Tag Archives: review

Review: Yahoo! Pipes tutorial ebook

Pipes Tutorial ebook

I’ve been writing about Yahoo! Pipes for some time, and am consistently surprised that there aren’t more books on the tool. Pipes Tutorial – an ebook currently priced at $14.95 – is clearly aiming to address that gap.

The book has a simple structure: it is, in a nutshell, a tour around the various ‘modules’ that you combine to make a pipe.

Some of these will pull information from elsewhere – RSS feeds, CSV spreadsheets, Flickr, Google Base, Yahoo! Local and Yahoo! Search, or entire webpages.

Some allow the user to input something themselves – for example, a search phrase, or a number to limit the type of results given.

And others do things with all the above – combining them, splitting them, filtering, converting, translating, counting, truncating, and so on.

When combined, this makes for some powerful possibilities – unfortunately, its one-dimensional structure means that this book doesn’t show enough of them.

Modules in isolation

While the book offers a good introduction into the functionality of the various parts of Yahoo! Pipes, it rarely demonstrates how those can be combined. Typically, tutorial books will take you through a project that utilises the power of the tools covered, but Pipes Tutorial lacks this vital element. Sometimes modules will be combined in the book but this is mainly done because that is the only way to show how a single module works, rather than for any broader pedagogical objective.

At other times a module is explained in isolation and it is not explained how the results might actually be used. The Fetch Page module, for example – which is extremely useful for scraping content from a webpage – is explained without reference to how to publish the results, only a passing mention that the reader will have to use ‘other modules’ to assign data to types, and that Regex will be needed to clean it up.

Continue reading

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens – paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

2 great books on online communities

I’ve been meaning to blog for a while now about 2 excellent books I’ve read this year about communities online, both of which are pretty much essential reading for anyone involved in community management.

the wikipedia revolution

The first is Andrew Lih’s book The Wikipedia Revolution. Lih is for me the world’s leading academic on Wikipedia, not least because he’s been a participant in Wikipedia himself and has a great understanding of how the community works from the inside.

The book charts how the community has evolved from one that was maintained by personal connections to a whole stratified society of rules, roles, technologies and norms.

Particularly key are the sections on the development of the ‘Spanish Fork‘ (the mere mention of a commercial version of Wikipedia led to members of their Spanish site effectively leaving in protest and setting up their own encyclopedia) and Chapter 5: The Piranha Effect, which I gave to my MA Online Journalism students as one of their first readings.

The book also deals with trolls, vandalism (the Siegenthaler incident) and censorship.

18 Rules of Community Engagement

The second great book is from experienced community manager Angela Connor: 18 Rules of Community Engagement (also available as an e-book). This is a great complement to Lih’s as this comes from a very different, practical, angle drawing not just on her own knowledge but those of readers of her blog. In fact, it’s a very bloggy book generally.

Connor emphasises the need to invest lots of time in any community developing relationships, making connections and fostering relationships. She looks at the importance of content (of the right type) and questions, of rules and culture, egos and compliments, influence and complaints.

It’s a breezy book that doesn’t impose one solution on every problem but frequently returns to the fact that every community is different, and so even common problems like trolls and spamming will have different solutions. That said, there are plenty of experiences offered.

These are probably the best 2 books I’ve read on online communities – but if you’ve read something good in the area, please let me know.

Flyp Media: where the medium is the message

What could possibly be common between a detailed account of America’s historic role in Middle East peace and a story about urban acrobats leaping across buildings in London and Beirut? Perhaps, the way in which you choose to tell them.

Designed to look and read like a magazine, complete with the swishing sound that accompanies each turn of a fascinating page, the innovative young site Flyp media, which is being hailed as a “future media lab,” is attempting to straddle the boundaries between the old and the new, between print and celluloid, and between Web creation and journalism.

Videos, podcasts and interactive images are embedded on pages that could well be bound and dropped into your mailbox. It is as much the art of story telling as the story itself. “Flyp the magazine is really a proof-of-concept experiment in terms of multimedia story telling. It is not a product that we’re aimed at as much as the message and the form,” says Editor in Chief Jim Gaines. Continue reading

Review: Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais

Searching is the most popular activity online after email. It is the prism through which we experience a significant proportion of the world’s information – from news and information about our community, through to health information, commerce, and just about anything that has a presence online.

Search Engine Society takes a critical look at search engines, how they work, the techniques used to manipulate them – from gaining better rankings to censorship, and the implications for privacy and democracy. Continue reading

Interview: Charlie Beckett on SuperMedia

“This book is my manifesto for the media as a journalist but also as a citizen of the world. As a journalist you are constantly being told that the news media have enormous power to shape society and events, to change lives and history. So why are we so careless as a society about the future of journalism itself ?” [1]

Saving JournalismThis is how Charlie Beckett presents his book “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), in which he tackles the main challenges to journalistic practice in our days, and its influence to maintain free and democratic societies .

Charlie Beckett is a journalist with a 20 yearscareer at the BBC and ITN, and he is also the founding Director of POLIS, a think tank about journalism and society at the London School of Economics. “SuperMedia” is a work that gathers and structures several streams of thought about the future of Journalism as a essential service to contemporary societies, and how the changes in the news industry, beyond inevitable, are necessary.

Alex Gamela posed a few questions to Charlie Beckett about his book (Portuguese version available here). Continue reading