Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Journalism Meets Computing - In A Big Way

"You should go talk to that guy over there, Jonathan Stray, he is really interesting". That was all I needed to hear to set my feet zipping across the room where I plunked myself down on the floor next to Jonathan and, telling him he came highly recommended, asked if I could interview him for my blog. A momentary look of surprise crossed his face but he said yes. That was in March, during the Interdisciplinary Computing meeting I wrote about. Computational journalism was a hot topic and my source had told me Jonathan was a computer scientist who had entered the field of journalism. Cool. Very cool. So with little ado, we exchanged contact information and I happily planned for our conversation. We had that conversation a few days ago. Surprises awaited me.

I had a fairly standard set of  "get to know you" questions lined up until I started doing a little background investigation. I tossed out my original questions. I hadn't really paid attention to the affiliation on his name badge, but at some point it dawned on me (duh) that "ap" stood for Associated Press. Small moment of anxiety as I realized I had asked a Journalist (note the capital J) if I could interview him. I got over it. I started reading Jonathan's blog (link at end of this post) and realized this guy really is a computer scientist too. On one end of the spectrum he writes about such things as experimenting with putting his iPhone in the freezer to reset the WiFi (it worked - sort of) complete with technical explanation. I was right with him through the whole fascinating story. How often does someone write well enough to suck you into wanting to know the nitty gritty details of how to ice a phone? On the other hand, Jonathan also writes in his blog about about some pretty deep and serious cultural issues, describing what he sees so realistically that is almost creepy. I can't shake off one entry from Jakarta that juxtaposed prostitutes, people digging through garbage and blow dart sellers (blow dart sellers???) against fast paced sales of skin whitening creme by those (presumably with income) who wish they were White. I have traveled a lot, yet I was still stopped in my tracks several times by the implications of Jonathan's blog entries.

I guess I neglected to mention that Jonathan oversees a group of developers (yes, as in computer programming developers) at the AP who produce "interactives". I went and took a look and found the AP Economic Stress Index for the US. I was able to zero right in on San Diego County. This month, the Overall Stress Index is 13.79, the Unemployment Rate is 10.2% (ow!), Foreclosure Rate is 2.2% and the Bankruptcy Rate is 1.84%. At least it is worse in Los Angeles: Stress Index is 15.93%. The oveall rate in California is 16.9%. The only state to have it worse is Nevada, at a crushing stress index of 20.67%.

You can zoom all around the country and check out what is going on back to 2007 when the recession began. There is information to explain what it all means if you want to read it. What a way to tell a story.

How did this all come to be? 

It all started out like a "typical" computer kid story: the movie Tron was a pivotal moment, reading computer graphics textbooks in high school for fun, getting a degree in CS and Physics....an MS in CS...a developer job at Adobe....challenging, cutting edge technological work. Good money, good hours, good exposure.

Then Jonathan took some time off and went backpacking in Asia. He described to me that it seemed an "almost impossibly different reality" - how could such different cultures exist on the same planet? He started writing.

Came back to Adobe...then went backpacking overseas again. More writing ensued. It turned out that at the time, at the University of Hong Kong Rebecca MacKinnon was on the journalism faculty studying global online media policy, specifically, Chinese censorship of the Internet. That was too good to pass up: Jonathan enrolled in an MA program.

Cultural study, writing and developing information for the public good, technology.....

As if on cue, a job almost tailor made for him appeared at the Associated Press. What does Jonathan like best about his job?   The job requires he be right on the edge of what is possible in the constant evolution of technology and journalism.

There is a lot more to say about this. So I'm going to pause here, and pick up in the next post. Even if I did not feel compelled to share more about what I learned from speaking with Jonathan about the integration of computing and journalism, he himself said something that tells me I must. Sound bites. We live in a world of soundbites and too often all we get are soundbites. Not the full story. So... to be continued.

Jonathan Stray's Personal Blog

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