Thursday, December 02, 2010

Underneath the Capitol holiday tree -- one more train for Scott Walker to try and kill?

One More Train for Scott Walker to Kill?
I took this photo under the holiday tree in the Capitol last year. Under the tree is this little electric train. Not exactly high speed rail, but it zips right around and delights kids of all ages.

The holiday tree lighting ceremony takes place this Friday, Dec. 3, presided over by Gov. James Doyle and First Lady Jessica Doyle, one of the last public acts of the Doyle administration before Scott Walker takes office in January.

Walker's objections to the outgoing governor's support of high speed rail are well known. State Rep. Mark Pocan wondered what would happen if Walker used the same reasoning about a lame duck governor whose party had been rejected at the polls presiding over the tree ceremony. It resulted in this hilarious post on Pocan's blog, in the form of a mock letter from Walker to Doyle. I especially liked the part about the train.
Finally, there is the matter of the train running around the tree. It must be stopped. It goes nowhere. It does not go there fast enough. Not enough people are riding on it. It is a boondoggle. I ask that you use it to fund roads and to reduce the deficit. Send it to any other community. Just make sure it no longer reaches Madison.
Next time Walker strolls through the Capitol, I do hope he notices the words written on the side of the engine, inside the Wisconsin map -- "Grow Wisconsin." You don't grow Wisconsin by dismantling our transportation infrastructure.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The shortest route between Chicago and Minneapolis if Scott Walker succeeds ...

... may run through Dubuque. If Wisconsin turns its back on high speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee -- and the federal funds that would almost entirely cover the cost -- then the Midwest High Speed Rail Network may well turn its back on Wisconsin. This should make even opponents of passenger rail stop and think, because the upgraded tracks would serve freight as well as passenger trains, and thus affect business as well as passenger transportation. If Scott Walker turns down the money and blocks the train, it will be one small (and probably illusory) step for Wisconsin taxpayers, and one giant step toward making Wisconsin a transportation and economic backwater. (Map courtesy of Mayor Dave's blog post.)

Isthmus dwellers of another sort

Goose Isthmus
Madison doesn't have the only isthmus dwellers around here. Canada geese huddled the other day on this ice isthmus between two small ponds of open water in a larger frozen pond, Tiedeman's Pond, Middleton.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Will "data driven journalism" empower journalists or replace them with content-generating robots?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was recently quoted as saying, "Data-driven journalism is the future." He was speaking in the wake of an unprecedented release of huge amounts of data about government spending in the UK, when he was asked who would possess the skill sets needed to analyze complex government databases.
"Journalists need to be data-savvy. These are the people whose jobs are to interpret what government is doing to the people. So it used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you'll do it that way some times. But now it's also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what's interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what's going on in the country."
It had a nice ring to it, and an almost utopian quality, evoking a vision of lots of highly skilled, tech-savvy investigative reporters wielding powerful database query techniques on behalf of the public, an intrepid army of modern-day I.F. Stones defending the public's right to know.

What Berners-Lee did not address were the economic imperatives and the business models of a newspaper industry that is yielding ground to the internet he helped popularize. For experienced, knowledgeable journalists to do what he is proposing is an expensive, labor-intensive undertaking, and that raises the question of who is going to pay for it. Our big newspaper organizations are doing what they can (think of the months that the NYT's team of journalists spent analyzing the "cablegate" documents from Wikileaks).

Outside the print media, you don't find a lot of this on the internet, where more and more of the public gets its news, and where the business model is very different. Publishers are usually looking for "content" that is free or as cheap as possible. It's important to keep down costs, because the web advertising on a screen doesn't bring in nearly what a page of print advertising does, so the content that accompanies it tends to be priced in proportion.

And that's why Berners-Lee's phrase, "data-driven journalism" is a two edged sword. Yes, intelligent investigation of data can result in powerful journalism. But "data-driven journalism" can also result in a race to the bottom, one that may increasingly dispense with journalists altogether.

One current example was mentioned in the NYT's Digital Domain blog the other day.
This month, StatSheet unveiled StatSheet Network, made up of separate Web sites for each of the 345 N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball teams. Beyond statistics galore, each site has what the company calls “automated content,” stories written entirely by software, including write-ups of the team’s games, past and future. With a joking wink, StatSheet’s founder, Robbie Allen, refers to these sites as the “Robot Army.”

Each team’s StatSheet Web site is located at a freestanding Web address, conveying the sense that it is wholly invested in the interests of that school’s fans. (To find a domain name, a fan first visits

The software is imbued with the smarts to flatter each particular team. The same statistics, documenting the same game, produce an entirely different write-up and headline at the opposing team’s page.
Here's an example, the site for the Wisconsin Badger. It's probably not going to sweep anybody off their feet, because the Badgers already get plenty of press coverage. But it's not meant to. These websites are really designed to draw traffic from smaller schools that don't get much press.

It all kind of makes sense, in its upside-down way. Great sports writers are artists. Not-so-great sports writers take game statistics and weave them together with formulaic clichés to create their stories. Why pay someone good money to write clichés when you can just give a robot a dictionary and a database? And when you think about it, there are lots of other areas where this approach would probably work.

What's it going to be? Will data-driven journalism take us to new heights, as Tim Berners-Lee hopes it will? Or will it be part of a new race to the bottom (line), with robots creating "good enough" content that drives out good journalism, the way bad money drives out good? Stay tuned.