Lessons in technology for the journalist crowd

The Columbia Journalism Review has some helpful tips for sniffing out hoaxes:

The audience received a thorough primer on forensic image analysis techniques. Recalling doctored images from “superstorm” Sandy and a hoax video of an eagle grabbing a baby that went viral in December, Farid and Clinch walked through methods and tips for quickly identifying phony images. Reflections and shadows in photographs have to line up according to basic optical principals, for instance. Another rule of thumb: Any picture with an unusually placed shark is fake.


Big Brother is watching you, from 17,500 feet up

The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal has more:

One thing to note is that a drone can just hang out at 15,000 feet over a small city-sized area (roughly, half of Manhattan) and provide video surveillance of the whole thing. The other thing to note is that they are running machine vision on the moving objects, which means they are generating structured data out of the video, not just displaying the pictures.

I won’t get completely into the legal details, but what if some branch of government or a corporation (maybe not Google, but maybe Google) set one of these guys up over an American city. They say that Big Data analysis has told them that criminals (or consumers!) display certain types of behavior that can be spotted at that distance, helping them deploy police (or marketing promotions) on the ground more effectively. And the rest of the city’s citizens? Well, they’re collateral data.

An abandoned New Year’s resolution

Kevin Roose apologizes to Codecademy:

Dear Codecademy,

When we first met, just after New Year’s last year, I was inspired. You told me that I could learn how to program in just 365 days through your free “Code Year” lessons, and I believed you. After all, if Mayor Bloomberg was doing it, why couldn’t I? I eagerly signed up, and waited for the day that I, too, would be churning out C++ code like a pro.

That day never came.

Instead, your e-mails piled up, unread, in my in-box, while I attended to more pressing concerns. At first, you came bearing offers of specific lessons:

Code Year Week 4: Primitives in JavaScript

Code Year Week 5: Objects in JavaScript

Code Year Week 7: Loops in JavaScript

Then, as winter turned into spring — and my schedule kept not making room for coding lessons — your e-mails took on the tone of a more general pep talk. Hopeful exclamation points abounded:

Still want to learn to code? We’ll help you catch up!

Get ready for programming good times!

Programming begins here!

You must have known, Codecademy, that by the time July 4th came around, I was a goner. New Year’s resolutions rarely stick, and New Year’s resolutions that suddenly kick in after a six-month delay never do. Still, despite the fact that I had never once logged in to your website, you persisted in your hopes that I would get off my ass, clear my calendar, and make time for you.

Winning votes, one by one

The story of Barack Obama’s data-driven campaign approach is still being told. Building on their 2008 success, the Obama data junkies assembled a truly astounding, state-of-the-art framework to microtarget advertising and fundraising appeals to the individual level. The MIT Technology Review just ran an eye-opening three-part article on how the team put the data monstrosity together:

Many of those who went to Washington after the 2008 election in order to further the president’s political agenda returned to Chicago in the spring of 2011 to work on his reëlection. The chastening losses they had experienced in Washington separated them from those who had known only the ecstasies of 2008. “People who did ‘08, but didn’t do ‘10, and came back in ‘11 or ‘12—they had the hardest culture clash,” says Jeremy Bird, who became national field director on the reëlection campaign. But those who went to Washington and returned to Chicago developed a particular appreciation for Wagner’s methods of working with the electorate at an atomic level. It was a way of thinking that perfectly aligned with their ­simple theory of what it would take to win the president reëlection: get everyone who had voted for him in 2008 to do it again. At the same time, they knew they would need to succeed at registering and mobilizing new voters, especially in some of the fastest-growing demographic categories, to make up for any 2008 voters who did defect.

Obama’s campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House. They may have cast those votes by secret ballot, but Obama’s analysts could look at the Democrats’ vote totals in each precinct and identify the people most likely to have backed him. Pundits talked in the abstract about reassembling Obama’s 2008 coalition. But within the campaign, the goal was literal. They would reassemble the coalition, one by one, through personal contacts.

The obvious Path forward

Middling social network Path has come up with a nifty new feature that should have been included in all social media platforms for years — the ability to search through your past:

Mobile social network Path broke down social network walls in the summer of 2012 by giving new users the option to import their Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram data.

Now, Path is playing up that feature as the best way to cull all your social updates (minus those from Twitter) into one big archive. Starting Thursday, that archive is searchable, making for a very unique and handy way to recall your memories. “We want people to basically use us as their social search engine,” says Path marketing director Nate Johnson. “Our goal is simple, to help people be close to each other.”

With Nearby and search, you can find anything you’ve shared to Path and Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare (assuming you’ve imported that data). That gives Path a huge leg up, because you can’t search for any past activity on those social networks.

Why this isn’t already the case on Facebook is a question I’ve wondered for a long, long time. Kudos to someone else for actually making it happen.

Twitter truth-telling

Slate reports on new research that raises the potential of machine-aided Twitter reading — that is, initial vetting of tweets for veracity, based on certain elements:

A 2010 paper from Yahoo Research analyzed tweets from that year’s 8.8 Chile earthquake and found that legitimate news—such as word that the Santiago airport had closed, that a supermarket in Concepcion was being looted, and that a tsunami had hit the coastal town of Iloca—propagated on Twitter differently than falsehoods, like the rumor that singer Ricardo Arjona had died or that a tsunami warning had been issued for Valparaiso. One key difference might sound obvious but is still quite useful: The false rumors were far more likely to be tweeted along with a question mark or some other indication of doubt or denial.

Building on that work, the authors of the 2010 study developed a machine-learning classifier that uses 16 features to assess the credibility of newsworthy tweets. Among the features that make information more credible:

– Tweets about it tend to be longer and include URLs.

– People tweeting it have higher follower counts.

– Tweets about it are negative rather than positive in tone.

– Tweets about it do not include question marks, exclamation marks, or first- or third-person pronouns.

Several of those findings were echoed in another recent study from researchers at India’s Institute of Information Technology who also found that credible tweets are less likely to contain swear words and significantly more likely to contain frowny emoticons than smiley faces.

But won’t many chronic Twitter liars simply absorb these lessons and tailor their tweets to trick the new algorithm? (Say that last part five times fast.)

Drones: a history in tweets

Josh Begley, realizing how little Americans know or understand about their own country’s drone warfare, began tweeting the entire history of American drone strikes yesterday. He’s still going:

For the past several years, Begley, who previously worked at an organizationthat uses technology to advance social-justice movements, has felt a nagging need to open Americans’ eyes to the reality of this method of warfare. Begley himself says he “started caring about the issue because I knew so little about [drones].” Then Jane Mayer’s 2009 New Yorker piece, “The Predator War,” which brought readers into the air-conditioned Langley, Va., offices from which drone attacks are ordered, got him thinking.

Drones “bring up all sorts of interesting questions about the intersection of technology and international law and human rights,” he told The Daily Beast. “A bureaucratic chain of command deciding to execute [people] outside any law is a very interesting concept intellectually.” And so, last summer, he set to work designing an app that would map U.S. strikes, to bring a far-away war into the palms of everyday Americans.

Drone+, as the application is called, culls public information compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about U.S. attacks, translates the data into a user-friendly map, and pushes notifications to users every time a new strike hits.

A representative sampling:

No need to tip the delivery guy

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=3lqMRHwGsRA]

Researchers at Darwin Aerospace have developed a system of burrito delivery via…drone:

In the future, will all burritos be delivered by Burrito Bomber? After the cruel joke that was the TacoCopter, the Burrito Bomber seems perhaps to good to be true. It’s not available commercially, but the fine folks at Darwin Aerospace (a “very small non funded research laboratory that is best known for pushing the envelope of low-cost air and space exploration with innovative projects”) dream that, once the FAA figures out commercial drone usage, all burritos will be bombed directly to you. Until then, they have (very complicated) instructions for how to make one on your own highly sophisticated burrito delivery flying machine.

From mobile payments to e-gift cards

Mobile payments technology keeps getting better. One of the more prominent startups in this field, Square, now allows users to send digital gift cards to people who don’t even have an account:

If you already have Square Wallet, your gift card will automatically be saved to your Wallet. Square also offers Apple Passbook integration for iOS 6 users. And for everyone else, there’s a QR code option that you can use either by having a merchant scan the code on your smartphone, or by printing it out and taking it with you to the store.

Square COO Keith Rabois tells Fast Company the service is a win-win for both merchants, who get a seamlessly integrated marketing product for no additional cost; and busy customers, who don’t necessarily have the time or means to get meaningful gifts for friends, especially if they live far away.

“You can sit on your sofa and go through your address book for all the people who are important to you and instantly provide them with an amazing experience,” he says. “That’s never really been done before.”

Possible drawback? If using credit cards strips away some of the natural reticence to spend cash like water, one can only imagine how much further down that road a system like Square’s will take us.

Obama’s data machine

2008’s “hope and change” morphed into “Big Data” in 2012:

In fact, the tech side was the only part of the Obama operation that could credibly be framed as a throwback to the old Hope and Change: Despite the slash-and-burn quality of the Obama reelection campaign as seen by America’s television viewers, the president’s 33 million Facebook fans “were experiencing a whole different campaign that was largely positive,” Goff explained at Harvard. “What they were experiencing was this uplifting stuff about supporting the middle class, about fighting for education, and that kind of thing.” And when you consider that Obama’s Facebook fans were themselves friends with 98 percent of Facebook users in the U.S.—“That’s more than the number of people who vote,” Goff said—then the Obamanauts can plausibly argue that, for many Obama voters, maybe 2012 wasn’t that different from 2008 after all.

Even more important, the nerd narrative gives the Obamanauts hope for the future. After their historic victory in 2008, they predicted that their candidate was so amazing that he could single-handedly transform Washington by sheer force of will. That obviously didn’t come to pass. But now they are making similar predictions—not because of their man but because of their machine. “Luckily for us, I don’t see anyone on the Republican side who understands what we did,” Bird told me in Cambridge before going on to explain not only his grand designs of electing another Democrat president in 2016, but also for turning Texas blue.