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Jan 22, 2009

Can the Washington Post Create the Killer Political Database?

Ed: Will Obama lead a new wave of new media spending?

January 20, 2009

A Director of New Media for the White House!

I love this. The White House has a Director of New Media. How cool is that?

Macon Phillips, formerly Director, Strategy and Communications for Blue State Digital (or still? not sure) is filling the role. Blue State handled many of the Obama camp's digital media efforts -- things like Web site development and other organization and communication tools (not really the ads though).

Phillips's first post to the WhiteHouse.gov site notes that the revamped-site "will serve as a place for the President and his administration to connect with the rest of the nation and the world."

He expounded on three priorities of the administration's new media efforts: Communication, Transparency ("executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review"), and Participation ("we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it").

This last priority is pretty interesting. We'll have to wait and see what is deemed non-emergency legislation as so much of the stuff we can expect to come out of congress will be in the emergency column in the near future, one would imagine.

Of course, any citizen has been able to access any legislation online in the past by accessing the House and Senate sites. However, having such documents easily linked to on the WhiteHouse site could result in more citizen engagement. Plus, a promise to wait five days to get the country's reaction is a novel one.

Check it out here, and while you're at it, don't forget to read about former First Pets!

whorunsgovlogo.jpgThis morning the Washington Post launched WhoRunsGov.com, a site where readers can learn background information about the new Obama administration, members of congress, prominent military officials and others who now "run government."

Is the Post following the trailblazing work of organizations like the New York Times and the UK Guardian in making the newspaper of the future a database of public information, layered with analytic, visual and programmatic added value? That's what we have hopes for, but it's not clear yet that the Post knows what to do with its new site.

WhoRunsGov is built on a Mindtouch Dekiwiki, the same sophisticated platform used by many other organizations to assemble data-centric application sites built largely on mashups. We've seen some awesome work done by IBM with a Dekiwiki for example, pulling in data using Dapper and mashing it up with maps APIs.

WhoRunsGov, on the other hand, looks mostly like a content site right now. A mix of political news and a would-be search engine magnet in the form of 240 pages about high profile political figures. The site is a moderated wiki, it includes blogs and it aggregates relevant news coverage from the Post and around the web. That's cool, but it sure could be cooler.

Earlier this month the Post hired political blogging star Greg Sargent away from Talking Points Memo to write the lead blog on WhoRunsGov. Sargent's posts should be good and popular, but we'd love to see them augmented with content based in a paradigm fresher than the old broadcast media. There's a lot of third party data that could be pulled in to WhoRunsGov and there's outbound APIs that could make it a much more valuable site, ultimately increasing its draw and traffic.

More Inspiring Examples

What would that look like? For some inspiring examples, check out Little Sis, described as "an involuntary Facebook of powerful Americans, collaboratively edited & maintained by people like you." If you remember the Flash visualization theyrule.net, Little Sis is of the same vein, but a living site.

Little Sis is getting a lot of love from the Sunlight Foundation and its grand slam site OpenCongress.

The UK Guardian is doing a lot of things in this direction, most notably their initiative Free Our Data, where they are agitating for release of public data for the purpose of mashups. That's pretty hot.

The New York Times has released multiple APIs and just announced a conference called Times Open, "for developers interested in working with NYTimes.com as a news and information platform." (Disclosure: the NYTimes is a syndication partner of this site.)

The coolest political tech initiative we've seen in a long time is Memeorandum Colors, a Greasemonkey script on top of some really innovative data mining to determine the political leanings of blogs participating in the hottest online discussions each day.

Compared to those kinds of initiatives, WhoRunsGov looks a bit boring so far. There's a lot of potential though, and we hope to see the Washington Post's new initiative develop with more impact than it had when it came out of the gate.

BBC's Semantic Music Project

The BBC Music Beta project is an ongoing effort by the BBC to build semantically linked and annotated web pages about artists and singers whose songs are played on BBC radio stations. Within these pages, collections of data are enhanced and interconnected with semantic metadata, letting music fans explore connections between artists that they may have not known existed.

The BBC Music project has been in beta since June of last year. According to silicon.com, Matthew Shorter, Interactive Editor for Music at the BBC, the project is "a part of a general movement that's going on at the BBC to move away from pages that are built in a variety of legacy content production systems to actually publishing data that we can use in a more dynamic way across the web."


That dynamic backend technology - semantic markup - adds additional context to data about the artist which can include anything from previous bands, past collaborators, venues played, and more. The metadata is then linked together to create relationships that you may not have even known about before.

Most of the information for the project comes from MusicBrainz, an open content music "metadatabase" that lists information for over 400,000 artists. To make a BBC music page, the contextual information surrounding the artist is imported to their BBC page. By using the artist's "MusicBrainzID," web page creators can integrate the artist's Wikipedia biography, too. Reusing this content is a better use of their time and energy, says Shorter, because the content is already available on the public domain.

As more projects like this take advantage of the publicly available metadata available, the beginnings of a real semantic web can finally take root.

Britannica Wants to Be More Like Wikipedia: Lets Users Contribute

britannica_logo.pngAccording to the Sydney Morning Herald, the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica is about to open ups its articles to edits by its users. Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president, tells the SMH that readers will soon be able to make edits to existing articles and create their own content. These updates, however, will be vetted by Britannica's staff, which hopes to review every edit within 20 minutes.

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