Apr 11

Fact heaps, searching and the rolling encyclopaedia

Conditioned by the rythmn of daily newspapers and nightly television bulletins, we think of news as a rolling thing, constantly renewed, refreshed and updated. Twenty-four-hour news channels speed up the cycle, but don’t change that idea of news as the latest version of the story. The newspaper you hold and read is only that latest slice of information; so is a broadcast news bulletin. And anything that isn’t the latest version is dead and gone, waste material.

When I worked at a newspaper with a large website I began to wonder if this idea of news would change. A website is a “rolling” platform in the sense that it can be updated with news quickly and many millions of users go to news sites for just that. But such a site is also something else: a vast store of data that isn’t news any more, a giant heap of facts and judgements. If you want to go deeper into a subject or backwards in the sequence of events, in theory you can. Newspapers and broadcast are news in two dimensions; digital adds a third with its ability to drill downwards, sideways into the information. So a major news website is truly something more like a rolling news encyclopaedia: topped up all the time, but with added depth and uses which newspapers and broadcast don’t have.

Potential depth. The leading news sites have hardly begun to exploit this asset, which grows every hour with the addition of more news. The New York Times chooses to do this by literally organising its material in reference-book form in their “topic pages”. But the material is confined to what’s been published in the Times. Various software companies offer programmes which automate the business of cutting archive material into topical strands. I guess that Daylife is one of the best known. The general consensus, floating on a tide of Google-style optimism, is that software will crack the problem. I began to wonder about this while reading two reflective pieces around this subject by Jonathan Stray and Felix Salmon.

Most of the automated versions I’ve seen just aggregate material: they tack together in one strand all the previously published material on a subject. This is fine but often unsatisfying. There is a vast amount of repetition, which becomes time-wasting and aggravating very quickly. If you’re lucky, the site you’re looking at may have done a “new readers start here” Q&A or an “explainer”; if you’re trying to catch up, that should help. But the problem with moving stories is that they move and those movements often change the attempt to explain what’s happening. Even explainers go out of date. Here’s an example of a bouncy explainer in Mother Jones on Libya (I like “why can’t anyone agree on how to spell Qadaffi’s name?”) which goes awry when it tries to add “updates” below. The reason I’m reading an explainer in the first place is that I don’t want a daisy chain of disconnected update fragments. Integrated information makes better sense.

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Apr 10

Under the volcano (or in praise of anoraks)

Looking for ways to get home to London from Cairo during the volcano-ash shutdown, I was naturally often googling on the go as I tried to weigh up various routes.

At one point I thought that I might only be able to get an air ticket from Cairo to Istanbul. So I thought briefly about Istanbul to London by train. Doesn’t the Orient Express do that? The Express does go Paris-Istanbul but this much-marketed train does that route just once a year. Not much use. The mainstream sites (Raileurope, Turkish railways) were frustrating and unilluminating. Step forward the man in seat 61.

I knew about this site because the Travel section of The Times used to mention it. Seat 61’s fame must have grown because it floats to the top of Google searches. And no wonder: it is train-spotting put to good use on a multinational scale. Drill down and down and the detail just gets better,

Supposing I had wanted to know how to take that 3-day journey from Istanbul to London. Seat 61 told me exactly where to go at exactly which station and what to ask for. It was informal, very specific, had useful links and is plainly kept up to date. The practical detail is what sets it apart. Whether seat 61 makes any money or not, I don’t know but it certainly doesn’t feel like a site that wants to sell you anything at all or serve you any ads.

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