Lunch & Learn: AllPrinceton: The Hyperlocal Media Experiment

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At the Lunch ‘n Learn session on Wednesday, March 9th, 2011, Donna Liu explained and demonstrated AllPrinceton.com, a “hyperlocal multimedia experiment” of which she is the founder and Executive Director. AllPrinceton is not Liu’s first multimedia project. After she came to Princeton in 2002 as a Ferris Fellow in journalism, Liu founded the UChannel,  in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Before Princeton, Liu had a long career as a news producer and manager with CNN, where she launched CNN’s first production center in Asia. She is an Emmy award winner for coverage of the Tienanmen protests in 1989. Liu opened her talk by describing the history and evolution of the AllPrinceton.com project.

Overview and History of AllPrinceton.com

Liu described her transition from analog to digital media during the development of the UChannel at Princeton. Now a digital convert, she not only understands the benefits of  new media, but advocates it to others. During the UChannel project, Liu described having conversations with George McCollough, Executive Director of Princeton’s community access TV station, about he future of news and broadcasting, and what the transition to digital might mean for traditional news outlets. Liu noted that she would have loved to experiment with a local news organization during that transitional period, but that there wasn’t enough time to spare among her other responsibilities. When the UChannel was “unplugged,” and Donna completed her appointment at Princeton, she suddenly found she had time and decided to begin a local news site that would focus on all topics relating to Princeton.

Liu started AllPrinceton.com with essentially no capital investment and a shared space on a server. She began searching and experimenting with capturing and posting information that seemed to her to be missing or elusive on other local news and civic websites. In order to create the AllPrinceton site, she selected an open source content management system called Drupal especially because there was a supportive community of developers, and also because AllPrinceton’s funding organization, The Knight Foundation, was a Drupal advocate as well as being a prime supporter in experimentation with news media. Since Liu considers herself more of a journalist and organizer than a technologist, she chose a pre-configured Drupal theme that was already a favorite among other news organizations using Drupal because it had a lot of news-centric features. As she showed the Lunch ‘n Learn audience the new website for AllPrinceton, she explained that the project was in “constant beta” and that the skeletal framework would soon be filled with focused local content, gathered with help from the community. She has welcomed local residents to participate in the AllPrinceton experiment, and has begun to offer regular workshops to get the community involved and informed.

The AllPrinceton.com site

The AllPrinceton.com site is organized into various content streams. There is original content from AllPrinceton writers as well as related, aggregated content from third party sources. The original content is created by students and Princeton community members who are interested in reporting the town’s events and issues. In the center is Town Talk, a group blog where people write their own content about events and issues. Liu described Town Talk as being akin to embedded journalism, where people on the ground report on what they see in the area, and everyone is clearly identified and associated with their various organizations. A calendar, including arts, cultural and civic events, exists where community members might post.  A classified section and directory section allow people to exchange information, though it is not yet as popular as other areas on the site. (Liu plans to make these sections more robust over the summer.) The directory, for example, might contain biographical and contact information for Princeton’s civic leaders, or other information related to community governance.

Other content on the site is aggregated using curated feeds from established news sources such as The Princeton Packet. The aggregated content exists as a teaser, consisting only of the first few lines of a story, a fragment linked to the entire article on the original site. Princeton Community TV offers a media feed, so that the site also includes links to audio and video content about Princeton.

A search for “Princeton” populates a twitter feed on the site, and as a result, the feed offers not only tweets about Princeton township, Princeton borough and Princeton University,  but occasionally picks up a “Princeton” reference that is unrelated to the community. Liu described the accidental inclusion in the feed of lively tweets that referred to an up and coming hiphop prodigy named ‘Princeton’ (results which Liu was mostly able to filter from the feed). Liu intends to continue applying feed filters so that future  twitter content can become more reliably focused on actual Princeton-specific tweets. Liu’s goal is to make the twitter feed provide a vibrant and immediate source of information — as a point of comparison, she described the kind of immediately-aware feeds that we’ve seen occur spontaneously  during natural catastrophes such as the recent earthquake in Japan.

Liu identified such timely and specific information as a local news gap, one that AllPrinceton might be able to fill. For instance, although there are alerts and institution-specific alerts of snow and wind emergencies, perhaps there is currently no centralized online presence for such alerts in the community. If simple tools could be made available to let the community self-report emerging situations or outages, AllPrinceton could move from simply being useful to being truly essential service. Liu described a recent meeting during which the proposed school budget was discussed. After an extensive search, Liu concluded that the specifics of the budget weren’t described anywhere in the local websites associated with the school board. Information about the budget did not exist on the web until a student reporter from AllPrinceton went to the meeting, got a paper copy of the proposed budget, scanned it and posted it on the site. “Public information does not necessarily mean accessible information,” Liu explained, “unless there are media channels to make it available.”

Technologies, people and Ideas

Liu cited examples of other technology leaders and popular web based tools that have helped to inspire her work on AllPrinceton.  One such tool is Steve Johnson’s Outside.in which takes information feeds from a specific zip code and pulls them together into a cohesive collection of local updates. (Liu also mentioned that Johnson’s site was purchased by AOL for $10M&n
bsp; the day before her talk.) Johnson continues to improve the algorithm that collects the data to feed the site. But even Johnson has come to admit that algorithms are not enough, and that the information gathered by machine has to be supplemented by human reporting, a kind of “hybrid” concept that is central to Liu’s visions for the future of AllPrinceton.com.

Liu also quoted Jeff Jarvis, a guru of digital news and media, as having said “Do what you do best, and link to the rest”–which Liu sees as a sound philosophy, and is the rationale for bringing aggregated content from other established sources to the AllPrinceton site. George McCollough, the director of Princeton’s Community Television and Digital Media Center, remarked Liu, gives people the tools and knowledge  to create their own media–and then broadcasts the results. Liu sees McCollough’s station as a model for what AllPrinceton.com might provide for Princeton’s online community.

An intense focus on local news, a concept Liu refers to as hyperlocality, is, she says, similar to a pendulum swinging back from the overtly global concerns of mass media. Mass news media organizations might be perceived on one hand as media monsters, absorbing and eclipsing local media channels. Locality is gaining in importance, said Liu, especially with regard to news. Media sources are regrouping around communities of interest and geographical locations. Liu decided to focus on the geo-location trend in designing AllPrinceton.com — in part because she loves the town, but also because Princeton, although small, is a place where many interesting things happen..

Liu spoke of the information-gathering tool Ushahidi as an example of the new trends in crowd-sourced reporting. Ushahidi was originally deployed in Kenya to help monitor elections, The tool allows average users to share information and has been used in emergencies such as Haiti’s recent disasters, and the Washington snowstorm.  SeeClickFix.com (a possible future addition for AllPrinceton) allows local residents to use smartphones to take pictures of problems, record  their geolocation, and report details of what needs to be fixed. The information is then posted to the SeeClickFix. site, and remains there until the problem is resolved. Liu shared her own SeeClickFix view of Princeton after the wind storm we experienced last spring. Liu, armed with her phone, took a walk around her own neighborhood and noted the location of several downed trees. If a similar system was in place for Princeton, information about the specifics of  weather, or other sorts of emergencies, could be shared more easily through increased reporting at the neighborhood level. However, without the buy-in of the municipal services such reporting would have little effect. If the community reports an issue and no one with the power to fix it is listening, such a site might actually increase confusion and frustration.

Liu concluded her talk by citing how two Princeton faculty members as being influential to her growing interest in using online media as a public concern. An example of bottom-up reporting can be found in Professor Matthew Salganik’s AllOurIdeas.org (itself the subject of a recent Lunch ‘n Learn talk). AllOurIdeas is a collaborative tool where a group of people with a shared interest can pick a favorite when presented with two ideas. The ideas presented are posed in response to a shared question or problem. Favored solutions rise to the top of the polls, and participants are encouraged to enter new ideas or solutions to the topic being discussed.  Liu noted that Salganik’s polling tool is being used in New York City to decide upon the use of new public spaces. She would love to see this tool used to discuss local issues, such as the ongoing talks about the consolidation of Princeton’s Borough and Township. The second faculty member who influenced Liu’s thinking about new media was Professor Ed Felten. Liu recalled a talk she attended a decade ago, where Felten outline a striking description of what he called “the Celestial Jukebox.”  This was a visionary future device that could be used to make phone calls, take photos, watch and listen to media, connect to the internet and more. Now that we all can have a “Celestial Jukebox, ” in our pocket in the form of a smart phone, what, asked Liu, can we do to make sense of the vast amount of information that now flows from individuals to the internet? She recently asked  Felten to consider that question. “Filtering,” he replied, “is key.” Filtering, curating, and selecting information from the web can result in an incredibly rich source of information about a single topic.

For the AllPrinceton.com project, that topic of shared interest is Princeton itself, and Liu hopes that some creative filtering and channeling through a community collection of “celestial jukeboxes” might result in something that can benefit and enlighten all  Princeton residents.

Want to get involved?

If you are interested in working with Donna Liu in developing the AllPrinceton.com site, drop in on one of her regular Friday workshops from 10-12 at the  Princeton Public Library. Additional, more advanced workshops are scheduled on an as-need basis at Princeton Community TV.

A podcast of Donna Liu’s talk can be heard here.

The new AllPrinceton iPhone app can be found in the iTunes store.
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