journalism and Media Studies Centre, moderated the seminar.

Jonathan Stray (MJ 2010), the Interactive Technology Editor at the Associated Press, showed his project on reporting the Japanese earthquake by use of maps, twitter updates, photo essays, satellite images, before & after comparisons and tectonic animations. Stray was a computer scientist for Adobe Systems before joining the JMSC Master of Journalism programme. He joined the seminar from New York through Skype.

Stray also demonstrated the use of a phrase-tracking project called Meme Tracker and said that this could be applied to China to “study the spread of information between languages.”

When asked whether Stray saw news organisations investing in computational journalism, he said that with journalists being laid off and lack of resources, the concept might be a “hard sell” but “everybody see’s the way the wind is blowing”.

Irene Jay Liu, a reporter at the South China Morning Post who also teaches Computer-Assisted Reporting at the JMSC, spoke next about Who Runs Hong Kong, a power-mapping project that she oversaw and put together with the help of JMSC interns.

Liu explained that WRHK is a database that draws information from public documents and websites to establish “connections between organisations” and relationships “between people and organisations” to “identify trends and patterns” in Hong Kong.

The project uses Think Map visualisation software and can be “a tool useful to reporters to write interesting stories,” said Liu who also teaches Computer Assisted Reporting at the JMSC.

She illustrated how WRHK was used to track Stanley Ho’s family members and identify his ownership in companies to help simplify the story of the fight over his fortune.

Liu said she might work on a China version of the project where present and future leaders of China will be mapped using information from web sources such as China.org. “We’ve started the discussion on doing a China version,” said Ying Chan.

King-wa Fu, a Research Assistant Professor at the JMSC, spoke about his data-mining project on Sina Weibo, the largest microblogging site in China.

According to Fu, the project uses a server to track frequently posted messages on Weibo to identify the most talked about topics. Due to limited resources, users with over a thousand followers in China and users from Hong Kong are followed.

Fu said that this could prove useful for reporting and research. Social graphs, life cycle diagrams, keyword clouds and tables are used to analyse and illustrate collected data.

Nicholas Diakopoulos, a Computing Innovation Fellow at Rutgers University, talked about the road ahead for computational journalism. He said that engineers and journalists should work together to invent new tools and processes that “might not fit the existing paradigm of how a news room operates.”

Diakopoulos also talked about challenges like adjusting to the changing culture of readers, cultural clash between journalists and engineers and the reluctance to experiment and innovate.

Computational journalism is “moving beyond traditional narrative to more exploratory, interactive kinds of things,” he said.

From those present at the seminar, Reg Chua, Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post, and David W.L Cheung, Head of the Computer Sciences Department at HKU, contributed to the discussion.

Ying Chan concluded the talk by saying that this was “only the start” and “we at the JMSC are committed to pursue this area of journalism.”

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