2012 in Review: Dan Sinker

Interactive features, essential code & a collaborative handbook

In November, in advance of the announcement of our amazing slate of 2013 Knight-Mozilla Fellows, I wrote a pretty thorough look back at everything the OpenNews project has accomplished in 2012. Erika Owens, our community manager, recently published a great look back at a year of our hack days. And so now, on the last day of the year, writing another year-in-review post about the OpenNews project doesn’t seem necessary. It’s simple enough to sum up our 2012 in two words: fucking awesome. And a preview of 2013 really just requires a single additional word: incredibly fucking awesome.

Instead, I want to widen the focus a little bit, off our project and on to the community it’s a part of since, at the end of the day, that’s why we do what we do: to strengthen, support, and help build the journalism code community. Source, our hub for that community has been publishing year-in-reviews all week. These looks back highlighting some of the inspirational work that’s helped to push journalism on the web forward this year. I want to take a moment to add my own picks to that list:

  • Snow Fall: The team of developers, designers, and interactive journalists assembeled at the New York Times is unparralleled. Outside of some of the biggest companies in tech, I’m not sure there’s a more concentrated collection of raw talent than the folks sitting in the Times building in New York right now. They’ve managed to produce a staggering number of incredible pieces this year, but none has gotten the (deserved) attention more than Snow Fall. An engrossing piece of long-form journalism made all the more immersive through smart use of CSS layering and time-based media triggers. There have been a number of “Is the future of journalism?” pieces written about Snow Fall already—to which it’s easy to answer with a resounding “no.” It is a new option for the present, a new way of thinking about presenting and engaging an audience. That they had to completely break their aging CMS to do it right is the real thing to consider closely.
  • NPR Big Board: I’ve written before that major elections are the Super Bowl of news applications, and 2012 certainly proved that right. There were incredible pieces created by all the major news organizations, but the one I ended up relying on on the night of the US Presidential Election was the Big Board created by the newly-formed NPR News Apps Team. Instead of building a map like most election results, the NPR team decided to simply display numbers on the screen. As it turned out, that was exactly what a person who was obsessively checking the results (as I was) needed. It’s no surprise that the team assembled by NPR would come up with an approach that turned election result display on its head—they’re all veterans of other news apps teams. Want to see just how strong this community is getting? Read that sentence again: news organizations can now create teams from scratch comprised of veteran talent. More of this. Now.
  • Tabletop.js: My single favorite codebase this year was Tabletop.js. A simple idea beautifully executed, Tabletop lets you easily use a Google Spreadsheet as the backend to run a data-driven web page. That’s all, no additional bells, no unnecessary whistles. Created in collaboration with WNYC, it’s been used by news apps developers around the world since its introduction in February. The killer feature is that you don’t have to train anyone on the backend: if they know how to use a spreadsheet, they know how to populate your app with data. Tabletop is also the secret sauce on my *second* favorite codebase of the year, Jessica Lord’s Sheetsee.js, which takes the same it’s-the-database-stupid approach to data visualizations.
  • Opened Captions: For pure geeky wow-factor, I’m just as enamored by Opened Captions, built by 2012 Knight-Mozilla Fellow Dan Schultz, today as I was the day he first showed it to me. A smart hack that takes the closed-captioning data coming out of CSpan (copyright issues be damned) and turns it into a fully-functional real-time API, Opened Captions simply produces an unrelenting stream of text as fast as it’s spoken. The possibilities of something like this—from real-time data augmentation with supplementary material to real-time fact checking—is pretty amazing. That it was a hack produced in just a couple days is a great reminder that sometimes fast, cheap, and out-of-control is exactly the right way to do things.
  • Data Journalism Handbook: Finally, 2012 saw the publication of the Data Journalism Handbook—an excellent guide to the basics of working with data that was started at the Mozilla Festival in 2011 and has contributions from some of the best in the business. Most notable about the Handbook to me is that it’s a creative-commons licensed project that’s actively looking for localizers and people to produce updates. That’s exactly the kind of collaboration that an engaged community can create. That it’s also quickly become a defacto standard for journalism schools and is being used to open up more newsrooms to the idea of news code is proof of just how vital collaboratively-produced documentation can be.

In putting together this list of five, I kept adding and then removing tons of other great things. 2012 brought so much amazing work that there’s too much to include. Here’s to the incredible work done in 2012, and—even more so—to the incredible work still to come in 2013. Let’s do this.

Cross-posted from Dan’s Tumblr.



  • Dan Sinker

    Dan Sinker heads up the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project for Mozilla. From 2008-2011 he taught in the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago where he focused on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web. He is the author of the popular @MayorEmanuel twitter account and was the founding editor of the influential underground culture magazine Punk Planet until its closure in 2007.


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