When we put together our Knight News Challenge application to offer journalism scholarships to computer programmers, the premise was that journalism needs people with the mindset of software developers.
Here’s one little example of why this premise was on target: ChangeTracker, a new service offered by Pro Publica and developed by Brian Boyer, who just graduated from the Medill School as one of the first two "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners.
ChangeTracker is a service that "watches pages on whitehouse.gov, recovery.gov and financialstability.gov so you don’t have to." It identifies changes made to any of these pages and allows people to track the changes via a Web page, Twitter feed or email alert.
For policy wonks and others who want to keep track on what the Obama administration is up to, it’s proving quite valuable. Just yesterday, the service was mentioned in a Washington Post article about the administration’s technology efforts.
What I find most interesting about ChangeTracker is not its technological sophistication. No hard-core programming skills were needed to put it together. ChangeTracker uses a free Web service called Versionista to identify changes to the sites, then routes the output through Yahoo! Pipes to create an RSS feed.
Pro Publica doesn’t try to argue that ChangeTracker is high-tech; in fact, the site provides instructions on how to create a similar service for any Web page you might want to monitor.
Still, I think ChangeTracker clearly demonstrates the value of bringing software developers into journalism. The idea for ChangeTracker came straight from Boyer, who just started an internship at Pro Publica. Back in July, Boyer wrote about Versionista when the McCain campaign used it to point out changes in then-candidate Obama’s position on the Iraq War. He pointed out that Versionista is really a variant on the "version control" tools used by software developers to figure out "who broke something."
In a typical newsroom, a journalist might have recognized the newsworthiness of keeping tabs on changes made to key presidential Web sites. And a software developer would have understood the utility of Versionista. But working separately, they wouldn’t have come up with ChangeTracker.
A journalist without Boyer’s programming background could have done everything that he did in building ChangeTracker. But it took a "programmer-journalist" to come up with the idea.