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How the latest open source hardware and software could change journalism

How the latest open source hardware and software could change journalism

Ben Colmery | August 08, 2013

I’m a firm believer that to innovate journalism, you have to step outside it. That’s why I went to the recent Open Source Convention (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, where tech developers and companies showcased their latest creations in open source technology, and where few people are thinking about journalism.

Of course, the journalism and open source worlds aren't far apart. The open source world is made up of people sharing code and collaborating, often with people they don’t know, and with various tech companies and developer communities, to create tools that are better and more diverse in the end. Similarly, more and more journalists are opening up the way they report. They're engaging the community into the editorial process to create better and more relevant information, using many open source tools along the way. When viewed in the context of “sharing for the greater good,” it is easy to see how similar the two worlds are becoming.

Here is a look at some of the hardware and software found at the conference, with thoughts on how we can bring them to journalism:

Hardware

While Bill Gates might tell you the hardware revolution came in the 60s and 70s, the reality for average people is that the revolution is clearly happening today. With the emergence of products like the AR Drone, Raspberry Pi and Arduino, you can launch a camera and a sensor into the sky (to detect and collect data on infrared light or air quality, for instance), or build your own mobile phone, for just a few hundred dollars.

As conference founder Tim O’Reilly said in his keynote address, “Hardware is the new software.” Soon, exponentially more people will be able to create their own uses of hardware without having to wait for tech companies to notice their needs and the unique ways they are using a product. Hardware hacking is starting to catch on in the news space, and we could see whole new ways of gathering and sharing information as people cobble together devices no one has even thought of.

Canonical is crowdfunding the development of a phone that aims to have the power to replace your computer. It will use Ubuntu, a user-friendly, open source operating system, opening infinite possibilities for hacking apps that can work across phones, tablets and desktops.

In a few years, the cost of such technology will likely be much more affordable to most people. Imagine the impact that will have on people who now do their computing only on a mobile device because they can’t afford a computer.

Software

Big Data seemed to rule the day at OSCON, as everything was, “cloud, cloud, cloud” and “scale, scale, scale.” Solutions like OpenStack, Hadoop, MongoDB and Juju make it possible to house, analyze and network incomprehensible amounts of data (we’re quickly heading toward 2 zettabytes globally).

It is hard to say when data on that scale will become the norm for journalism. It occupies the minds of the tech world now, so it’s time to think about it. It’s how companies like Google and Amazon – with 60 percent of them using the free, open source language R for their predictive analytics – learn about their customers.

There’s something bigger out there for journalism. So much of news focuses on stories of isolated moments and people, or perhaps crunching a manageable data set or two to detect a trend. What happens when you extract so much data that you need a vast, distributed network of servers to house it? What stories exist there that we aren’t even telling? Could we get to the heart of real problems and solutions? It makes today’s journalism feel kind of small in scope.

I was excited to see PhoneGap in action at OSCON. Building a single app using PhoneGap that can be accessed on most mobile operating systems creates amazing possibilities for scaling more easily and cheaply across markets where people are on the verge of buying their first smartphone, and devices are highly segmented.

Combine this with cheap hardware innovation, and we could see another wave of news disruption, when whole populations of people long without a voice in news suddenly become their own local media, speak into the news ecosystem and make themselves heard.

We’re clearly still just at the very beginning of news innovation.

Ben Colmery is the deputy director of ICFJ’s Knight International Journalism Fellowships program.

@bencolmery4

Image of OSCON 2013 CC-licensed on Flickr via O'Reilly Conferences.

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