A Cool (and Easy) Project from a ‘Programmer-Journalist’

    by Rich Gordon
    March 3, 2009

    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.

    Tagged: medill programmer-journalist technologists

    2 responses to “A Cool (and Easy) Project from a ‘Programmer-Journalist’”

    1. Great service! And it is great that they’re sharing information on how to do it yourself.

      Traditionally, content businesses — of which those that employ journalists are a small subset — don’t like to share their cookies. And often they put protections in place such as DRM that keep information from flowing freely. I suppose that there are some situations where this kind of hoarding makes sense, but I’m starting to think that in most cases it’s counter-productive.

      Content businesses like to think that their content itself is their core business. But is that true anymore? People want to share content, and they will do so any way they can regardless of barriers you put up to keep that from happening. Perhaps we can provide more value by making it even easier for people to share content amongst themselves, understand it, and create new content through that process. Our business then becomes enabling sharing and interaction around content. ChangeTracker and NewsMixer show that there are valuable services that you can build around content which are only possible because that content is “shareable.”

      The real success story for content sharing is RSS. It has enabled so many new types of services and experiences that are only possible because everyone a) chooses to openly share their content, and b) chooses to do it in the same way. My own project, Printcasting, would be impossible without something like RSS.

    2. Lea Morgan says:

      Most newspapers are now being turned over to running strictly through the internet. Having computer programmers has journalists makes sense. They know the ends and out and can help further journalism through the internet. With the ChangeTracker, it would knock out a lot of time being spent looking from website to website in searching for new updates. Other things would be able to get done faster. Being that it uses a free Web service and had no difficult programming skills to put it together makes the luxury of the programmer better. This is a great service offered!

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