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Hacks and Hackers Unite: Developing an iPad app for The New York Times Lens Blog

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This past weekend, a little crowd of journalists, app developers and designers got together under the watchful eye of one Burt Herman to engage in an act of positive rebellion. They were there to wake up the old grey lady, drag her out of her bed, and teach her to dance like Lady Gaga instead of Grace Kelley.

The Hacks and Hackers Unite meetup, generously hosted by KQED put together teams of journalist and app developers to rethink what it means to consume, touch and interact with news media on the iPad.

There were several standouts, including my personal favorite, Whosreppin.me, a web-app that delivers news and connections on the senators and house member who serve the area geolocated via the browser. It also allows the user to auto-tweet messaged of support or disdain, indexed to a particular news story.

I’m a fan of tongue-in-cheek humor, and the auto-generated tweets of disgust got me… Dianne Feinstein #myrepresentativesucksbecause: http://tinyurl.com/yg93n4p… and @Barbara_Boxer is a bag of douche http://tinyurl.com/37b7u77.

I like Diane and Babs just fine most days, but the real possibilities here, to harness auto generated hashtags and trending topics for political action was more than enough to warrant an award at the conference.

My group got the go-ahead to use a data set from The New York Times “Moment in Time” project, run by Jim Estrin, Josh Haener and the Lens Blog crew. We aimed to design a user interface that would reveal stories inside data rich images.

We failed. Not because out app was bad, but probably because we bit off more than we could chew in 36 hours of app madness.

The basic thesis was that there are stories that can be revealed by users through careful indesing and searching of this amazing trove of user generated images. As interactive storytellers, we need to learn how to structure information so that users can reveal the stories that are most significant to them. This is moving beyond curation, and was the ethos behind the app we designed and began developing.

Below I’ve included a couple of sample UIs we designed, as well as some thoughts and sketches.

This is a sample UI I designed to combine cover-flow with a map and daylight diagram. Since all the photos were taken at the same moment, photos taken at the same longitude and hemisphere share similar lighting characteristics. Essentially, its an attempt at a multi-variate data visualization.

We went with a post-card metaphor for image meta data. Every image in our app was seen uncluttered by data. however, the “reverse” of eash image could store the contextual data and allow users to share, interact with, explore, expound on and tag images they found interesting.

The whole exercise, while frustrating, was immensely educational, and made me appreciate how hard good news and information design are. I plan for this experience to be a first prototype on the way to something tangible and useful.

Its a fight worth winning.

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