Five questions: Adrian Holovaty

Adrian Holovaty, journalist, programmer and fellow Chicagoan, was generous enough to duck out of the winter weather to answer a few quick questions about, the last decade and gypsy guitar.

1. It’s been three years since you outlined fundamental changes newspaper sites needed to make. Do you think the changes you called for in 2006 are still valid? And do you have any good examples of newspaper companies listening?

Yes, I think that industry plea — for journalists to add structure to the data they collect, and for them to hire developers — is still completely valid. Beyond good work at a few outlier news organizations, I haven’t seen broad, significant investments made in either of those areas.

The best example of a news organization listening is Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project by Matt Waite and crew at the St. Pete Times.

2. In many ways media companies are becoming more like tech companies and tech companies are becoming more like media companies. Are we all destined to work for a platypus?

I generally think that, on the “automation spectrum,” where the Googles of the world are on the left, automating everything, and the old news companies are on the right, doing everything by hand, there’s much to gain by aiming for the middle. At EveryBlock, we try to automate as much as possible while realizing that not everything can be automated. Humans are better than computers at many things, just as computers are better than humans at other things. It’s important to optimize for that fine line between the two. And I agree that tech companies and media companies are slowly drifting toward each other, at least when it comes to that.

3. The story of EveryBlock is an interesting one. How would you describe the process you went through from the idea to the grant to the MSNBC deal — inspirational and uplifting? Coming of age tale? Cautionary? Romantic comedy? What’s ahead in the sequel?

I’d describe the story as involving a lot of lucky breaks: first in being awarded the Knight Foundation grant, then in hiring such a great team, then in getting a lot of advice from friends and colleagues, then in finding a great partner in

As for the sequel…well, we’re just getting started. I think it’d be more appropriate to call our progress so far the “prequel.”

4. A decade ago we were hyperventilating about the Y2K — how would you qualify what has happened in the decade in data? And what needs to happen next before the world is destroyed on Dec. 21, 2012?

That’s a big question, and I’m assuming you’re asking it with respect to the journalism world. My take is that there used to be this thing called “computer-assisted reporting,” which is a pretty silly name if you think about it, and it involved reporters analyzing databases for the purpose of creating newspaper stories. Now, more and more journalists are putting those databases directly online so that anybody can look through them. The role of the data journalist has changed such that he’s still collecting and verifying information but is publishing it in a different form.

What I think needs to happen next? A deeper dedication to technology and a shift in mindset such that information is treated “with respect” – the same stuff from that 2006 “fundamental changes” essay.

5. Is there a bright future for gypsy jazz guitar players?

Yes. Gypsy jazz has enjoyed a renaissance over the last couple of years, probably thanks to the Internet and YouTube. These days, hundreds of videos of world-class players are just a click away, for free, and there’s been an explosion in instructional material. And January 2010 is Django Reinhardt’s 100th birthday. It’s a good time to be playing this type of music.

More on Adrian:

Jonathon Berlin, graphics editor at the Chicago Tribune, is SND’s secretary-treasurer in 2010.

About Jonathon Berlin

is graphics editor of the Chicago Tribune and a past president of the Society For News Design.

3 comments is virtually useless.

Should I use EveryBlock’s numbers for comparisons or research?

We don’t really recommend it. Most of the public information we publish comes from government data that is far from perfect. Data can change after it’s originally published — often after we have the ability to know whether it changed. In fact, many agencies note that they don’t ensure the accuracy or completeness of their information, and use words such as “snapshot” to describe what they display at any given time.

Also, the figures published on EveryBlock might not include all data provided by public agencies. Say you’re trying to learn about all the crimes in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood in June 2009. If we at EveryBlock can’t decipher an address listed with a crime report that occurred in Georgetown — e.g., the police didn’t note whether a crime in the 3100 block of Q Street occurred in the northwest quadrant of the city or the southeast quadrant (both of which have 3100 blocks of Q Street) — we can’t map it, and it won’t show up with the rest of the crimes reported in Georgetown.

Such a report, and other pieces of data that we can’t map, would instead fall under the Unknown category.

Finally, we at EveryBlock occasionally have technical issues that prevent us from publishing every record. We do our very best to avoid this problem, but it happens every now and then — and even if it happens once, it means the data isn’t complete.

Gloria: There’s a difference between using EveryBlock to get notified whenever there’s something new in your neighborhood (which is our main intended use-case) and looking at broad trends (which is what that disclaimer talks about).

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