Innovation in news: Al-Jazeera Labs

Image: Al Jazeera Labs website
Image: Al Jazeera Labs website

Fascinating to see how Arabic and English news service Al Jazeera is approaching the innovation imperative with its Al Jazeera Labs project.

In the first couple of months of this year the company has rolled out many deals and pilots in interesting areas, according to a great report on Journalism.co.uk. I’m especially intrigued by things like its experiments with Creative Commons licensing of content and use of data visualisation in news stories like the recent war in Gaza.

The map is using both mainstream media reports and what people are saying in social media, via Usahidi, a “platform for crowdsourcing crisis information”. It is designed to help build up a picture of what is happening in a crisis situation – be it a natural disaster or a military conflict – based on what people are saying (by text, blog, Twitter etc.) on the ground.

Image: Al Jazeera's Gaza map on the Ushahidi platform
Image: Al Jazeera's Gaza map on the Ushahidi platform

It’s a very interesting concept, and interesting to see serious attempts to make sense of and filter the rich information – with all the sensible caveats about reliability – that personal content from people involved or near to a crisis situation create.

Here’s a map that has been created from data about the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Image: An Ushahidi map of incidents in DRC Congo
Image: An Ushahidi map of incidents in DRC Congo

Error message marketing

Image: The first screen-shot of Chrome for OS X
Image: The first screen-shot of Chrome for OS X

I love the fact that the first screen shot for the Mac version of Chrome, Google’s browser, is an error message. And the launch date? No word, just an ambition to “have a multi-process browser limping by the end of the quarter.”

Where others would promise launch dates and then wince as they slip, where others would affect an expectation of perfection, message themselves into new levels of over-promise, Google just gets on with it and lets everyone know where it’s at.

Is this word-of-mouth marketing with an error message? I suppose, in a sense it is…

Brilliant.

Faris on the “natural selection of interesting”

Image: From The Origin of Species
Image: From The Origin of Species

After Mr Obama got sworn in some things threw me off kilter – sorry for the indecent silence…

Warming up with some things catching my eye, I’ll be building to an outpouring of pent up thoughts about social, strategy and the business of everything.

Hail Faris Yakob for weaving together two of my best-loved skeins of thought:

  1. Evolutionary theory and complexity (see Beinhocker)
  2. Competition for attention

He’s musing about why things win out in attention markets and rolls out a lovely phrase from his brother – it’s all about the “natural selection of interesting”…

Ants in colonies don’t require any conscious top down organisation – local rules exist and individual behaviours leave pheremone trails that get reinforced if the behaviour is imitated, which leads to directional changes of the whole.

We leave links and tags, tweets and posts, instead of pheremones – and these guide the allocation of attention.

Oh – that’s just beautiful. An elegant analogy for the social web if ever there was one…

Image: If it's interesting, we'll help each other find it
Image: If it's interesting, we'll help each other find it (Image: Budslife Busy)

He continues:

As Duncan Watts has pointed out, the structure of the network is as important as that which seeks attention, and the same thing that becomes an attention grabbing hit one day, may not the next.

This chimes with the story of Dogster and impact horizons that its founder Ted Rheingold talks about. This is how I tell it in the Brands in Networks e-book:

When Ted started Dogster he was developing new content and features with project times – from spotting a need to getting something out there – of about a month. As revenue began to come in from premium subscriptions and sponsorship deals he began to invest in more ambitious projects with longer lead times.

Suddenly, it seemed, the failure rate for projects began to increase. When a review of projects that were failing was conducted, a common factor was quickly spotted: almost all of the failing projects had taken six months or more from idea to public release. They were failing because the community had moved on; was interested in other things. Their needs had shifted.

Ted calls this effect: the impact horizon. Ever since, he has been working on bringing down the development time for new features to as close to a month as possible.

You start thinking about competing for attention in this environment and you get to thinking about the production process for your lovely useful/interesting ideas, bits of content, data, whatever that you’re going to send out into the big bad networks ecosystem. And suddenly building one thing starts to look like a very precarious approach.

Much better to build a process or platform for producing lots of things – because there’s a better chance of some of them working. When an idea takes, earns some good attention, ask why before the narrative bias kicks in and you’re tempted so it was always going to be that way.

Then ask how you would do it again.

Anyway – more of that later…